REVIEW/EDITORIAL: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Disappointment
I'd like to preface this article by saying that I am a die-hard fan of everything Lord of the Rings, from Peter Jackson's 'original trilogy' (as we'll probably have to start calling it now, I guess?) to the extended editions which I own, have seen multiple times, and much prefer over the theatrical versions, and of course J.R.R. Tolkien's books which I have also read several times except for the Silmarillion (only read it once...hey can you blame me??).
Better than the original trilogy? Faithful to the book? Are any of these claims actually legitimate? Hit the jump for an in-depth look at the flaws of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey...
As a result of all this, I knew how different The Hobbit would be from The Lord of the Rings tonally, and I adjusted my expectations accordingly. I was still optimistic that, although I wasn't a huge fan of the decision to split this into three movies, the first movie would be thoroughly enjoyable, if not brilliant. I'm in the camp that the Fellowship of the Ring was the absolute best movie of the previous trilogy, and I expected more of the same from this new Hobbit Trilogy. I'm sorry to say that if "An Unexpected Journey" was the absolute best, then I'm loathe to see how much further the next two movies can fall.
NOTE: Before we continue any further, I'm not commenting on the whole 48fps controversy. I personally saw the movie in Imax 3D in the regular framerate, so I couldn't comment on it even if I wanted to. Bottom line, the movie and the framerate in which it was seen in should be two completely different things. I've seen too many reviews treating them as the same, with their personal opinion of 48fps getting in the way of how they enjoyed the actual movie. Also, SPOILERS from here on out for those who haven't watched the movie, duh, AND haven't read the book.
Still with me? Good.
Now don't get me wrong, this wasn't an awful movie. It brought us wonderfully back to Middle-earth, introduced us to the new characters, provided a good backstory to their motivations, and was generally well put-together. It definitely had its classic moments, notably Bilbo and Gandalf's very first interaction in front of Bag-end, the haunting rendition of the "Misty Mountains" song by the Dwarves, the Trolls, and of course, the Riddles in the Dark with Gollum, who visually looks better than ever.
Having said that, I found the movie to be a massive disappointment. The number 1 reason for this was the UNNECESSARY (that's the key word) changes made from the book.
The most glaring change is the addition of Azog the "pale orc" and his personal vendetta against Thorin. In the book he actually dies in the battle in Moria, while the movie shows that he survives despite Thorin cutting off his arm. This leads to Azog coming out of hiding to hunt the Company in order to exact his revenge. I think I understand why Peter Jackson felt the need to insert this into his story, as it gave our heroes a "secondary villain" in this movie, much like the role the Ringwraiths or the Uruk-hai Lurtz had in FOTR and Saruman had in TTT, while Sauron obviously was the main baddie throughout. I can see Azog being the secondary villain in the 1st movie and part of the 2nd, then Smaug the Dragon/the Necromancer in the second half of the 2nd movie and maybe part of the 3rd, all culminating in the Battle of the Five Armies in the last movie.
But I found the entire "revenge" storyline in general to be cliche' and Azog just a lame rehash of Lurtz in the FOTR. It artificially gave the heroes another tangible danger throughout the course of the movie when it really wasn't necessary. After all, they face Trolls, Mountain Giants, Goblins, Wargs, and Gollum all in the same film...not sure they needed someone actively hunting them down in addition to all that! Even more appalling is the fact that it gave Thorin an excuse to have the cliche' "epic fight" at the end of the movie, which wouldn't have been all that 'epic' had it not been in slow motion with cool looking flames everywhere (not to mention this scene, and the movie as a whole, had a complete overabundance of CGI and very video game-ish feel to it, but I'll get to that).
The most annoying part of that fight was that the outcome had no real ramifications within the story. Okay, say Thorin didn't completely fail at giving any semblance of holding his own in that showdown and actually killed Azog...what then? He was still surrounded by a whole bunch of Goblins and Wargs who he wouldn't have had a chance against, not to mention all his friends were still barely hanging on for dear life on that tree that was seconds away from falling over the cliff. The same friends who he previously said that he would take "over the mightiest army." But hey, at least Thorin would have got the guy that was trying to get him for the whole movie, right? This cheapens his character considerably for the sake of an unnecessary, played-out fight scene. The timing of this fight was just plain awful. Not to mention it also unnecessarily rushes the development of Bilbo's character (he had to jump out of the tree and heroically save Thorin's butt, remember. Another topic that I'll get into a little later).
Even though Lurtz wasn't in the FOTR book, I didn't mind that addition one bit. Yes, the Fellowship also faced other dangers in that movie, but only up until Lothlorien. After that, introducing the Uruk-hai pack that hunts down the Fellowship was necessary for the climax of both the movie and book. Giving the audience an actual leader for the Uruk-hai was both creative and needed, and it also gave us a truly epic fight between Lurtz and Aragorn which actually had real consequences to the rest of the story. Seriously, go back and rewatch that fight, then compare it to the fight that had to be shoehorned in at the end of The Hobbit. I found the former to be infinitely more exciting and entertaining. Much less CGI, actual stunts, actual danger. Much more satisfying.
Another huge departure from the book is the very increased role of the quirky wizard Radagast. Mentioned in passing in book, Jackson decided to make Radagast the instrument through which we find out that the Necromancer has come into power and is up to no good. But in the book, it is already common knowledge that there is a Necromancer ruling the dungeons of Dol Guldur (in fact, Gandalf himself visits it years before the events of The Hobbit in order to get Thorin's grandfather's key that will eventually play an important part, which I'm sure they will show in a flashback in the 2nd movie. But this would fly in the face of the facts established in this movie, the fact that nobody knew about the Necromancer until Radagast had his little encounter. Look for more changes to come, courtesy of Peter Jackson!)
While we're on the subject, Radagast's encounter with the Witch-king also directly contradicts facts established in the LOTR: the books and the movies. Not only does it really not make much sense that Radagast can see the Witch-king in the form that only Frodo saw while wearing the Ring, but Aragorn also tells Frodo in the FOTR that the Ringwraiths are neither living nor dead. Sauron seduced these kings of men with the 9 rings,
and they slowly faded into wraiths. But now the Witch-king, along with the other Ringwraiths, apparently died and were stuck in a tomb ages ago as Galadriel tells us. The reappearance of the infamous Morgul blade convinces Galadriel and Gandalf (in an unintentionally hilarious sequence of telepathic communications that basically sees them tuning out poor Saruman as he keeps rambling on, as if he is just an annoying little kid blubbering on about something stupid while the adults are talking) that Radagast must be right about the Necromancer and something must be done, setting in motion the events of the White Council. For someone who took great pains to tie this movie in with the LOTR, Peter Jackson sure didn't hesitate making changes that contradicts his own previous movies.
I understand the entire subplot with the Necromancer and the desire to expand upon it in the movies, but unfortunately it does so at the expense of robbing the story somewhat of its main character: namely, The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins himself. It turns into a slightly uneven story that focuses more on the Dwarves, the Wizards, the Orcs with personal vendettas, rather than the titular character. Bilbo goes through entire lengths of the movie without saying a word or even having much to do with what is going on at the moment.
This may be a result of Jackson's choice to stay true to the lighthearted, slightly childish tone of the book but still inject an epic feel to it by including the subplot about the Necromancer and the White Council. By toeing the line between grandiose trilogy and lighthearted adventure, it's almost like they don't know what the movie is supposed to be, and it suffers because of this 'identity crisis.'
This next complaint has to do with with the tiny, seemingly insignificant changes that were made that add up in a very big way.
For example, Bilbo's character arc in this movie suffers and becomes rushes as a direct result of the changes made from the book. At the very beginning of the story, Tolkien describes Bilbo as having a sort of duel nature inside of him. His father was from the wealthy, comfortable Baggins family, but his mother was of the adventurous Took side. This was unheard of in Hobbiton, and it is supposed to be an important part of Bilbo's character. During the entire sequence of the Dwarves explaining their quest at Bag-end, Bilbo's 'Tookish' side wakes up, and he starts yearning for adventures and battles and dragons. The movie barely even touches on this, relegating Bilbo's desire for going on the quest to: "Hey they left without even telling me, no fair! I wanna go now!" The fact that Gandalf doesn't return to Bag-end to fetch Bilbo doesn't do justice to what the wizard told Frodo (in what is supposed to be a bit of an intentional understatement) in the FOTR, "All I did was give your uncle a little nudge out of the door!"
Then in the mountains, Bilbo was actually going to turn around and go back to Rivendell. The unnecessary feud that had been building throughout the film between Thorin and Bilbo turns the hobbit into a little kid who doesn't like being bullied and not fitting in, and is ready to give everything up right then and there. The only thing that stops this from happening is the attack by the Goblins. Conspicuously missing is the hobbit who begins to gain some courage and a sense of purpose at this point in the book.
But the biggest change to Bilbo's arc occurs in the Goblin Caves, when he becomes separated from the Dwarves almost as soon as they are captured. He falls down a very deep hole with a goblin and lands in Gollum's Cave. Gollum fights the Goblin, conveniently loses the Ring right in front of Bilbo (another obvious cliche'), and slinks off, again completely changing the story of how Bilbo found the ring, as shown briefly in a flashback in the FOTR.
The book's version is much creepier and would've made for a better scene in the movie: Bilbo is with the Dwarves until Gandalf springs them lose. They make a mad dash through intricate mazes of tunnels, with the Goblins silently running right on their heels in the pitch blackness. Suddenly Goblins spring out from the darkness and tackle Bilbo and a couple of the Dwarves, resulting in Bilbo being knocked unconscious and left behind in the chaos of the moment. When he wakes up, he has no idea where he or any of his friends are. Utterly alone, Bilbo must either summon up the courage to continue on with no help, or give up and surrender to fear in an almost impossible situation. Determined to press onwards, and by complete, sheer luck, he stumbles upon the Ring. In the first part of a trilogy, this should've been the defining moment for Bilbo. But instead, it is dumbed down and simplified for the audience into the easiest, most basic way possible.
Bilbo's defining moment is pushed off into the final contrived fight in the movie, where he rushes off to Thorin's aid. Even if this wasn't such a cliche', it basically ruins his character arc for the next two movies. The 'emotional' moment at the very end where Thorin and Bilbo share an embrace as the Dwarf leader admits he was wrong about him speeds up Bilbo's arc considerably. He isn't supposed to be fully accepted by the Dwarves until he rescues them, without any help from Gandalf, from the dungeons of the Elven King Thranduil. That is when he fully gains the respect of Thorin and the Dwarves. But again, for the sake of fitting in three movies, Jackson had to significantly rush Bilbo's journey as a character.
I'll admit the next part is more personal opinion than true complaint, but my enjoyment of the movie was significantly decreased as a result and thus can be argued that it is a legitimate gripe: the overall silliness and cliche's throughout the entire course of the movie, along with the increased dependence of CGI effects to almost absurd levels.
As I stated before, I get that The Hobbit is a children's book, and as such, certain liberties can be taken to appeal to that demographic in today's world. However, this is a prequel to the LOTR trilogy, which means it is set in the same 'universe,' comparable to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. With this in mind, the same 'rules' of physics ought to apply. However, they don't seem to in The Hobbit.
One of the first instances of this is with the Trolls. The Dwarves swoop in to rescue Bilbo and engage the Trolls in a mini battle. However, the Trolls show absolutely no signs of physical injury whatsoever. Then in the mountains, our heroes find themselves caught in between a Mountain Giant wrestling match. Despite all the visual thrills of entire mountain-sized giants tossing the Company around, amazingly not one of them is hurt/killed. In the Goblin caves, they escape by riding scaffolding down a very deep pit, smashing through countless other scaffolds until safely reaching the bottom. At this point, the movie is resembling a Rube Goldberg machine and a video game, not a movie.
The height of these eye roll-inducing stunts is when the Goblins chase the heroes up the trees near the climax. Rather than being located in a slight clearing in a forest as it was in the book, the movie has to take it to higher levels of danger: the trees that the Dwarves climb up start to topple into each other like dominoes, leaving them on the very last tree hanging over the edge of a massive cliff! As if the danger of Goblins setting fire to the trees wasn't enough, Jackson was compelled to raise the level of drama and excitement to ridiculous levels.
Now, the silliest liberties that the LOTR ever took was having Legolas slide down a staircase on a shield in TTT, or single-handedly taking down a Mumakil in the ROTK. Except for a few of these moments, the LOTR didn't take any significant leaps in logic. But despite being in this same universe, The Hobbit has moments like one of the Dwarves inadvertently blocking an arrow shot with the point of their sword, or the characters taking a tremendous amount of punishment without anything to show for it, or Radagast riding on a bunny sled (and somehow warding off a spider attack by healing a hedgehog...?). Not only does the overabundance of CGI play into this, but it also takes away any sense of tension or danger that the audience feels the characters may encounter. Once we become invested in them, we have to expect that there are real dangers that they experience. The video game quality of this movie and the laziness of relying too much on CGI takes all of that away. Rather than being genuinely concerned or even frightened for our heroes, we're left wondering exactly when the next over the top moment will occur for the characters to safely escape.
This is probably because this has been marketed as more of a family movie, and so a decision was made to spare children from seeing huge amounts of gore. Oddly enough, there's plenty of scary monsters and decapitations throughout the entire movie. Once again, the movie suffers from not knowing its own identity. But back to the original point, there's a line where fantasy turns into just plain weirdness, and unfortunately Peter Jackson drove right through that line on a sleigh driven by bunnies.
Almost every review that I read claimed that the "hardcore" fans of the LOTR would absolutely love the movie while the more "mainstream," casual fans wouldn't be into it. I found the exact opposite to be true, however: most of my friends who haven't read the books or even seen all the LOTR movies absolutely loved the movie. It was almost as if Peter Jackson figured that if he threw the fans enough references to the other trilogy (Frodo, Old Bilbo, Galadriel, Saruman, the Morgul blade, Weathertop, etc), we'd feel nostalgic enough to automatically enjoy The Hobbit. Or if he included enough direct quotes from the book, we'd automatically think that he was remaining completely faithful to it.
To be clear, I found plenty of unnecessary departures from the books in the previous trilogy too, and they bother me to this day. Unfortunately, this movie doesn't hold a candle to the original LOTR. In fact, I have an inkling that I'm going to find a whole new appreciation for those movies after this. The Hobbit certainly wasn't faithful to the book, despite claims on the contrary. You can almost picture Peter Jackson either cursing Tolkien for some of the things he included (or didn't include) in the book or just reading the Spark-notes summary of the book, not understanding any of the characters and their motivations, and making a trilogy guaranteed to make big bucks.
In conclusion, hopefully this lengthy article will result in a greater appreciation of the source material while also fostering good debates. My goal wasn't to ruin anyone's enjoyment of the movie. It isn't an awful movie (my final verdict would give it a 6.5 out of 10) and I plan on seeing it in theaters at least one more time. But as Bilbo somewhat cheesily and naively claims at the end of the movie, "I do believe the worst is behind us!" Hopefully that is the case with this somewhat lackluster, disappointing first movie. But I'll be sitting in my local theater at the midnight showing for the next two installments, cautiously optimistic for a redemption of this prequel trilogy worthy of J.R.R. Tolkien's wonderful books.
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