The Hobbit, An Unexpected Journey: Inconsistent, Indulgent and Occasionally Good

It absolutely breaks my heart that I have to come out here and write this column this week. Normally I get a perverse kind of glee telling you all about why a bad movie is a bad movie. But to write that The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey isn’t a good movie brings me no joy, despite my impending use of colourful metaphors and the word fuck.

I mean, we’ve been waiting for this for how many years, watched every teaser, counted every day till release time. And now it’s here, and rather than a triumphant return to Middle Earth, director Peter Jackson’s brought us a poorly paced, tone-deaf, ruthlessly padded and occasionally downright boring movie, and believe me, I’m just as let down about that as you are.

But first the good, just so I don’t start weeping or throwing things before the end of the review. For all the problems the movie has, and it has many, when it actually works, it works exactly the way you want it to. See, The Hobbit is a much lighter story than its follow-up, and when Jackson remembers this, the movie hits all the bases you want it too. It’s great, there’s singing, comedy, pratfalls, sight gags, the fight sequences are just strings of improbable comic set-pieces like something Buster Keaton would think up if he were flying high on absinthe and moonbeams and it’s all tons of fun. Freeman owns the role of Bilbo, nailing the whole “halfway to being a fussy grandpa” schtick, and most of the supporting cast aren’t half bad either. And if the movie had stuck with this, and kept up the light tone throughout the whole thing it would be great, but sadly that isn’t the case.

The first thing you’ll probably notice is that the movie contains a hell of a lot more computer generated effects than the last ones, owing mostly to The Hobbit having a bigger budget than all the other movies put together. Last time, Jackson had to stretch a relatively small amount of money over three films, and you really can see how when you notice how many practical effects are used like make-up, animatronics and mostly real sets. Not so this time around. Right from the start we get so much CGI thrown at us you couldn’t be blamed for thinking you’d accidentally wandered into a George Lucas movie.

Virtually every image is touched up or augmented in some way, and while I know the LOTR movies had their fair share of computer effects, a surprising amount of it was just plain old guys in costumes and rubber foreheads. And while I was always of the opinion that The Hobbit needed a more fanciful tone than LOTR, there’s more fanciful and there’s filling the screen with so many CGI animals, creatures and backgrounds it looks more Narnia that Tolkein. And I hate to sound like a cranky old man who can’t get “with it”…actually no, I love sounding like that. CGI kinda sucks. Remember all the actual models and miniatures used in LOTR? How real it looked? In the opening scene of The Hobbit, where Smaug the dragon lays siege to a CGI city of Erebor, all I could think was “Shit, Smaug’s trashing Solitude. Where’ll I sell my loot now, Whiterun??”

But that’s just the icing on the cake kiddies. While the mountains of CGI may be a problem I probably could have muscled my way past, what kills this movie deader than Steve Buscemi at the end of Fargo is the padding. The Hobbit wasn’t exactly a long book, and when it was originally announced that they’d be stretching it into three overly long movies, I wondered how. Now I know that they’re doing it: by occasionally stopping the story dead virtually every five fucking minutes and adding a ton of meaningless pointless bullshit either taken from Tolkein’s notes or other works or just making shit up themselves.

Remember that part in the book set right before Fellowship of the Ring where Frodo and Bilbo putter around Bag-end doing absolutely nothing interesting? Me either! But I’m not even joking when I say the first line of the book isn’t even spoken and for twenty goddamn minutes. Instead we get to see Frodo check the mail. No really, they bring Elijah Wood back for the thrilling scene of Frodo Baggins checking the fucking mail box. And that’s not even the worst part, there’s an extended appearance by Gandalf’s fellow wizard Radagast, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t tell you about what I like to call That Fucking Scene.

Let’s talk about That Fucking Scene. That Fucking Scene happens after Bilbo and co arrive in Rivendell and the action moves away from them in favor of a meeting between Gandalf, Saruman, Galadriel and Elrond, who literally spend 15 minutes at least sitting around a table foreshadowing the return of Sauron in LOTR. The comedy, the lightness, the anything even remotely engaging all completely stop so that the characters can do everything except make spooky noises and wave their fingers around. It’s by far the worst part of the whole damn movie and if you’re looking for a scene you can use for a bathroom break, here you go, you’re fucking welcome.

Entire scenes and sequences are added to the movie to either add characters who were never in the book to begin with or make quasi-veiled allusions to shit that isn’t even supposed to happen in this film series, and all those scenes have two things in common. Firstly, almost none of them involve the title fracking character of the movie. No joke, Bilbo is in maybe two thirds of this movie. Does that seem wrong to anyone else? Three quarters I can accept, but two thirds? No.

Second, while the stuff that’s -supposed- to be going on is largely exactly as fun and light-hearted as you want it to be, the stuff they added is either overly dramatic or, as That Fucking Scene shows, insanely dull. The movie keeps jerking back and forth between light-hearted and overly dramatic to the point of satire. One minute we’ve got the dwarves beating a mad-cap escape from the Goblin city, complete with Dame Goddamn Edna voicing the Great Goblin no less, and then next Thorin Oakenshield is having this dramatic slow motion fight with a giant CGI orc, because apparently Thorin needs a villain now because somewhere along the way he became just as important in the thing as Bilbo.

The whole thing smacks of indulgence at best and hubris at worst, almost as though the director were some kind of rabid Tolkien fan suddenly free from the restrictions of budget and sanity and allowed to fill the movie with every character he’s ever wanted to film and spending extended periods on what is essentially incredibly high budget fan-fiction. And even the stuff that IS in the book seems overblown to the point that the film is poised to explode at any minute. What was a mere offhand mention of distant storm giants in the book becomes a 15 minute, effects laden, over-blown action sequence in the movie. And God, when they get to Gollum’s scene I could literally here Jackson milking every second of film like a farmer with a lactose deficiency. On the way back, a friend summed it up perfectly: THAT’S why Jackson filmed it at 48 frames per second, so he could film more Tolkien! I get that he’s a fan, and that’s great and all, but for Chrissake Peter, show a little restraint.

And what’s even worse, when the film is on track and working properly, it’s basically everything I wanted it to be. But then the rollercoaster stops so we can get an injection of overly dramatic, out of place posing complete with choirs and dramatic lighting or even worse, a bunch of people sitting around a table talking about shit that shouldn’t even matter for four fucking movies!

I want to like this movie. GOD, I want to like it. Hell, when all three are out you could probably load them into Final Cut and cut them together into one damn good film, but right now, the lighting has escaped the bottle. That (near) perfect storm Jackson conjured up for Lord of the Rings is gone, and what we’ve got is three hours of fan-service barely recognizable as a coherent narrative.

Merry Christmas.

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