In 2001, film history was made. Peter Jackson’s vision of Middle Earth blew audiences away with its extreme attention to detail, masterful script, and technical brilliance. By the time the third film in the powerful Lord of the Rings trilogy was made, he series had bagged a number of Oscars including Best Picture, on top of introducing an entire generation of fans to Tolkien’s beautifully crafted world.
It’s hard to follow an act like that, as Jackson’s more recent films have shown. But the return to Middle Earth is one that cannot be taken lightly. Based on the book that started it all, so to speak, this return functions as a prequel to Peter Jackson’s now historical, best picture winning series. This long awaited journey is finally here. While the film suffers from a number of technical problems, it is still, a journey worth taking.
An Unexpected Journey is the first of three films, and feels very much like the start of something bigger. Juggling several plots and themes, the story is based on Tolkien’s first novel, a charming children’s story about a funny little creature called a Hobbit who goes on an adventure with dwarves and a wizard, and learns that he can be brave and clever. He picks up a magical ring along the way which Tolkien later worked into his grand epic, along with several other characters and ideas. However, The Hobbit is not Lord of the Rings in any sense. It’s whimsical and silly and written, seemingly, for the joy of writing. The film, while getting many things right, forgets much of this.
The central problem the film suffers from is a simple one of identity crises. The Hobbitwent into development hell for a number of years, being originally helmed by Guillermo del Toro and simply produced by Jackson. While there was some disagreement between the two over filming techniques, del Toro’s mark is still prominent throughout the film, evident in lingering monster designs, particularly for the goblins, who are treated in this film as a separate race from the orcs, which is not so in the books. These designs are hideous and wonderfully imaginative, and almost perfectly in keeping with Tolkien, but do not mesh well with Jackson’s later vision. These squatty grotesques are not comparable to the brutish humanoids of the Uruk-Hai. And while the explanation can be hand-waved that this is a different “ethnicity” of the creatures, they look like they would be more at home in a third Hellboy film (and let us hope one is someday made).
Further jarring is the visual downgrade An Unexpected Journey takes from Lord of the Rings. Part of the problem is purely technical: Peter Jackson filmed this in 48 frames per second, the sort of smooth frame rates associated with soap operas and bad tv displays at Best Buy, and this film is unfortunately no exception. For reasons not entirely clear, the high frame rate removes an element of the forth wall, which may make the world of Middle Earth somewhat more immersive, but the trade off is it also makes the actors less believable. In a film like this, the removal of the suspension of disbelief is deeply problematic, as The Hobbit is a more heavily “fantasy” story thanLord of the Rings, featuring all manner of creatures and contrived escapes.
And the unfortunate nature of this filming style is not solved by merely watching it in the traditional 24 FPS. The computer-enhanced backgrounds seem discolored, and the profusion of CGI creatures are unbelievable. This is especially evident in Azog, the problematic antagonist of the film. Whereas orcs had always been a combination of costuming and makeup in Jackson’s previous excursions, Azog is a computer rendering so obvious he appears to have recently stepped out of God of War. There is nothing believable in his rubbery muscle movements or glazed eye expression. The only fear this already weak antagonist instills is that of further laziness for the long-awaited Smaug, the only antagonist mentioned in The Hobbit book, an off-screen presence throughout this film who is only hinted at in occasional CGI glory.
Part of what makes Azog and the more minor CGI so problematic is that, from Jackson, more has come to be expected. In ten years, it appears that the technology he revolutionized has actually come down a few notches. The only CGI creature to retain a level of believability is Gollum, who is a marvel in this film every bit as he was inTwo Towers. The attention to detail, from muscle movement to individual body hairs is awe inspiring, but most impressive is the capturing of complex facial expressions and emotional range, which has expanded greatly in the ten years since his first rendering. Part of this is likely due to Andy Sirkus’ performance being motion captured, but especially compared to the rubbery stiffness of Azog, Gollum stands out as a set piece all on his own.
Gollum’s stand out moment, a scene taken directly from the book in which he and Bilbo, our reluctant hobbit hero, match wits in a game of riddles, is quite possibly the best scene in the entire movie, due largely to the attention to detail this scene makes, not simply with Gollum’s animation, but also to the faithfulness of this scene to the book. While films, in adapting books, do not need to be page-for-page accurate (otherwise what would be the point?), Lord of the Rings hit a very fine balance in interpreting off-page events with faithful ones.
An Unexpected Journey struggles with this for a few reasons. The source material is the primary problem. The Hobbit is not an epic struggle between good and evil, ruminating on the nature of temptation and the importance of duty. It is a simplistic story of dwarves trying to get back their gold (and home) which a dragon has taken. They employ the homebody, Bilbo, on the suggestion of the wise wizard Gandalf, to help take what is rightfully theirs back. As Tolkien did not intend for The Hobbit to ever grow into something as grand in scale as Lord of the Rings, it is a small, self-contained story.
The problem is, that is well and good for the books, which can play with tone and audience from one to the next. In order to maintain a sense of continuity from Lord of the Rings to the Hobbit films, however, screenwriters Fran Walsh and Phillippa Boyens have had to get creative. While there is some original material present in this film (Azog, who is mentioned in the books, dies before the events of the Hobbit), it is, for the most part, all Tolkien canon. Backstories and side-stories which are hinted at in the book or later books are all worked in to create a broader story than simply one hobbit’s adventure. The obsessive continuity work is enough to please any Tolkien die-hard, were it not for the fact that the tone of the epic does not mesh well with the naturally whimsical quality of the story. In trying to present as much of Tolkien’s world as possible, the film loses sight of the purity of the original story on which it is based, and while it is all Tolkien, there seems to be something desperately unfaithful about it in spite of itself.
This all comes across as a somewhat uncomfortable attempt to take this small-scale children’s book and turn it into the epic that follows. This is obvious even in the repetitive score, which, while including a catchy leitmotif for the dwarves, otherwise repurposes much of Howard Shore’s work on Lord of the Rings. The worst part is that Peter Jackson’s concessions to uniqueness for this work, apart from Lord of the Rings is filming it in 3D at 48 FPS, which causes it to look awkward by comparison, and further separates it from the world of Middle Earth Jackson and his team are so desperate to work it into they have filmed six hours of footage unrelated to the actualHobbit story.
But all of this is not to say the film is a failure. There are moments of pure gold in the film, most of them stemming from brilliant casting decisions, the best among them being in the underestimated hero, Bilbo, played by the cuddly-awkward Martin Freeman. While this is no acting stretch for Freeman, who has more or less carved out a career in playing himself, he still embodies all of the stuffy good nature of the character, and creates a hobbit worth cheering for, who can just as easily obsess over his mother’s dinnerware as outwit mountain trolls. He also lends a strong emotional presence, giving a side to the character that is much-needed in a world of barely distinguishable dwarves, and infuriatingly enigmatic elves. Despite the focus of the film often making him inexplicably secondary, Freeman holds captive every moment of his screentime, and never lets the audience forget that, contrived action scenes aside, it is his movie, his journey, and his lessons and mistakes that ultimately shape the fortunes of Middle Earth.
Another standout is Sylvester McCoy’s manic portrayal of Radagast, the highly eccentric brown wizard, an off-page book character whose presence is nearly as fan-pleasing as if he were Tom Bombadil.
It is also a thrill to see such talents as Cate Blanchett, Sir Ian McKellen, Hugo Weaving and Christopher Lee once again in their respective roles, and the scene in which they all play off of each other is so magnificent it serves as a powerful reminder of why we watch films in the first place.
Those scenes which remain, like the aforementioned, true to the spirit of the novel are those which are arguably the best in the film, and rescue it from becoming bogged down in itself. The whimsical joy of the “plate tossing” scene is a simple enough scene visually, but stands out as a richer scene than all of the gold in the Lonely Mountain because of the way it attends to tone while demonstrating the conflicting personalities of Bilbo and the dwarves- themes which will certainly be explored.
Finally, there is the massive potential this film raises. While it may fit awkwardly with the standards raised by Lord of the Rings, the film is the finest of its genre to occur in the decade previous, and stands apart from them in that it is not simply a rehash of the same old things we have seen so many times. There is an attention to detail both in the (imperfect) adaption of not simply a novel, but a world that no other film has attempted. As a result, it does take one to unexpected places, and while they are not all necessarily perfect places, there are well-loved places for both the audience and the filmmaker which prove that the journey is not over yet: this is simply the beginning, and there are better things on the horizon.