Because of the devotion of many Catholics to the works of J.R.R. Tolkien and the intense expectation that has surrounded the release of Peter Jackson's rendition of The Hobbit for many years, I thought I would break with custom and here offer not one but three reviews of the 2012 film from three different reviewers. The first review comes from this website's staff film critic, Throwback from the blog Popin Ain't Easy. The second comes from Goldenmouth, a young Catholic student of film and culture who is also the co-creator of the blog The Bazinga Review. The third review is my own reflections. Let's begin with the review by Throwback.
The Hobbit: A Bloated Disappointment by Throwback
It’s time for the nerd battalions to lay aside their internal defense mechanisms and admit to a reality that is painfully obvious. The Lord of the Rings movies by Peter Jackson simply weren’t that good. I’ll wait for the cries of “Blasphemy!” to die down. Just go back and watch them again (if you can sit through them all).
Whether it was the egregious examples of character rape (eg: Faramir), the substitution of slack-jawed stares for acting (Frodo and Sam), nonsensical plot developments (making the ents into morons who can talk to all the trees but somehow don’t know that the trees just over the hill have been obliterated), you know this is true. The emperor has no clothes, and this is clear to anybody that has the eyes to see. Fellowship managed to be ok. Things got progressively worse after that.
Recalling this, there was no reason for any optimism when Peter Jackson announced that he would be releasing his version of The Hobbit.
If there was any sentiment that Peter Jackson was a good filmmaker, it should have been swept away by his take on King Kong, which highlighted every one of his weaknesses for those who were too busy nerding out over Lord of the Rings. If you missed them in King Kong, that’s ok. The Hobbit puts these deficiencies in full display once again. The problem is that this would mean watching the movie.
I’m skipping a plot synopsis because I think most folks are familiar enough with the story to get by.
First, someone needs to find Peter Jackson and editor. To call The Hobbit “bloated” is an understatement. There is an admirable effort at the introduction to make sure the audience knows what is going on regarding dwarven history. We are also treated to 10-15 minutes of Bilbo and Frodo getting ready for the birthday party. You know, the one from the beginning of the Fellowship of the Ring. One of these items has relevance to the plot of The Hobbit. The other is an excuse for Elijah Wood to have a cameo. This was just the first of many superfluous items and exchanges that added nothing to the movie but time. It quickly becomes clear how Jackson is going to make a 300 page book into over nine hours worth of film.
On a side note, the editing concerns have nothing to do with Jackson’s decision to include material like references to The Necromancer or going outside the bounds of the book in other respects. It’s that he does so poorly. Had he done it well, it would have been fine and better than fine.
Second, it wouldn’t be a Peter Jackson adaptation of a Tolkien work without his taking time to violate a few of the characters. This gives us such gems as Radagast the Brown as an apparent drug addict who gets high off of mushrooms and Gandalf’s Old Toby tobacco, not to mention acting stupid in a sort of Jar-Jar Binks-ish way when he tries to do anything else.
Third, in true Peter Jackson form, the story often takes a back seat to very minor plot points that seem designed only to allow him to include more CGI. The big example here is the stone giants. A subset of this problem is the fact that even the central events had way too much CGI as well. Huge swaths of the action looked like something I would see on an X-Box. That’s not a good thing.
Fourth, Jackson appears to intentionally play to a lot of the criticisms aimed at Tolkien, namely, those that claim the series involves nothing more than characters “walking through the forest.” In The Hobbit, you lose count of the number of times characters are walking along doing nothing, only to be interrupted by Gandalf yelling “Run!”, which they do. Until they start walking again and waiting for Gandalf to tell them to run.
Fifth, Jackson seems to have been very confused about what kind of movie he wanted this to be. I expected something more kid-friendly. However, even with this in mind, things seemed to jump wildly from slapstick to the darker tone of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The result was bizarre and tended to highlight all the other defects mentioned above. Oh, I also didn’t expect snot jokes. Yes, you read that right.
I thought the acting was good across the board, especially given the muddled atmosphere in which they were operating. Not that it mattered, since even the best moments (eg: the dwarves’ singing), were all too brief and easily swallowed up by the overstuffed carcass that was the rest of the show. It was a huge waste of a talented cast.
All that aside, there are moments when it’s still Tolkien, so it’s still Catholic. You have the notions of mercy and sacrifice and humility, coupled with the dangers of power and greed. I thought they were muted to make room for more CGI and orc chases, but it wasn’t all bad. I’ve often wondered what Ian McKellen makes of all this, since he isn’t exactly the Church’s biggest fan. Regardless, the good news is that Jackson doesn’t abandon the Catholic themes altogether.
Naturally, there is little concern about content. Some of the goblins and orcs might be a little frightening for younger audiences, but my 5-year old was fine.
Ultimately, The Hobbit adaptation was pretty awful. I am not exaggerating when I say that the Rankin/Bass cartoon version is better. Unfortunately, it will still make $3 trillion at the box office and nerds will unite in their praise of the latest desecration of a classic. It’s a shame, but that’s reality. The acting and the couple of cool moments Jackson managed convinced me to give it one tiara, and that might be a stretch.
An Unexpected Journey Unexpectedly Good by Goldenmouth
Peter Jackson brings to us what might be the most anticipated films of the twenty-first century since the Star Wars prequel trilogy. Let's hope that he doesn't leave his fans disappointed like George Lucas did.
As the release day of the film drew closer, I began to develop some worries. As with most people, I was concerned about the choice to expand the story into three long films. Also, I felt that there was not enough source material to cover that length of time, and even if Jackson could meet the amount of running time expected, the story would still need to be dragged out with several unnecessary scenes. This is not even taking into consideration the likelihood of the appearance of the extended editions of the films, which would cover even more material.
I knew I was not the only one who had this concern, however, after seeing the film multiple times, I became convinced that three films had a lot of potential. As many Tolkien fans could tell you, Peter Jackson was planning to draw on the extra material of the Appendices in the Return of the King and portions of Tolkien's posthumous work, Unfinished Tales, thereby giving to the films extra scenes with the White Council (which consists of Gandalf, Saruman, Elrond, Galadriel, and Radagast), along with the conflict concerning the rise of the Necromancer in Dol Guldor. With what looked to be at least a whole film of extra material, I had high hopes for An Unexpected Journey, and my hopes rose. I did not expect to see any major liberties taken with the story. And then I saw the film.
I will hand it to Peter Jackson, this is his most faithful film adaptation so far in the Tolkien universe, but my initial opinion of the film was of disappointment when I saw the addition of the Azog the Defiler arc to the story. It felt too much like the moments in The Fellowship of the Ring when Lurtz and the Uruk-hai were hunting the company. Plus, it seemed as if I was the only one who knew that Azog had actually died during his encounter with Thror outside of Moria. In the books, Azog beheaded Thror. However, Thorin did not do battle with Thrain, it was his cousin Dain from the Iron Hills. Dain fought Azog and slew him in that battle. Jackson decided to ignore that fact for the film, and have the Pale Orc survive the battle and go on a quest for revenge against the line of Durin, starting with Thorin. Thus for the entire film we have a hunting party of orcs on wolves chasing down Bilbo, Gandalf, and the dwarves. That would not have been a terrible idea or overall change if the company did not appear to be in danger as soon as they step out of the boundaries of the Shire and if Azog was not revealed to be alive so early in the film.
After spending a lot of time thinking about it (and seeing the movie a couple more times), I worked out a story arc that was much more appealing and would be much more intriguing for the audience if Jackson really wanted to keep the Azog arc. What if we did not find out that the Pale Orc was still alive until the climax of the film, when Thorin finally sees him leading the pack of orcs and wolves? In the film, we find out that Azog survived only two minutes after Balin tells of Thorin's encounter with him. If we found out that he was still alive at the end of the film, the audience would be just as surprised as Thorin was. And with Azog almost killing the dwarf-lord at the climax of the film, the audience's shock would turn to hatred for the character of the villain, which is essential for any good story and especially seems to lack in the Lord of the Rings universe. If Jackson had taken the element of surprise approach with Azog, my concerns with the overall film would have been at a minimum.
Another thing that bothered me concerning the production of the film was Peter Jackson's generous use of CGI effects. While he has always been known to rely heavily on special effects, it seemed as if An Unexpected Journey contained twice the amount of effects than the previous trilogy, using it in places where it was completely unnecessary. Again, I am going to bring up Azog. In The Lord of the Rings, Lurtz and Gothmog were played by live action actors with little or no CGI added to their costumes. To me, this made them more frightening because they appeared to be more real and alive in their scenes. While Azog was definitely a large and evil foe for this film, because he was completely animated it made him feel less real and involved in the story.
It must sound from what I have written that I disliked the film because it failed to meet my expectations. That is not the case. All in all, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was an amazing film which hints at great potential in its two successive films. I found Radagast to be humorous and was excited by the countless cameos from the White Council, the Necromancer and the Witch King, and the teases of Smaug. I only hope that Jackson and company stay true to Tolkien's original stories and refrain from adding too much content that is not from his canon of work.
Two and a half tiaras.
The Problem With Prequels by Boniface
I saw The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey several weeks ago and have been ruminating on it ever since. While I definitely liked the film, my ruminations consist in trying to determine whether or not the film is good, and if so, whether or not it is on par with the trilogy. I suppose the question is loaded and depends on whether one thought the original trilogy was good. I fall in the middle - I really liked the original trilogy while also acknowledging it had some real shortcomings as well.
Both reviews above harp on the "generous" use of CGI, and in this I heartily agree. The stone giant scene was the most useless thing I've ever seen and was nothing more than an occasion to show off CGI. But it is not only the presence of CGI, but the universality of it and the quality of it. The trilogy used CGI, but it also used a lot of costumes and live actors; the orcs were live actors, for the most part. The CGI in The Hobbit just looked really bad, too; the scene where the party was trapped in the burning trees looked like something out of a video game and the chase-around scene in the goblin city, while amusing, similarly looked fake. It is mystifying to me how eleven years after Fellowship of the Ring the CGI technology can possibly look worse, but it does. The cave troll from Fellowship of the Ring looks ten times better than Azog from The Hobbit. It looks like Jackson has unfortunately fallen into the same trap as George Lucas in the ubiquity of CGI imaging.
I also noticed that the movie was unnecessarily intense. I understand that the plot needs to be sped up to be suitable for film, and that's fine; but what I don't appreciate is when levels of intensity are added to the plot to make it more dramatic than it already was in the book. For example, in the book, we have the party trapped in some trees at the edge of a field with angry wargs and goblins below and the ground on fire. Pretty intense. But in the film, these trees are no longer at the edge of a field but on the absolute edge of a cliff. The dwarves are all in one tree, the tree is dangling dangerously over the precipice, the dwarves are falling off it and barely holding on for dear life while the earth from the cliff crumbles below. So...was just having them in trees with fire and wargs and goblins around not intense enough that they had to add this nonsense about a cliff as well? That's what I mean about piling up intensity, and it is especially unnecessary since the Hobbit was originally supposed to be lighter and more "kid friendly" than LOTR, at least as a book (in all fairness, this sort of "adding intensity" went into the LOTR films, too - remember that totally invented scene when Aragorn falls of a cliff in the Two Towers?). The story is exciting enough without the director adding crap.
Others have commented on the added role of Azog the Defiler, a character who was of only secondary importance in the book. He is no doubt there to add intensity, as explained above. But I think the problem with Azog is similar to the issue of the killer fog inserted into The Dawn Treader film: Modern adventure movies have a hard time dealing with narratives that do not have a "bad guy." In the Hobbit, Smaug is simply sleeping on treasure pile; in Dawn Treader, there is no "bad guy" at all; it is merely a journey of exploration. As modern screenwriting is so stuck in the protagonist-antagonist arc, they cannot deal well with films that do not have an aggressive antagonist/bad guy, nor can they deal well with a villain, like Smaug, who waits smugly for the heroes to come to him - the only hero/villain relationship modern film seems to understand is villains pursuing heroes relentlessly in a physical chase; hence the need for Azog. That's my theory.
Let's talk about the acting. I thought the strongest characters were Bilbo and Thorin. I wished they would have showed more of the dwarves singing, as those were some of the best moments. I felt the most connection with Bilbo, which is appropriate since he is the protagonist - or is supposed to be, though I thought the film suffered from some schizophrenia by the way it worked in the Dol Goldur subplot in a way that had absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with Bilbo. Shame on what this film did to Radagast. Let us remember that the wizards, istari, are powerful Maiar spirits, basically angelic beings, and the way Radagast was portrayed does not justice to this part of Tolkien's world.
I have not found anyone else who shares this opinion, but I found Ian McClellan's performance as Gandalf weak this time around. When he first appeared on the screen he looked so old and baggy-eyed. My wife and I said, "He looks terrible!" Of course he is older by a decade, but he really looks older and huffier, and his lines were not delivered well. The first exchange about "Good morning" was spot on, but after that all his lines seemed forced and artificial.
Reflecting on all of this makes me think that there is inherently something problematic with prequels themselves. In a prequel, the characters are led through plot twists and story arcs and all sorts of adventures and misadventures to get somewhere that we totally already know where they are going. We have already been through the whole saga of the finding of the ring, the journey east and its destruction in the Cracks of Doom with the restoration of the king, the salvation of all Middle Earth and the leaving of Frodo and the Ring-Bearers to the Undying Lands. We have already been through it all. Thus, the story of this film can only be of passing interest to us. We yawn when Gandalf and Radagast debate what is going on at Dol Goldur; we roll our eyes when we see Saruman in the White Council trying to dissuade Gandalf from thinking about an enemy because we already know he is a traitor.
In short, the facts that the actors try to make so intense and of so much import cannot possible be as important to the audience since we already know where the road is going and have been there. This is why the Star Wars prequels failed; from the first moment Anakin showed up on the screen we knew he was Darth Vader, and from the first minute we saw Senator Palpatine we knew where he would wind up, and all of the conversation, detective work and actions of the Jedi bore us because we already know what's going on. Recall that in real life, the Hobbit book came out almost twenty years before the Lord of the Rings. So, I don't know whether its that Peter Jackson did a positively bad job or that prequels are inherently iffy propositions.
There were some good things in the film, for sure. I loved the portrayal of the Goblin King; his facial expressions and voice was perfect. The dwarf company themselves were done very well, the scene with Bilbo's dishes was awesome and the destruction of Dale and the teases of Smaug were great. Unfortunately, I can't see that the subsequent two movies will be able to rise above the weaknesses in the first one. If the next two simply have less redundant CGI, I will probably be able to come to terms with them.