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Stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread – The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

December 14, 2012


“I feel thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.” 

That line from The Fellowship of the Ring was the first thing that I thought of when I heard that The Hobbit, already spread over two movies, was going to have another tacked on. I doubt that I was the only one who had that lament of the worn out Bilbo Baggins pop into their head. There aren’t many of us who read J.R.R. Tolkien’s great book and thought “Gee, it would be kind of neat to see this on the silver screen. In a trilogy.”

Yet here we are. The opening chapter of a new Middle Earth cycle of films has arrived, with Peter Jackson and his creative team returning to the environs that made their names and fortunes. We’ve been burned over the last decade with hallowed talents returning to their roots, whether it came in the form of the stale, underwhelming Star Wars trilogy, or Indiana Jones dabbling in yawn-worthy science fiction. And let’s be frank: prequels start with inherent disadvantages. You know where things end up. This has a lot of odds cutting against it.

Does Jackson succeed? Will trilogy lightning be twice bottle-caught?

The answer, sadly, is no. An Unexpected Journey feels more like The Phantom Menace than it does any of its Lord of the Rings cinematic forebears. It pains me to say that, because no one enjoyed going to the theater to watch Aragorn, Frodo, et al more than me, and it was a bright opening for a new millennium of movies. Nothing will ever diminish how much fun was had back in those days, but this film tries its damnedest. There are high points, but the ebbs are very, very low. Some observations:

  1. No one can forget the stirring prologue to Fellowship, as dense, mind-numbing backstory was condensed in a thrilling sequence that set the tone for the ten hours of movie that were to follow. The Last Alliance of Elves and Men was just words on the page before, but Jackson brought them vividly to life, as Sauron forged rings, lost the One, and gave our story its raison d’être. There’s a prologue here as well, as we meet the Dwarves of the Lonely Mountain and see how the dragon Smaug drove them from their glorious, treasure-packed halls. Then this bleeds over into the returning Ian Holm and Elijah Wood, reprising their Hobbit roles in a cloying LOOK THIS IS CONNECTED TO THOSE OTHER MOVIES bit. The whole thing drags. And drags. And drags. And…
  2. And then the Dwarves show up, in a dinner scene that takes forever. (I saw one reviewer note that it appears to unspool in real-time. It feels like it.) None of them apart from Thorin are more than ciphers — though to be fair, they weren’t in the book either. Thorin, though more developed, spends much of the film as a prick who isn’t all that fond of the dead weight that Bilbo represents. And there’s some heavy exposition in his case that takes the form of a slow-motion flashback, which, like the opening, drags on no matter how many beheadings and dismemberments are crammed in.
  3. Martin Freeman’s performance is the true bright shining light of this film. His Bilbo is all that you could hope for if you read and cherished the book. He’s a simple little man yet no one’s fool, who comes to realize that his contented but staid life in the Shire might no be all that it’s cracked up to be. So he signs a contract, becomes the troop’s burglar (in theory), and plunges into his grand adventure. The film’s greatest success comes when it keeps its focus on the character who’s, you know, the title of the whole thing. There’s a lesson there. (Also, it turns out working with David Brent was excellent training for a riddle-battle with Gollum.) I wish we stuck more closely to him, instead of wandering all over the place. Speaking of which…
  4. Remember the great scenes from the book that centered on Radagast the Brown? Neither did I. A character that’s only mentioned in passing in the texts of Tolkien’s work, this odd, simple-minded wizard (who appears to use bird droppings as hair gel) serves as the entry point to get the Necromancer into the film’s narrative. He represents one of the many times that they movie runs off the rails, and an attempt to incorporate broader Middle -Earth events into the rather straight-forward quest tale. Some ardent fans of the books were disappointed that Tom Bombadil was cut from the Hobbits’ journey to Rivendell in Fellowship. Well, imagine if the film had devoted an entire sub-arc to him. And made him really cringe-worthy. Jackson has grown far too indulgent since his greatest triumph. Who is this and why are we supposed to care?
  5. Ian McKellen naturally gets the most screen time of the returning cast, and his Gandalf is still the warm, resourceful and somewhat absent-minded wizard of old (or new — whatever). He was the character triumph the last time around, and he still has much of that — no pun intended — magic, even if perhaps he gets too much screen time at the expense of Bilbo. (It’s The Hobbit, not The Wizard.) The rest of the veterans — Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, Christopher Lee — have what amounts to cameos, as they all debate what’s to be done about the vague threat of the Necromancer (which we know will become much more). On a side-note, it’s good that we got these films now, because Christopher Lee is looking every one of his ninety years. His voice has lost some of its great resonance, though it’s kind of neat to see the icy evil gone, and to now get an idea of the man who Saruman once was. He’s haughty here, but still very much on the side of good. (And hell, maybe he ages in reverse, like Merlin, which would explain him looking older when he’s supposed to be younger. Yeah, that’s the ticket.)
  6. I didn’t want to see this in 3D, and I thought the screening I was at wasn’t going to be in that format. But then the “Put in your glasses!” note came up, my heart sank, and I had to slink out to the front to get the goofy spectacles that they neglected to provide when I walked in. My God, I hate 3D. It’s less offensively used here than in most films, but it’s still an utterly useless gimmick, and makes static scenes like the dinner sequence goofy pop-up books. (I have no comment on the 48fps debate. It is what it is. I’m pleased to report, though, that I didn’t get a headache or barf. So there’s that.)
  7. Jackson still has an eye for scope and sweeping panoramas. Let’s be frank: these movies have been tourism advertising for New Zealand that no pile of dragon’s gold could ever buy. Verdant glades and endless mountains are abundant. And there’s an incredible scene past the middle of the film that finds our travellers with an unbelievably dangerous front row seat as Stone Giants duke it out. It’s like watching Ali-Frazier from the kneecaps of Frazier, let’s put it that way. Some of the action is needlessly silly — fleeing from Goblins is more a Bugs Bunny cartoon than another heart-stopping Bridge of Khazad-dum Balrog escape (does anyone ever break a bone in Middle Earth?) — but there are moments where you’ll be amazed.
  8. Andy Serkis’ motion-capture Gollum performance shows just how far that craft has advanced in the intervening decade. The entire Riddles in the Dark face-off is magnificent, with poor Smeagol in his element for the first (and last) time. It’s like being in a basement with a murderous, schizophrenic child, and Freeman and Serkis deserve a lot of credit for breathing life into this iconography.
  9. This film’s runtime is less than any of the LotR entries, yet it feels longer. That was the most amazing thing about those films: they always (well, right up until the last twenty minutes of The Return of the King) moved along with such effortless grace. Plot points all fell into place like the tumblers in a lock caressed by an expert safe-cracker, and it was such a pleasure to have it all wash over you. Though all chapters in a larger story, they could stand on their own as individual films. Journey feels like you’re having a bucket of story thrown on you. There’s no flow whatsoever. GET BACK TO BILBO. (Some online wags have started tongue-in-cheek speculation that, instead of Extended Editions, this time around Jackson will put out Unextended Editions, which excise all the corpulence. That’s actually not a terrible idea.)
  10. By the end, all I could think of was “There are two more? Two?” Most everything in this film feels forced, as if the entire endeavor is one of obligation. Look into the bonus features on any of the old DVDs and Blu-rays and you see the joy that everyone had in making the first three. I doubt highly that you’ll see things like that in the next box set. Too much bread, folks. Too much bread. And going to the next installment will be more out of obligation too, which is a sad development indeed.

This isn’t a terrible film, and many people will surely walk out of the theater thoroughly entertained. If so, good. But I couldn’t help but feel that this is like going to a mediocre class reunion, where the ties that once bound are frayed at best and the pot roast is undercooked. Maybe if Guillermo del Toro had stayed on the project things would have gone better. Maybe he would have brought a fresh perspective. Or maybe Jackson has made the best film you can — or at least the best one that you can when you’re trying to stretch it out over three Christmases. No one will know on that.

If anything, An Unexpected Journey proves that you can’t go back again. Though the next two films will try.

Two and a half pairs of hairy Hobbit feet out of five.


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