December 17, 2012

by Derek Defoe

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a wonderful fantasy adventure and in more than worthy company of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and presented in a way that I guess only Peter Jackson was best suited to do. Tolkien's novel is a thin book by comparison, but "deceivingly so," as Jackson puts it. This is the first of three parts so excuse me while I bask in the embarrassment of riches. It works as an adaptation of The Hobbit, that much is true, but the masterful thing that Jackson has done is welcome the relation of the quest presented in The Hobbit with the epic saga of Lord of the Rings. It's a stand-alone adventure, but at the same time works as a prequel to Lord of the Rings, with the looming threat of things to come and it suggests that Bilbo Baggins' adventure is integral to Frodo's to follow.

It's just about 10 years after LOTR and it doesn't feel like the cameras stopped rolling. Once again we're invited into Middle Earth, still full of its beauty, its majestic scenery (thanks New Zealand), and incredible visual effects. Middle Earth feels lived in, like there'd be stuff going on whether we were watching or not. Once again we greet great and interesting characters, like our heroes Bilbo, Gandalf, and the dwarves. There's also some enemies. Including but not limited to the infamous dragon Smaug, Orcs, arachnids, necromancers, and a Goblin King who clearly has a giant herpes-ridden ballsack hanging under his chin.

A few weeks before the movie came out I picked up that special edition of Rolling Stone magazine dedicated to The Hobbit. What was very interesting was that in the introductory paragraph the author compared Bilbo Baggins to Jeffrey Lebowski (AKA The Dude, of The Big Lebowski), as the lazy couch potato who would rather stay at home and snack and smoke weed but is thrust into an extraordinary set of circumstances. I thought that was a really stupid parallel. That is until I actually saw the movie. Bilbo is the slacker everyman, then this grand adventure basically falls into his lap. He's reluctant and incredulous the whole way. But I think the fact that he has no attitude for adventure, and how he keeps a certain sensibility about his homestead life, and how he slowly eases into and makes it work for him on his own terms is exactly what makes him an ideal participant in the quest. I suspect Gandalf sensed this from Bilbo, and I suspect that Rolling Stone writer drew his comparisons under similar consideration.

Martin Freeman, by the way, is absolutely brilliant. He's a great actor, and has excellent comedic timing, and really, despite being an epic fantasy, it's pretty much a comedy. In that sense he really was a perfect choice. Nothing against Elijah Wood but I always thought it was strange casting having him as Frodo. But just due to the scope of Lord of the Rings, and all the characters, and everything going on, it wasn't really distracting and not really an issue. Since The Hobbit is much smaller in scope, there's a lot more weight on Freeman's shoulders to play Bilbo. He carries the movie exceptionally, and for what it's worth, all of his facial expressions are priceless. All of the acting is great though, a lot of times when there's a movie like this, whether it's at the fault of the writing or the actors, I don't know, but so many times the dialogue can feel so colloquial, as if the fourth wall is broken and we remember it's a modern movie and these are modern actors and they're just playing make-believe. I never really had that problem with The Lord of the Rings, or The Hobbit for that matter. The dialogue isn't wooden or reliant on the source material, as if Tolkien's book were a play to be read verbatim, but it's all spruced up just enough, and just expressive enough by the actors that the sacredness of the source material is maintained but it expands upon it. They really pulled it off three previous times and now yet again with The Hobbit, the proper balance is found.

Take for example the scene with Bilbo and Gollum in the cave, playing their game of riddles. Very close to Toliken's book but expanded, and really milks the scene for all it is worth, because really, if you have a section of the movie to include Gollum, how could you not? It's arguably the best part of the movie, really, and it's nothing but dialogue. Except that it's not, is it? We're so tuned into special effects that we become accustomed to them and don't even really give a second thought to incredibly elaborate special effects used for a dialogue scene. But there's plenty of movies with special effects, and with CGI monsters, but what makes this movie, and Gollum as a character stand out? Well, obviously, it's Andy Serkis. It's the acting. It makes it work.

And far be it from me to exclude the great Ian McKellen from my praise of the movie. It was a dream come true to see him portray Gandalf the Grey once more, and I do prefer Gandalf the Grey to Gandalf the White. He's a lot warmer, accessible, really someone you'd like to sit on a stoop and smoke a pipe with.

All things considered I feel this first Hobbit movie really delivered on the expectations I had. As a great admirer of the Lord of the Rings films I felt Peter Jackson once again captured the magic of Middle Earth and of the fantasy genre in general. As an adaptation of the novel and as a prequel to Lord of the Rings, it's admirably executed, and I felt that the framing device of having it take place the day of Bilbo's 111th birthday as shown in Fellowship, technically working as his recollections and his book was a great touch. And the way the movie is presented in general, knowing exactly how it should begin and at which point it should close was done perfectly, and had me thinking how interesting it was that Bilbo's journey in this film has a striking skeletal resemblance of Frodo's from Fellowship. It was done a lot better than I was expecting, it satisfied me greatly as a stand-alone entry but left me hungry for more. And really, Peter Jackson didn't even need to go such efforts as he did, he went above and beyond. Honestly, he could have literally stopped this movie in the middle of an action scene or the middle of a character's sentence and abruptly cut to credits, just to prove to us all that he could fuck with us and we'd still throw down our money.

I eagerly await part two.

Directed by    
Peter Jackson

Produced by    
Carolynne Cunningham
Zane Weiner
Fran Walsh
Peter Jackson

Screenplay by    
Fran Walsh
Philippa Boyens
Peter Jackson
Guillermo del Toro

Based on    
The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien

Ian McKellen
Martin Freeman
Richard Armitage
James Nesbitt
Ken Stott
Cate Blanchett
Ian Holm
Christopher Lee
Hugo Weaving
Elijah Wood
Andy Serkis

Music by    
Howard Shore

Andrew Lesnie

Edited by    
Jabez Olssen