The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012) – Directed by Peter Jackson – Starring Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, James Nesbitt, Ken Stott, Cate Blanchett, Ian Holm, Christopher Lee, Hugo Weaving, Elijah Wood, Andy Serkis, Manu Bennett, Lee Pace, and Graham McTavish, Aidan Turner, Dean O’Gorman, Mark Hadlow, Jed Brophy, Adam Brown, John Callen, Peter Hambleton, William Kircher, Stephen Hunter, and Benedict Cumberbatch.
At the end of the day, THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY feels like a victory lap more than it does a wholly realized story, but it is a victory lap I am beyond happy to take. The first part of the new Middle Earth trilogy from Peter Jackson and Company is a very good movie but a large part of the joy comes from the way the film echoes Jackson’s LOTR films and not simply because this film’s story is wholly enjoyable.
Part of the blame for this comes from Jackson and part must be shared by the source material itself. I love THE HOBBIT beyond all books, but a large part of that comes from the place in holds in my heart. I remember reading Tolkien’s book for the first time as a kid in elementary school. By the time I ordered THE HOBBIT from those Scholastic book order forms schools used to pass around a few times a school year, I’d already developed a love of reading through the Hardy Boys, the Narnia books, the Old Mother West Wind stories, and the Three Investigators, but it was THE HOBBIT that first blew me away, that made me first realize there was more going on in a story that I could understand (which would only be exacerbated when I turned next to FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING), and THE HOBBIT that first made me want to be a writer. I devoured the book and ended up buying or acquiring it in several other editions over the years from cheap paperback to high end hardcover.
I love the book, but THE HOBBIT is not without some challenges – chief among them is the sheer number of dwarves involved in the quest to reclaim their ancestral home of Erebor. When I was in grad school at Purdue a few years ago, I was taking a class on environmental literature and the professor made the point that when most people read a line in a book that says, “I walked past a maple, oak, and pine tree,” most people interpret that as, “I walked past a tree, a tree, and a tree.” That’s roughly the way I feel about the dwarves in THE HOBBIT. Certainly, a few of them are easily discernible, but there are thirteen of them in Thorin’s Company.
Thorin. Balin. Dwalin. Bifur. Bofur. Bombur. Fili. Kili. Gloin. Oin. Dori. Nori. Ori.
Or, as you likely just read that: Lead Dwarf. Dwarf. Dwarf. Dwarf. Dwarf. Dwarf. Dwarf. Dwarf. Dwarf. Dwarf. Dwarf. Dwarf. Dwarf.
If there had been 13 Avengers, it would have been darn near impossible for Joss Whedon to fit all of them into their narrative in a meaningful manner, and they’ve all got varied costumes and famous people playing them. Here, there’s 13 dwarves and while the make-up and costume people have done an outstanding job of making them all different, none of them are played by recognizable stars. Certainly, if you take the time to watch and re-watch and pay attention, I’m sure most of the dwarves do have individual personalities, but other than Thorin (Richard Armitage), Bofur (James Nesbitt), Kili (Aidan Turner), and Balin (Ken Stott), most of them might as well be called, “Dwarf Number 6” and “Dwarf Number 11.”
Jackson is in a bit of an impossible situation, of course. If he cut half the dwarves, fans would scream at him. And a large part of the charm of Thorin’s Company is in their numbers, rather than individualized, purposeful, and meaningful character arcs. The dwarves are largely background characters, as Jackson’s film revolves around three primary characters: Bilbo (Martin Freeman), Gandalf (Ian McKellen), and Thorin.
Martin Freeman is phenomenal as Bilbo and I can totally understand why Jackson rearranged his shooting schedule to accommodate him. It was important for Jackson to cast someone who brought something very different to the table than Elijah Wood brought to Frodo just to help give THE HOBBIT its own identity in the mind of film goers. Freeman brings an older soul to the table, and Jackson’s HOBBIT works as an offshoot of the white, middle class male, mid-life crisis genre. What separates Bilbo from, say, Kevin Spacey’s character in American Beauty, is that he doesn’t realize he’s having a mid-life crisis. He’s very comfortable living in his hobbit hole, a condition that Gandalf is bound and determined to change.
Gandalf repeatedly yells, “You’re a Took!” at Bilbo while he’s trying to convince our hobbit to agree to sign on to adventure with Thorin’s Company, and castigates him for reaching a point in his life where he’s concerned about his mother’s silverware and doilies. The set-up for THE HOBBIT, then, works most closely (in the cinematic context of the mid-life crisis genre) as a fantasy version of Fight Club, with Gandalf in the Brad Pitt role and Bilbo as a stand-in for Ed Norton, a guy who’s become something he consciously wants to be, but subconsciously rejects.
Jackson and his team of writers and producers have done an excellent job at setting up a three-part arc for Bilbo. At first, he rejects adventure but then decides to tag along after Thorin’s Company has left. Then, he decides to go home after Thorin’s Company is knee deep in the adventure. And finally, he embraces his role as part of the company by entering a seemingly hopeless battle and saving Thorin’s life.Like much of the film, Bilbo’s arc is folded into the larger spectacle – which is really what Jackson excels in, making big, emotionally-driven spectacles where the visuals serve to set up the weeping. It’s easy, of course, to dismiss Jackson’s LOTR films on emotional grounds if you’re uncomfortable with that style of storytelling, but I’m all for making films like Titanic and Love, Actually a part of my Blu-ray rotation. One of the things fantasy does extremely well, of course, is to transport us to other worlds, but in Jackson’s hands it strips away the noise of modern life and offers a simpler take on what’s important. It’s easy (and acceptable, I’m not telling you what to think) to hold up THE HOBBIT against something like Game of Thrones and reject Jackson’s film for its narrative simplicity, adherence to emotion, and its love of spectacle, but I’m happy we have both. If I’m only watching LOTR or Thrones for the rest of my life, though, taking LOTR is the easy, automatic choice.
That’s not to suggest THE HOBBIT is a perfect movie. While I like Martin Freeman’s performance as Bilbo better than Elijah Wood’s Frodo, THE HOBBIT is full of little problems, including its own worship of the LOTR trilogy. Time and again, the real joy in watching THE HOBBIT is in seeing all of the characters from LOTR pop up on the screen. Almost all of the battle sequences can be summed up by saying: “Hobbits get in trouble. Hobbits are on the verge of death. Gandalf arrives to save them.” That’s fine, and Jackson does a decent job varying up the execution of Gandalf’s last second saves. What hurts the film is paradoxically what saves the film: the arrival of all the LOTR folk.
We enter Bilbo’s story at a moment in time just prior to FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING, which means we get appearances from both Ian Holm and Elijah Wood. As soon as we drop back into the present of THE HOBBIT, there’s Ian McKellen coming to call on Bilbo. Once the story gets going and the company needs a respite, we get appearances from Rivendell, Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett, Christopher Lee, and Gollum.
It’s in the Rivendell sequence where Jackson seems to most want to be, as he lets any moment with the LOTR crew linger for as long as possible. All of these characters are introduced in SURPRISE! fashion, with Elrond getting a huge entrance. The dwarves are under attack by a band of orcs who want them dead and Gandalf leads them through a secret passage into … SURPRISE! … Rivendell. Gandalf leads the wary dwarves to the city’s entrance but they are not greeted by Elrond. Instead, it’s revealed that Elrond had led the attack on the orcs that were after Thorin. The riders return and encircle the dwarves, but we don’t see Elrond until Jackson has milled the build up as far as he possibly could. Elrond’s inevitable appearance, then, is clearly designed as one of the film’s money shots, but it only has a significant impact if you’ve seen LOTR.Otherwise, it’s just Johann Schmidt on a horse.
Gandalf and Elrond have a chat in which the Elven Lord tells Gandalf he thinks it’s a bad idea for Thorin to attempt to reclaim Erebor, but he’s not the person that the wizard has to bring to his side. Nope, that would be … SURPRISE! … Galadriel, and then … SURPRISE! … Saruman has popped in for a chat, too. These four LOTR alum then proceed to have a big discussion about the reclamation of Erebor, the alleged arrival of a Necromancer (Benedict Cumberbatch), and the potentially mushroom-addled brain of Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy).
What don’t we get? The dwarves. (Curiously, what we don’t get here is the scene that seems to be tailor made for Jackson’s LOTR victory lap – a discussion between Elrond and Bilbo, but perhaps Jackson is saving this for one of the two remaining films.) Earlier, Thorin had given Elrond a map in hopes that he can translate it, but when it’s time for the grown-ups to chat, the dwarves are nowhere to be found. Jackson attempts to hide their absence in the narrative, revealing that Gandalf was keeping everyone distracted so the dwarves could sneak away (like Elrond, Galadriel, and Saruman couldn’t find them in about 17 seconds), but the impact on the narrative is that consistent point that short people got no reason to live.
Unless you’re a hobbit.
The dwarves stay in Rivendell basically comes down to them looking spooked when the elves return from their ride and then looking like slobs when dinner is served. This is typically what the dwarves do throughout the movie. At Bilbo’s house, it’s just a mass of dwarves eating and singing. With the trolls, it’s just a mass of dwarves being prepped for dinner. With the Stone Giants, it’s just a mass of dwarves trying not to fall off the side of a mountain path. Inside the mountain, it’s just a mass of dwarves being held prisoner by the Great Goblin. And on and on.Only two real personalities emerge with the dwarves: Bofur, because he has a kick-ass mustache and is the dwarf who has a real heart-to-heart with Bilbo when the hobbit decides to cut and run after having taken one too many tongue lashings from Thorin about not belonging on the quest; and Balin, because he has a white beard and serves as the calm voice of experience. James Nesbitt and Ken Stott do really stellar work here.
Ian McKellen has never been better than he is in THE HOBBIT. He’s playful, cantankerous, and haunted throughout the film. It’s not his fault that there’s a bit of repetition between his actions here and in LOTR, just like it’s not his fault the plot details of Gandalf’s arc are repetitive, too. When the dwarves get themselves caught in a bad situation, the question is never, “How are they going to get out of this?” but “How will Gandalf get them out of this?” Saruman dismisses Radagast as being a chronic substance abuser, and you can practically see all of the leaf that Gandalf has smoked in the creases around his eyes. Jackson does feel a little caught between Bilbo and Gandalf as to who’s the most important character in this story, but he gives his preference for Gandalf away in how the camera always seems to find the wizard in the film’s most important moments.
Gollum makes an appearance, too, and we get a very nice rendition of the most famous scene in Middle Earth lore – Bilbo stealing Gollum’s ring and then besting the ex-Hobbit in a game of riddles. The Gollum/Bilbo sequence from the Rankin-Bass production is one of my favorite scenes in any movie ever made, and Jackson does the live-action version extremely well. As anyone who’s ready Adventures of the Five: The Coming of Frost knows, I have a serious thing for underground lakes.
There’s great performances from McCoy and Barry Humphries as the Great Goblin, who would have stolen the film if he had a bit more to do. The mountain trolls were pretty funny as villainous, carnivorous foodies, but the orcs left me wanting this time around. Azog the Defiler (Manu Bennett) just never works as the Big Bad he’s supposed to be; he’s much better in flashback when he kills Thorin’s grandfather, but in the present he’s just a bully who makes other people doing his dirty work for him. Even when Thorin is laying on the ground, practically unconscious and unmoving, Azog sends a lackey to bring back the dwarf’s head.
What I’m left with is a film that I know is not perfect but is perfect enough for me. Like almost everyone else in the theater, I was ready for THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG the second THE HOBBIT was over. As disappointed as I was that Jackson didn’t show Smaug in all his glory, that disappointment rolled instantly into anticipation for the next installment.
I can’t let this reaction to THE HOBBIT finish without pointing out the ridiculous level of venom spat at this movie (before it was even released) in some quarters. If you don’t want to see THE HOBBIT, that’s cool. If you didn’t like LORD OF THE RINGS (or didn’t want to see them), that’s cool, too. But there was a particular branch of fandom that went out of its way to make overblown comments about how they could not care less about this movie, as if Peter Jackson had spent the last decade beating them up and taking their lunch money. I’m sure all fandoms have their venomous segment, but the sci-fi/fantasy branch seems particularly small minded, petty, and especially insecure. What struck me about the negative, pre-release reaction to THE HOBBIT (besides the inevitability of the hostility – the sci-fi/fantasy venom squad likes nothing better than to dismiss something popular like they’re having flashbacks to getting jammed into lockers in high school) was how many people offered these comments out of the blue. They did not just appear in Facebook, Twitter, and online comments sections in articles about the film, but were randomly sent up, like fireworks being shot off on August 7th in pathetic, desperate “look at me” declarations. I don’t get it. You don’t have to like a movie, of course, and you don’t even have to watch it, but very few movies are created with the idea of making your life miserable, so maybe it’d be healthier for you to just let it go, and talk up something you do like instead of proving how awesome you are by loudly proclaiming how much you don’t care about something other people do care about.
But hey, I’m not a miserable bastard, so to each their own.
I mentioned Adventures of the Five up above. Here’s a description:
Atomic Anxiety’s flagship production is an all-ages tale of five furry friends trying to stop an evil human from conquering the fantasy realm of Wonderland 31.
Thirty years ago, Johnson Frost was just a kid from the Real who got lost and ended up in the Fantasy, where he was to meet his destiny by saving the Wonderland 31. When it was time to go home, however, Johnson refused, hiding in the mountains where he helped the Yetis battle the Nutcracker Army for control of Wonderland. Eventually defeated and exiled back into our world, the once wide-eyed kid grew into a bitter adult with dreams of making himself king!
In the present, a new generation of kids visit Wonderland 31. Farm the Half-Wolverine, Aurora the Fox, Jasper the Porcupine, Flake the Rabbit, and Notter the Otter find the entrance while exploring abandoned miner’s tunnels inside the Western Mountain. They encounter a world of Nutcrackers and Yetis, of Marshmallow Bogs and Gingerbread Castles, and learn that Frost is coming back to conquer Wonderland with his Army of Invasives!
It’s up to the Five to stop him. Ignored by their parents and the Meadow’s Elders Council, the Five embark on the most dangerous adventure of their young lives to save both their home and a world they only just discovered!
You can order a print copy of ADVENTURES OF THE FIVE: THE COMING OF FROST from the following sellers:
1. Through Amazon.
2. Through createspace.
3. At Barnes & Noble.
4. Available everywhere! Incluidng your local bookseller by giving them the ISBN number (1453682333).
Additionally, you can order a digital copy for your KINDLE through Amazon and be reading in minutes.