Belated Merry Christmas and Happy New Year everyone!
I apologize for my recent silence as I was travelling and enjoying Asia and decided not to bring a laptop with me, so I didn't get a chance to write up my thoughts on recent blockbusters. But I did watch two films while on this trip: Wreck It Ralph (just before Christmas) and The Hobbit (just after New Year's). I really enjoyed Wreck it Ralph but today I am here to talk about the other one, the one that nearly ruined one of my very few good memories from my high school years.
After spending about 3 days cooling myself down (both from the heat wave hitting New South Wales, and a rare frustration turned into flame ignited by this film), I think I am now calm enough to talk about The Hobbit (Part 1) without resulting in a heat-filled fanboy-driven rage to pummel this film into the depths of Moria. I rarely use words of profanity when expressing my inner frustration or annoyance at something, but this movie was disappointing enough to make me mentally project a pile of stool swirled like a McDonald's soft serve cone placed on top of the film reel. In short, this movie was SHIT! (I promise not to use any more profanity from here on).
Okay, so The Hobbit wasn't really that bad as a film in itself. If you ignore the climate and level of hype in which this film was produced and released in, and pretended that The Lord of the Rings never existed, and ALSO pretended that the previous trilogy had nothing to do with this film, The Hobbit would be decent stand-alone flick. The character-driven story was strong, the cinematography was gorgeous and the monsters and creatures were very interesting to watch even if they did seem genetically engineered to be bad guys, and so when they were sliced and diced we've been conditioned to not pity them, but man it was fun watching them getting sliced and diced and creatively knocked off the bridges and ledges!
Having said that, I had three basic problems with this film in itself:
As a standalone film, I'd rate The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey with 6.5 out of 10.
Spoilers from here on!
The reason The Hobbit really boils my veins is not because it betrayed the book from which it was adapted or The LOTR trilogy, but because it worked too hard to try and retain the style, the atmosphere and the continuity. And again it's not because they tried, but because they FAILED.
In all honesty, I think this film followed the book more closely than Lord of the Rings did. However book and film are completely different mediums. A friend of mine said after the movies that she "prefers books because it allows her to imagine more". I totally agree, but I prefer movies for a different reason: I like studying other people's imaginations, and I see film adaptation of books as either a faithful re-imagining of the original author's intentions or a re-imagining by the director only loosely following the premise or characters from books. In my experience when directors try to re-imagine things it doesn't go awfully well.
For those who aren't aware, The Hobbit was a children's book, unlike Lord of The Rings, which was actually written for adults decades later in Tolkien's career. The stories in The Hobbit were much more episodic, simplistic and with a much smaller scope of the world than we saw in the subsequent books. You could argue that The Hobbit was more suitable as a mini-series on television, but no, Peter Jackson decides to try and make it as epic and as exciting and dramatic as Lord of The Rings to appeal to the adult audience.
Granted it is a fair enough desire, and the mainstream audiences would love him for that if he did it well, but I think he worked too hard to keep in as many elements of the book in the film while trying to keep the stakes at the same level as LOTR. I keep hammering this comparison because I am trying to say that The Hobbit SHOULD NOT BE LIKE Lord of The Rings.
You can see this awareness by the producers from time to time in the film, such as the sporadic musical numbers, which are word for word from the book, and for the most part very lighthearted and whimsical. You can see this difference with the jokes and comic relief by the side characters as well. You can even notice this in the fight scene which are more like a boy daydreaming their own epic "final battle" scene but without the concept of consequences. And that is why the action is more intended for children; they are inconsequential except to move the dwarves closer to their destination I guess? This explains why no one important dies or even gets hurt, because the only concept kids can digest at this point is running around, doing push ups and using weapons. They aren't ready for things like war gaming or ruse or sacrifice. I think the deepest concept taught in this film was courage and the value of home.
Then you have these other moments which try to be serious, like the prologue about the background of Thorin and the dwarves at Erebor, the meeting at Rivendell, and the internal conflict of Thorin, which, I'm not going to lie, is very convincing and powerful. But if you interleave these serious moments with the gentle easy-to-watch scenes which are directly adapted from the book (like the 3 mountain trolls), you just can't concentrate as a viewer. Your expectation of how they shoot the next arc keeps getting shattered and you just give up caring about what's going on. At least that's what happened for me.
This leads to another major problem: being mostly a faithful adaptation of the book, what was the point of showing us characters that weren't really in The Hobbit? The biggest of these would be Lady Galadriel, and I actually know why she was introduced. Hollywood films needs gender balance. There are zero main characters in The Hobbit that are female. None of the dwarves are female, none of the wizards are female, even the bad guys are all...guys! It is kind of similar in Lord of the Rings where the entire fellowship are male, though to their credit they didn't have to invent a character, but instead amplified the few existing female characters in the book (Arwen, Galadriel, Eowyn) to have a more prominent presence in the films, which worked in the film's favor.
Galadriel is not as strong a character in this film. She has this tiny romantic cocktease with Gandalf, holds his hand briefly, then poof! You don't see her again for the rest of the film. And in the book, she is nowhere to be found, so her presence in the film is purely for the purposes of the trailer. In terms of the plot you didn't really need her at all. She figures out Gandalf is hiding something he found, and then he reveals it. I'm pretty sure he was going to show that sword anyway, and beyond that little bit of telepathy she contributes nothing to the film, except making the female presence in the film from 0% to 1%, and in the trailer from 0% to 15%.
Another character I don't really get why they kept him in is Radagast, the brown wizard. This character was kind of important, but the way he is introduced was very clumsy. When Bilbo asks about the other wizard, Gandalf only mentions two despite there being 5 in total: Saruman the White (whom the audience already knows from previous films) and Radagast the Brown. Why didn't he mention the other two? I WANT TO KNOW WHO THEY ARE!! It's kind of ironic because Jackson keeps in a lot of scenes which are inconsequential or irrelevant to the plot, and only serve to let us enjoy a wider view of Middle Earth as he sees it. Then it shouldn't be that hard to just throw in a couple of quick scenes to show who the other two wizards are and what they did. (By the way, the other two wizards' names are Alatar and Pallando)
The final issue with characters I had was basically the entire company of dwarves except Thorin and maybe Balin. Like many who saw the movie. I couldn't remember who was who or even their names in no particular order or assignment. Now you could argue that there are too many characters which is why we can't remember. But lets do a real head count here for all the characters of some importance in The Hobbit as opposed to, say, Fellowship of the Ring (theatrical release only):
Fellowship of the Ring: Frodo, Sam, Merry, Pippin, Gandalf, Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli, Boromir, Arwen, Elrond, Galadriel, Ringwraiths, Gollum, Balrog (The Shadow), Bilbo, Uruk Hai and of course Sauron => 18 characters, 16 of which most people recognise immediately with their names and/or photo.
The Hobbit: Bilbo, Gandalf, Thorin, Balin, Bifur, Bofur, Bombur, Dori, Dwalin, Fili, Gloin, Kili, Nori, Oin, Ori, Smaug, Gollum, Azog, Radagast, mountain trolls and that goblin giant. => 21 characters, 10 of which most people can recall for various reasons.
Fellowship of the Ring had slightly less characters we had to be concerned about, but more of them leaves a lasting impression on us, not just right after we leave the theatres, but whenever we see our friends share photos with LOTR memes like Boromir's "one does not simply blah blah blah" or the actors in other films, we can immediately identify like "oh he played Frodo in LOTR!" or "oh she's hotter as Arwen in LOTR!"
Can we say the same for any of the dwarves other than maybe Throin and Balin? The rest are so generic dwarves I kind of feel bad that I don't want to see them in the film. I mean the acting is fine, but they are just not given juicy material to work with. If I recall correctly (which is hard when I was disinterested), less than half of them actually had any dialogue at all, assuming you don't count those songs they sung in chorus. Sometimes I even question if they're all there during a chase sequence.
P.S. Fellowship of the Ring was only 11 minutes longer than The Hobbit Part 1 in their theatrical release.
Now having ranted quite a bit about what's wrong with the film, I will not deny credit where credit is due. Bilbo and Thorin does steal the show in this film. Like I mentioned earlier, this film is very character-driven, and very slow allowing the audience plenty of time to breathe and take in a scene. This gave us a lot of time to connect ourselves emotionally to Bilbo's struggles and Thorin's plight. Both of them are great performances, their relationship is very strong, and it's the only thing about the climax that I really found satisfying when Thorin hugs Bilbo and accepts him as a true member of the company of dwarves, and possibly a friend or brother.
There's so many scenes which just pans around a silent contemplative Bilbo which are so powerful because without saying anything Martin Freemen says a lot simply through his expression, his sudden jumps into actions. When you talk about the underdog, the Campbellian archetypal hero, Tolkien really hits the mark with this character in the book, and so does Jackson in the film. In fact the only reason I would watch the next two films is to see Bilbo's growth and his developing relationship with Thorin.
Gandalf is fine, but he's not as epic as in LOTR. He always seems to have an ulterior motive, doesn't tell people what he's up to, and even at times looks like he is unsure of what he's doing. But believe it or not, this was in the book!
So yeah, when you have the greatest fantasy film franchise of all times being the benchmark for this film, it's hard not to be disappointed. I heard about some controversy with this film using 48 fps, but honestly I didn't notice it except the scenes with Gollum, which actually makes him scarier but also more human at the same time, so it's kind of a plus in my books. And I am curious enough to see the rest of the films for two reasons:
There were sooo many more things I could nitpick about in this film (which I already sort of have), but seeing how long this post already is I'll try to restrain myself to the one scene that really bugged me, and believe it or not, it was the climax of the film, where the company of dwarves had literally been cornered (at the edge of a cliff), hanging by a thread (a tree); symbolism at its subtlest. Here are my nitpicks with the climax of The Hobbit Part 1:
So yeah, the film really doesn't hold up when you compare it to its predecessors. But what did you expect? Peter Jackson is a great film director with a portfolio of film genres more diverse than the cast of Star Trek, but attempting to make 3 high fantasy epic adventure films, each 3 hours long, from 1 children's book that I could read in less than 8 hours? Why would he bother such a feat? In a word: money! Haha
But I guess I still have to be grateful for the existence of this film, after all I did want to see The Hobbit on the big screen. I simply wished that they made the theatrical version shorter (and back in 2004/05 when Christopher Lee was still fit enough to do a bit of action and raise his voice). Seriously it's like this film I saw was already the extended edition with all the deleted scenes kept in. I would've felt as good about Bilbo's character and understood the rules and stakes of Tolkien's world without having to watch over-indulgent scenic shots and pans of the Southern Alps, and certainly had fonder memories of this film if I didn't spend half the film waiting for shit to happen. Sigh. At least there's lots of movies to look forward to this year!
But I now know not to have the same level of expectation for Desolation of Smaug as I did entering this film.
Tolkien Fans' rating: 4 out of 10