Now that I have seen The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey twice, I feel able to post a reaction. I never like to offer an official opinion based solely on a midnight showing, because sleep deprivation or distraction from noticing all the book-to-film changes can cast an unjustified negativity over the whole experience that disappears on a second, well-rested viewing. (Although with this film, I didn’t really have any criticisms from the first viewing except that it did feel more like watching an extended edition than theatrical; I didn’t mind, but I can see how some critics, especially if they’re not Middle Earth nerds, might argue that it’s too long.) My second viewing was in IMAX 3D with the high frame rate–I wasn’t wearing one of my home-made beards that time, but it was still an epic experience.
Although the 48 frames-per-second medium has been getting mixed reviews, I personally thought it was fantastic. Some critics reported that it looked “too real” or that sets looked fake in the sharp, very clear picture. I just don’t understand this perspective. One reviewer said,
“Constructed interiors look much like they do in any of The Hobbit production diaries – like sets. Bilbo’s home has gone from a comfortable and homely Hobbit hole to something quite plasticky, and Rivendell suffers the same fate. In a quest to make his world more real, Jackson has inadvertently drawn our attention to its artifice.”
“When The Hobbit looks bad, it looks really bad, chiefly during action sequences where CG creatures are featured against non-CG backdrops. One scene stands out in particular, where a group of CG wargs (giant wolf-like creatures) chase our group of non-CG heroes across a grassy plain. The wargs look like CG wargs, while the dwarves look like Richard Armitage et al running around a….well, a grassy plain.”
I wonder if those criticisms aren’t really more of an audience problem than a flaw in the film itself. For one thing, I completely disagree about the sets looking fake or “plasticky”, and I’d be very curious to see what this person’s reaction would be if they got the chance to visit the actual Bag End set, because I know they really built an actual Hobbit hole residence that Peter Jackson loved enough to keep and turn into a guest house. So I’m not sure how, in this case, seeing the incredible detail and craftsmanship that went into that construction, as clearly as if you were there, makes the experience…worse? I mean if the makeup or costumes or backgrounds were actually sloppy or of inferior quality then yes, seeing the clearer picture in a high frame rate might be a disadvantage, but that’s simply not the case here. I think it’s wonderful that you can really see and appreciate a lot of those tiny details of painstaking work that you otherwise might not notice. And as for the comment that you can tell the wargs are CGI, and the dwarves look like actors running around grass, I think that is an indication that this critic is incapable of suspending their disbelief, and maybe doesn’t exercise their imagination very much. Of course you can tell that the wargs are CGI! I can tell that Shelob is also CGI in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, but that doesn’t stop her from scaring the crap out of me every time I watch it. CGI is getting better all the time; it can be crap in some films, but I don’t think that’s the case here. The trolls, goblins, and Gollum are all excellent. Maybe the wargs look a bit less realistic, but not enough to distract me from the story. And I can’t comprehend what this statement that they look like they’re running around “…well, a grassy plain” is supposed to mean. How is that not totally perfect? Have these critics never walked around with their iPod playing the Lord of the Rings soundtrack and imagining they’re running across Middle Earth on some epic quest? Have they never looked at a patch of grass or a group of trees and pictured themselves in the movies’ setting? What exactly is not good enough for them about these shots where there’s no highway in the background, no train whistles or neighbor’s dogs, no buildings, all of which my imagination is able to block out or transform when I’m walking down the street, if I want to temporarily be an elf? Basically, I don’t get the people who don’t get 48 fps. It’s like they expect the movie to do everything for them, and at the same time they don’t want it to do too much.
One of the things I loved about this adaptation, that I hadn’t known I was missing, was the perspective that the dwarves are in a diaspora. It certainly lends more purpose and heart to their quest, and it’s easier to root for them this way than if they were just going after gold. And it’s not really an addition, it’s completely justifiable from the text, I just hadn’t ever thought of it that way before. I absolutely loved the exchange between Bofur and Bilbo, when the hobbit is considering leaving the company because he doesn’t feel like he’s useful or one of them, and he says, “You’re used to this life…never settling in one place, not belonging anywhere. I’m sorry…” and Bofur just sadly agrees, “No, you’re right. We don’t belong anywhere,” and wishes him well. (Also, Bofur’s hat is the same style as Radagast’s, which makes me think it’s not inherently dwarf-style, but Bofur just picked it up somewhere in his wanderings.) Bilbo’s later declaration that he’s sticking with the dwarves because, “[Bag End]’s where I belong. That’s home. You don’t have one. It was taken from you. And I will help you take it back if I can,” is a better explicit motivation than inner monologues of “something Tookish woke up inside him,” or “he suddenly felt he would go without bed and breakfast to be thought fierce,” such as we see in the book.
I did love the “Blunt the Knives” song sequence, when the dwarves are tossing dishes around, much to Bilbo’s dismay. In light of the dwarf diaspora perspective, this joyful pastime seems almost sad in a way, like it’s an improvised way to keep a part of their culture alive. They once mined jewels and pounded silver and gold and mithril into extraordinary creations with rhythmic hammerings, but they don’t have mines anymore. They don’t have any of that anymore. They have dishes, forks and knives and feet. So they stamp them and clash them together, they use whatever they have to keep that rhythmic group effort piece of their culture alive, to link themselves to their proud heritage and to maintain a collective identity even though they are scattered, and in the words of Balin, reduced to “Merchants, miners, tinkers, toymakers. Hardly the stuff of legend.” Thorin’s response was one of my favorite lines in the film:
“I would take each and every one of these dwarves over an army from the Iron Hills. For when I called upon them they answered. Loyalty, honor, a willing heart–I can ask no more than that.”
Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins was PERFECT. In every scene. There’s no other word for that performance; it was perfect.
Am I the only one who automatically, silently quoted The Lord of the Rings movies during the scene when the dwarves narrowly escape the wargs in the secret passage to Rivendell? When Gandalf shouted, “This way, you fools!” I couldn’t help but think, “Fly, you fools!” (And by the way, I’m pretty sure that Gandalf shouted for everybody to “RUN!” at least three separate times in this movie. Oh, Gandalf, you awesome wizard, you sure love bossing people/dwarves/hobbits around!) And then when the dwarves are in a heap at the bottom of the tunnel they dove into, and the wargs are just outside, and they hear a horn, I can’t help but channel my inner Helm’s Deep Legolas and think, “That is no orc horn!” Every time.
I read that Peter Jackson cameos as a dwarf running away from Smaug at Erebor, but I’m not sure I caught a glimpse of which one was supposed to be him.
I covet Elrond’s outfits, head to toe. I want that lovely long straight hair, his silver crown, his beautifully embroidered tunic, and his boots. Galadriel’s gowns are gorgeous, too. Galadriel is gorgeous, period.
I didn’t love Radagast. I mean, I liked him, especially when he was saving the little hedgehog, but it was more like I tolerated his comic-relief “I’m kind of a forgetful pothead” schtick later on. I probably wouldn’t even be commenting on it except that I had read that Phillipa Boyens thought he would be a fan favorite. And what are Rastagan (Rastafarian? Rastabad? Radagastan?) Rabbits, and are they really faster than wargs?
One very cool thing towards the end of the credits is a list of names and corresponding languages with the header “Foreign translations of the novel provided by:” I haven’t been able to find any articles about this, so I’ll have to jot down some of the names the next time I see the movie and look them up individually to be sure, but I think it’s just a list of the people that did the translating work over the years to allow more people to enjoy reading Tolkien’s work. And if that’s what it is, that’s a terrific show of respect, both for the source material and for the people that have contributed to spreading an adoration for this story, and I love it.
Anyway, now that we’ve seen the first installment, I’m curious whether people’s opinions on splitting the story into three films have changed. I’m not entirely sure where I stand myself yet; on my first viewing I thought that it did feel a little long, but I’m not sure what I would have cut. I want to say I’ll wait until all three parts are out to make an official decision, but by then I will have fallen in love with everything that was included and not be willing to make a case for leaving anything out, so I guess my unofficial position is approval.