Sunday, December 16, 2012

Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

A few days ago, I had the opportunity to attend a pre-release screening of the first film in Peter Jackson's The Hobbit trilogy, and wanted to share my impressions.

The short (Hobbit-sized?) version: I loved it.

My initial thoughts? "It's so good to be back in Middle-Earth again." The production team behind The Hobbit did a beautiful job bringing the world of Middle-Earth to life on screen in a way that was familiar and fresh at the same time -- it felt like I was not only revisiting somewhere I had been before (especially in The Shire and Rivendell), but getting to walk around and see more of it than I had before. At the same time, it actually felt like I was seeing it in a time before The Lord of the Rings -- buildings and artifacts seemed ever-so-slightly newer, shinier, and less aged, as if we were really seeing them 60 years before the original film trilogy.

This brings me to one of the biggest things I loved about this film. Not only is it a solid and gorgeously-realized story in itself, but it also serves as a beautiful set-up to The Lord of the Rings films -- much more so than I had expected, especially having read The Hobbit multiple times. I admit I was a little skeptical when I heard The Hobbit was being split into three films, as I wasn't sure how a book shorter than any of the three parts of The Lord of the Rings (which each got one film) could be successfully strung across three separate parts. Having seen this first film, however, I'm thoroughly excited for the next two parts, and I think I see where they're headed with their integration of Appendix story information detailing the build-up to Sauron's resurgence and the skepticism of the guardians of Middle-Earth as to its validity. This, added to the main questing plot of The Hobbit, makes for a compelling story that I believe will scale well to a trilogy format, and will give us that much more beautiful filmmaking to enjoy along the way.

There were a few things I noticed that were different than I had expected. Two story moments from the first trailer, for example, were missing -- I'm wondering if they were cut, or perhaps originally planned for this film but moved to The Desolation of Smaug once the series was changed from two to three films? I'm speaking, specifically, of the shot of Bilbo looking at the shards of Narsil in Rivendell, and Gandalf with his sword in an environment that looks a lot like the old tower visited by Radagast. I'm thinking the Narsil scene was cut (though will maybe show up in the Extended Edition), and the Gandalf shots have been pushed to the next film -- but, of course, time will tell.

Howard Shore's music is fantastic -- the "Misty Mountains" song sung by the dwarves in the first trailer is even better in full in the film, and is fleshed out as a main theme throughout the score. I was happy to hear familiar motifs from The Lord of the Rings, though some of it felt a bit recycled; there were times when it felt like the orchestration was lifted without change from the original films, while other times, new life was breathed into existing themes to great effect. One surprising choice was the Nazg├╗l theme integrated into an otherwise heroic scene with Thorin Oakenshield and the Pale Orc -- perhaps some foreshadowing of Thorin's darker tendencies?

Apparently, others are enjoying the soundtrack as well -- not only is it currently 8th on the bestselling albums chart on iTunes, but the Special Edition of the soundtrack was sold out at the eight different brick-and-mortar stores I tried to purchase it at (so much for trying to support physical stores, eh?). While I normally purchase my music on iTunes, I wanted the excellent packaging and extras The Lord of the Rings soundtracks were known for, and wanted it immediately for a 2.5-hour drive I had the next day; since my efforts were fruitless, I've since ordered it online, prompting me to question why I didn't just assume I would want to purchase it after seeing the film, and buy it in the week before the premiere. Lesson learned for next year, I suppose.

The effects are -- as one would expect but should not take for granted -- fantastic, including the excellent performance of Gollum. Jackson talked about adding several new muscles to the Gollum model, especially in the face, and he looks even better than he did in The Lord of the Rings (especially the quality of his skin and the lighting on and in it). Assuming no major storyline changes were made, it's a shame we won't be seeing more of Gollum in the next two films, but the time we spent with him in this film was wonderful -- full of personality, humor, and emotion.

The other performances were also engaging and powerful. Ian McKellan continues to flesh out his brilliant interpretation of Gandalf, and Martin Freeman makes an endearing, entertaining, and multidimensional Bilbo Baggins. Richard Armitage's Thorin makes a tormented hero, and I'm excited to see the continuing evolution of his character (Gandalf, Bilbo, and Thorin make a compelling protagonist trio, and I think this works well on screen instead of focusing solely on Bilbo). The dwarves are fun and full of personality as a whole, though understandably not fleshed out much as of the end of the film (aside from Balin, whose encouraging words and expositional storytelling helped us connect with him more than most of the others). And the primary returning cast from The Lord of the Rings (Elrond, Galadriel, Ian Holm's Bilbo) play their roles well, filling in smaller yet important parts of the story.

I can't wait for next December! What did you think of the film? Share your thoughts in the comments.

For those interested, my prerelease screening was in certified IMAX 3D, at 24 fps. I'm looking forward to seeing the film again in 48 fps 3D, as well as trying it out in 24 fps 2D.


  1. I really enjoyed it, though not as much as the other 3 LOTR's films !! I loved Gollum and those scenes in Rivendell, and the Goblin King was pretty gross ! What I didn't like was the fact they'd done the white Orc as CG,I think I would have preferred to see him done with a mask/prosthetics like the Urak-Hai, Lurtz in Fellowship of the Ring. I also thought there were a few too many scenes of our band of heroes falling, swinging, tumbling off rock giants etc... and nobody really getting a scratch, those scenes reminded me of what I hated about Jackson's King Kong, stuff such as the dinosaur stampede ! You can tell they've made a few of the Dwarfs slightly more handsome than the others as this time we have no Aragorn of Legolas to be eye candy for the ladies, a whole bunch of Gimli looking dwarf's wouldn't probably go down to well with some people. I watched it in glorious 2D as I hate 3D, and it looked for the most part great !! Looking forward to part 2 !

  2. Thanks for your comment Andrew! Sorry for the delay -- I've been battling a nasty bout of the flu, and haven't been doing much reading or writing (just a lot of sleeping!).

    I thought this film felt different than LOTR, while still familiar -- kind of like how the books feel different. In that sense, I really liked how it was different from LOTR, especially because it doesn't make sense for The Hobbit to try to match or exceed the epicness of LOTR from a story standpoint, as it is a smaller-scale story.

    I was also surprised at how much was CG vs practical makeup effects (I think many of the goblins were CG, for example), though I was pleasantly surprised at how good they all looked. Lurtz was great in LOTR, though I wonder whether the pale orc would have looked fake given his physicality (i.e. having a smoother/simpler face, vs. Lurtz's bigger face with more room to put makeup).

    The 3D worked pretty well, though I'm excited to try it in both 2D and HFR 3D, just to try it in all different formats. I wonder if the BluRay release will include all the different versions (I hope so!)?

    And good point about the handsome dwarves -- I think you're right. :-)