If The Fellowship of the Ring had not been based on a book, then The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (or as I dubbed it on Twitter, Preciousss: Based on the Novel “Bagginses” by Tolkien) would feel much like a next-generation reboot. Complete with new material not from the novel that makes things feel prequel-ier, it features many near-identical plot points (Hello again, Rivendell! Welcome, new Orc mini-boss! Cue signature music at exactly the same points, subbing orchestral “Misty Mountains” where the original grandiose theme would be) and the same types of shots (narrow pathway around a mountainside at night – check; top of a mountain range by day – check). Meanwhile, the novel’s story has been given more portentous weight, as every rogue monster encountered by Bilbo Baggins and crew has been retconned into part of a larger incursion of evil in general (and yes, I know this is all based on additional J.R. R. Tolkien notes), presumably eventually heralding Sauron but meanwhile involving a shadowy figure called the Necromancer, who will likely be revealed more in the sequels, given that he’s just a shadow here, yet played by a surprise actor with major geek cred. It’ll be interesting to see if they end up explaining the differences between trolls in the trilogies: Here, they can talk and turn to stone in sunlight.
The callbacks might seem tedious if not for the fact that they are now in 3-D High Frame Rate (assuming you see it in a theater that offers such), delivering a level of clarity that’s both astounding and potentially nauseating. For those who don’t know the details, regular film runs by at 24 frames per second, and as you see 24 images fly by that fast, the illusion of motion is generated. HFR is 48 frames per second, which creates a brighter, clearer image; Essentially, it’s reminiscent of the first time you ever watched an HD channel on a large high definition flatscreen. It also gave me a touch of motion sickness at times, which I don’t generally get in movies – the closest prior to this was the swooping 3-D Imax opening credits in Flying Swords of Dragon Gate. Anyway, there’s a lot more of Rivendell to check out, for example, when it looks like the world’s most elaborate dollhouse laid out right in front of you. Ditto the numerous different underground lairs of narrow catwalks above huge chasms that every race in Peter Jackson’s Tolkien universe is so fond of constructing. Film can and will die happy if this is the way the future looks; the only minor glitch, it seemed to me, was that every so often, as the camera would move, a face might look like cel-shading for a second, almost as if whatever information was being processed couldn’t quite handle the full detail for a moment. That, and a tiny bit of “ghosting” on the opening titles, which maybe amounted in total to a couple minutes of glitches in a 2-hour, 45-minute movie.
If it seems like I’m hedging, rest assured this is not so: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is more fun than The Fellowship of the Ring, no doubt about it. That said, it may inform your interpretation of this review to know that I always vastly preferred The Hobbit as a book to its successors. I chalk this up in part to the Ralph Bakshi film that only got halfway through the Lord of the Rings story. As a kid, I wanted to know how it ended, but didn’t want to read stuff I already knew, and had little luck jumping in the middle. But The Hobbit got read multiple times.
What’s good for the book is also good for the film – a sense of humor. Though some of LOTR‘s self-importance is being retroactively returned to the tale, Bilbo is simply a much more fun reluctant-hero than Frodo, whose dewy-eyed earnestness was way too goody-goody at times. Martin Freeman also played Arthur Dent in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and that character – quite correctly – shares spiritual DNA with this Hobbit, who wants to live out the simplest pleasures of the countryside, but gets whisked into something bigger, and complains all the time. It also feels like the themes here are more tangible for kids to relate to than abstract ultimate-good versus ultimate-evil, such as the benefits of going outside and making friends instead of sitting around the house (granted, LOTR had a team of friends too, but it broke up rather quickly. This group stays together).
The plot once again revolves around a quest to a distant mountain, though in this case it contains a dragon rather than a volcano, a gold-hungry jerk named Smaug (vowel sound is awkwardly pronounced “ow,” as in “Sauron”) who has displaced the dwarf population which once reigned there. The 13 dwarfs who come to recruit Bilbo as their burglar – on a strongly unsubtle recommendation from Gandalf (Ian McKellen, as if you didn’t know) – are pissed off not just at the dragon, but also at Orcs, who took advantage of the situation, and Elves, who did nothing to help. In a gloriously cool battle flashback, we get to see how lead dwarf Thorin (Richard Armitage) earned the name Oakenshield, using a piece of tree to defend against giant white Orc Azog (Manu Bennett), who’s kinda like a larger, angrier Kratos from God of War. We also know Thorin is the main hero dwarf because he looks like a regular leading man (albeit a large-nosed one), while most of the rest of his entourage – save maybe the archer Kili – are roundish caricatures who would seem perfectly at home singing “Hi-Ho!” to Snow White.
While there has been much discussion online from geek parents as to which order the Star Wars movies should be shown vis-a-vis their kids, there should be little debate about the Hobbit films – this one doesn’t work so well as an entry point into Middle-earth, with its Gandalf-centered subplot heavily dependent upon the viewer’s knowledge of what is to come. As a first part, it could easily do without “fanboy porn” moments like the time-wasting Elijah Wood cameo – it’s already overlong, and going to be extended on DVD because nobody says no to Peter Jackson any more. Overall point being, if – like me – you’re taking someone to see this who doesn’t know all the other stuff, you may have a lot of explaining to do (think of Gollum, for instance, whose origin isn’t shown until the later films and whose big reveal here is significantly enhanced by our pre-existing good will).
I will say that PJ missed the opportunity for the greatest in-joke ever; how cool would it be if Leonard Nimoy showed up, in any form, to tell Bilbo he’s “the bravest little Hobbit of them all?” Sam Raimi, I reckon, would not have resisted such a chance, but kudos for some other canny casting cameos – Barry Humphries as the Goblin King and Seventh Doctor Sylvester McCoy as the birdshit-bedecked hippie wizard Radagast the Brown add to the general refreshing cheekiness herein (that, and the part where they just randomly happen upon stone giants beating the crap out of each other for no reason). The big-name Necromancer can’t really be commented on as yet because he’s barely here, but once you know who it is, you should have little doubt he’ll be significant later.
But yeah – better battles, bigger effects, new cinematic technology and a good sense of humor about itself all combine to make this Unexpected Journey a most expected joy. I still wish it weren’t three films, as it’s harder to get excited about a first act you know cannot possibly pay off right away. But count me onboard for the rest. I suspect I’ll be far from alone.
Special bonus note: If, like me, you were wondering how the haunting theme song can be submitted for Best Original Song, it’s actually pretty clever. The dwarfs sing Tolkien’s original lyrics, but then, over the end credits, it’s the same tune with slightly different lyrics, and that’s what’s being submitted for the Oscar. Tricksy.