An Unexpected Journey: my response

Note: The following is an exact copy of a post I made on after seeing The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey for the first time on opening day.  It followed an initial post that simply stated “It’s not very good.”

I wouldn’t be surprised if I get some shit for my flippant one sentence review, so I’ll do my best to give a mostly serious account of my opinion about the film and the things I thought did and didn’t work after my first viewing. Obviously this film is only one-third of a story so there’s a limit to how many conclusions one can draw, though I don’t this excuses a lot of problems. I’ll come back to this point in a bit.

Anyway, the film is very nearly three hours long. However, it doesn’t feel it. It draaaaaaaags its feet for the first 1-1.5 hours but picks up the pace considerably around the halfway point. At the end it didn’t feel as long as The Dark Knight Rises, a ponderous movie at times, despite actually being slightly longer. That’s a positive, but the movie felt like a slog in other ways. Let me start at the beginning…. That means SPOILERS, obviously. In fact, if you care about spoilers, you might just want to come back to this post later.

The film opens with not one but TWO prologues. The first begins with Bilbo writing in the Red Book and transitions to a rather lengthy account of the founding (and subsequent destruction) of Erebor, as well as the history of Durin’s line. I didn’t have a stopwatch but this felt about as long as the prologue from FOTR-EE. Once Bilbo finishes the Dwarvish history lesson the film appears perfectly poised to jump into the natural starting point of the story proper, much like FOTR.

Instead, we return to Bilbo in the LOTR-timeline where he rambles on about what he’s up to and engages in some meaningless chit-chat with Frodo. He name-drops the Sackville-Bagginses a few times, has Frodo put up the “No Admittance Except on Party Business” sign in a particularly fanservicey moment, and makes a number of references to the first 20 minutes of Fellowship. This is all well and good except that this is not Fellowship, it’s The Hobbit. As it is, we’re about 15-20 minutes into the film before we actually meet Bilbo on his doorstep smoking his pipe and saying “Good morning” to Gandalf.

(This delay wouldn’t have annoyed me half as much if Old!Bilbo and Frodo had made even a single appearance in the film after this point, but they didn’t. I’m sure they’ll show up again in the final film and perhaps at the start of TDOS as well, but since Jackson has split this up into three films he needs to make each part stand on its own. For at least the next year, until the second film comes out, The Hobbit appears to have seized the title of “Most Pointless Framing Device” from James Cameron’s Titanic.)

Bilbo and Gandalf’s conversation is quite similar to how it is in the book and uses a lot of direct dialogue, though since I just re-read the first chapter yesterday the changes they did make sounded especially jarring next to the perfectly transcribed lines. I doubt this was an issue for most viewers, though. The story moves quickly to the Unexpected Party as the dwarves show up and are introduced. After they arrive the Dwarves spend most of their time interacting with each other while Bilbo putters around confusedly, which is good for developing a sense of the Dwarves as a group. Unfortunately, only Thorin, Balin, and Bofur (and to a lesser extent Fili and Kili) become anything resembling major characters by the end of the movie.

The scenes in Bag End go on for a very long time. This is probably the part of the movie that dragged the most, and I got fairly antsy waiting for the story to actually begin. Once it did (in a nice scene with Bilbo waking up the morning after the party and then deciding once and for all to go with the Dwarves — and yes he does forget his handkerchief!) the plot picks up. Then it comes to a screeching halt as the film cuts away from the main characters two or three times in half an hour for more 5-10 minute flashbacks. The first flashback is an account of the War of the Dwarves and Orcs, which is barely recognizable from its book counterpart and gives us the first glimpse of what is apparently PJ’s new favorite technical trick: slow motion fight scenes. God, does he love showing Thorin in slow-mo, with his gloriously bloodied face and matted hair. If you are not usually a fan of slow-mo (like me), be prepared to get very tired with this.

After this, the narrative starts to pick back up, but it does so very unevenly. We see the Company riding through the Shire, but in what seems like less than a day of travelling they are suddenly in the Lone Lands. Then they’re in the Ettenmoors. (In case you are wondering, no, neither the Barrow-downs nor Bree make any appearance in this film.) There were basically no transitions here and the editing does a bad job of conveying a sense of movement. They just suddenly jump from one part of Eriador to another, interrupted by two lengthy cuts showing Radagast’s bird-shit-covered misadventures in Mirkwood as he discovers that the Necromancer has returned to the abandoned fortress of Dol Guldur.

I’m sort of rambling but this seems as good a place as any to discuss perhaps the biggest problem in this film: villains. Smaug makes no appearance except for the edges of his wings and tail in the prologue and his eye in the very last scene. One might have expected the Necromancer to be the primary villain of this film instead, but his only appearance is as a silhouette who spooks Radagast. To be honest, the Necromancer actually has even less of a presence in the first film then he did in the book, which is the exact opposite of what I was expecting. See, in the book, everyone is clear that violence and monsters have been spreading throughout Middle-earth and that most of it is due to the Necromancer. Gandalf states that the Necromancer is a foe far beyond the dwarves’ strength — much worse than Smaug — in the first chapter of the book. Subsequently, the dwarves go to great lengths to avoid going anywhere near Dol Guldur.

In the films, the status quo at the beginning of the story is that Middle-earth is enjoying a “watchful peace”. This line is spoken by Elrond in the film, and is a term straight from the LOTR Appendices, where it applied to the period from Third Age 2063-2460. People who are familiar with the timeline may notice that this period ended 500 years before The Hobbit, and that numerous conflicts had occurred since then, including Smaug’s sacking of Erebor and the War of the Dwarves and Orcs. Despite both of these conflicts being shown in the film via flashbacks, everyone (especially the White Council) treats Middle-earth as a peaceful land and the forces of evil as a mere distant memory. The idea of orcs attacking travelers is apparently unthinkable, and the eventual attack (glimpsed in one of the clips released online) shocks everyone. This is exactly the opposite of the book situation and doesn’t really make much sense even in the context of the film itself.

There are obviously antagonists carried over from the book, but in the first six chapters (the extent of what the first film covers) the only principle antagonists are the three trolls and the Great Goblin, and both of those are dispatched in relatively short order. With Smaug still too far away at this point in the story and the Necromancer bafflingly reduced in relevance, the film introduces a new antagonist: Azog. They do imply that Azog was resurrected by the Necromancer, giving some relevance to the guy, but it is Azog who calls all the shots for the bad guys in the film and apparently commands the loyalty of the Great Goblin. Unfortunately, Azog — in both his design and in the notion of his resurrection — is one of the worst PJ additions to Middle-earth in any of his films thus far.

We first see Azog in one of the Dwarvish history flashbacks, where he is referred to either as “Azog the Defiler” or “the pale orc”. In the film he kills Thror at the Battle of Azanulbizar at the end of the War of the Dwarves and Orcs, rather than Thror’s death being the cause for war in the first place. Also, instead of Dain (who does not appear in this film) killing Azog in the battle, Thorin just chops off his arm. Azog is carried back into Moria by his soldiers, many of whom apparently survive, but Thorin just assumes that he died of his wounds because … well, just because. It’s never explained. For the rest of the film, Azog rides around on his white warg, roars in fury many times, and tries to catch Thorin so he can get revenge for his arm being cut off.

Aside from this being a pointless addition since Tolkien provided us with contemporary dwarf antagonists in the book, I strongly disliked the approach taken with Azog. He is a truly massive bald albino orc, but really he resembles the Engineers from Prometheus more than anything else. As I mentioned before he roars with rage a lot and he also disembowels his subordinates for no reason, but there is no hint of intelligence or sophistication about him. Azog in the books was cruel and sadistic, but he was also presented as a very capable leader and organizer. When he killed Thror, he did so in a way specifically geared to humiliate the former king as much as possible and strike a blow against dwarvish culture in general. In the film he just seemed really pleased about having ripped someone’s head off because that’s just how orcs roll. Also, he speaks entirely in subtitled orcish(?), rather than using the Common Tongue when addressing his enemies.

I hope this doesn’t come across as nit-picking because the decision to use Azog and the way in which he was used was probably my biggest problem with the film. Eh, maybe the pacing and editing. But Azog was at least number two.

Back to the narrative of the film. After Radagast shows up and has his second expository flashback the narrative does get a bit more focused and starts to move forward with more steam. Unfortunately, the first place it moves to is an utterly absurd chase scene between Radagast on his bunny sled and a bunch of warg-riders. Apparently Radagast has been slipping something in the bunny’s water because he is completely confident that the bunnies can outrun wargs that are at least five times their size, and he is easily proven right. Then the wargs are abruptly destroyed by a force of Elvish cavalry that come from nowhere while the Company hides in a convenient cave underneath some random rock. There’s a tunnel in the cave that they decide to follow because why the hell not, and suddenly it deposits them right in front of Rivendell. Apparently Gandalf planned this all since Thorin didn’t want to go to Rivendell, but to me it felt like a stupid way to get the characters there without having them actually do anything. Seriously, the the defeat of the warg-riders was entirely on Radagast and the elvish cavalry.

Once they reach Rivendell, we are introduced to Lindir, who is Figwit with a real name but no purpose other than errand boy, and Elrond, who is almost a completely different character from LOTR. In LOTR Elrond was an older elf, a leader and advisor with vast wisdom from his experiences when he was younger but who is now a ruler, not a warrior in the field. In The Hobbit he personally commands the Elvish cavalry, which feels like a role suited for the Sons of Elrond, but I guess they didn’t want to introduce too many characters. Also, while Elrond is quite bitter towards men and dwarves in LOTR, he has basically no problem with 13 dwarves stumbling into his city and is quite courteous. This left the dwarves looking like a bunch of dickheads for not trusting Elrond and left me scratching my head wondering what could possibly happen to make Elrond so bitter 60 years down the road when the story of The Hobbit is supposed to be one of various races coming together in the end. Elrond is pretty damn progressive about interracial relations right from the start.

The dwarves are still convinced that the Elves will try to stop them from following their quest, but all we actually see of them in Rivendell is a bunch of vegetarian elf jokes and giving the map to Elrond so he can read the moon letters. Bilbo is almost completely in the background during these scenes. Instead, Gandalf takes center stage as the meeting of the White Council becomes the centerpiece of this sequence. The Council, consisting of Elrond, Gandalf, Saruman, and Galadriel are all suspicious of the dwarves’ quest for reasons that I don’t think were adequately explained. The three other members remonstrate Gandalf for thinking that evil has returned to Middle-earth (see the discussion of the watchful peace and antagonists above) but they also don’t trust the dwarves’ quest because … uh … because. However, the dwarves sneak out of Rivendell without Gandalf while the meeting is in session and Gandalf and Galadriel talk privately via telepathy while Saruman is elaborating on his reasons for opposing the dwarves quest, hence my lack of clarity about his motivation. Seems like something the audience could use to know.

It really doesn’t matter though because the White Council does not appear again, nor are they even mentioned as far as I can remember. I’m sure they will play an important role in the next two movies but this is one of the problems with PJ’s method of adaptation for The Hobbit. He set up a ton of shit but there is basically no payoff. It’s not that this is the inevitable result of adapting only the first third of a story, because Fellowship of the Ring had a ton of payoff, pathos, and (sub)plot resolution while still leading seemlessly into The Two Towers. That’s because PJ and Co. actually put the work into making each of the LOTR films capable of standing on its own while also forming a whole that is more than the sum of its parts. Whether they tried and failed or they just didn’t try at all, An Unexpected Journey does not stand on its own. It’s a first Act, nothing more.

A lot of reviews I’ve read say that the film really picks up in the final hour (roughly corresponding to the post-Rivendell scenes as the Dwarves traverse the Misty Mountains) but I really didn’t feel it. There’s some much-needed character drama as Thorin continues to doubt Bilbo’s presence in the Company, but as we pass the two hour mark and there has been absolutely no progress made on this front it starts to become tiring. Bilbo does have a really fantastic moment with Bofur though, which also elevates him to the top tier of dwarvish characterization in this film (though that second part isn’t saying much).

Goblin-Town in the film is very impressive visually, though I suspect that it’s almost entirely digital. The dwarves fall into it — literally, as the floor of the cave is revealed to be a series of trapdoors — and are rushed along in a completely dialogue-free scene to meet the Great Goblin. There the GG starts hopping around and spouting witty lines. I think someone needed to tell Barry Humphries that he wasn’t doing a one man comedy show because the character felt really out of place. The main reason for this though was that the GG is basically the only goblin in the Misty Mountains with any lines of dialogue. There is no set up, no explanation of anything. Just the dwarves are marched along, the GG gives a wacky monologue, and then there’s a bunch of action scenes as the dwarves escape. This is the big action set piece of the film but it just feels like the Mines of Moria on crack, with none of the tension or atmosphere of the earlier setting.

There has been a lot of praise for the Riddles in the Dark scene and this post is taking longer to write than I thought so I’m going to try to be brief, but it really is a great scene. Andy Serkis is still great as Gollum and he is rendered in a fantastically creepy way. He’s way more scary than he ever was in LOTR, actually. The riddle game is well done but it’s also played for comedy, which will probably either work great or fall completely flat depending on your perspective. They also play up the split-personalities as much as they ever did in LOTR, which was a departure from the original book, but one that I thought worked pretty well. There were a few facial close-ups of Gollum that seemed designed purely to show off their facial performance capture technology but the tech really is magnificent so I can’t complain.

After Bilbo escapes from the caves he has probably the best character scene in the movie, where he gives an extended version of the “you don’t have a home” speech from one of the TV spots. I loved those lines as soon as I heard them in the clip and I love them even more in the film. It’s a really great scene. Unfortunately it’s quickly followed up by the movie’s rendition of “Fifteen Birds in Five Fir Trees”, which is a big action showdown between Azog’s wargs (now mostly riderless, conspicuously enough) and the dwarves. There’s plenty of dramatic dangling over the cliff, not for the first time in the film, and Thorin has a slow-mo fight scene, also not for the first time. He actually gets his ass handed to him, which surprised me, but not as much as what happened next.

As Thorin lies stricken on the ground and Azog orders his subordinate to decapitate Thorin, Bilbo rushes forward and body-slams the much larger orc to the ground where he brutally stabs it to death with Sting. Yeah, read that again. This leads Thorin to realize that Bilbo does have worth and they embrace, which I have three problems with. First, it turns Bilbo’s big redeeming moment into a pure action scene. He doesn’t sneakily body-slam the orc into the ground, and he doesn’t use a clever tactic to stab it until its heart stops beating. Second, this scene preempts Bilbo’s big moments in Mirkwood against the spiders and when he frees the dwarves from the Elven-king’s dungeons. Presumably Jackson did this so that Bilbo would have an arc in the first film, but I can’t help but feel that it would have been better served by letting the first film go until the escape from Mirkwood and let Bilbo’s growth and acceptance by the dwarves grow as it did in the book. Relatedly, my third complaint is that Thorin’s change in heart regarding Bilbo is both immediate and complete (he even says “I’ve never been so wrong in my life”). Contrast this to the much more natural — and narratively appropriate — gradual process of acceptance that Bilbo and the dwarves go through in the book.

This post is way too fucking long already so I’m going to try to wrap it up. I know there are some things I didn’t touch on at all (sorry, Tom/Bert/William fans) but I’ll come back to that in a later post, perhaps. Anyway, I didn’t hate the movie, despite the impression this post might give. I just thought that it had a lot of problems. Some of them I expected given the three-film split but there were others that I had not yet resigned myself to the inevitability of. As a result, I have to say that I was disappointed by the film, even with my lowered expectations going in.

THAT SAID! I have hope for the second installment of the trilogy. Now that a lot of the set up is done the film will hopefully get off to a quicker start. Also, the main characters have largely found their feet so that might allow for more fleshing out of the supporting cast and/or the rest of the thirteen dwarves. On the other hand, the problem with stretching only a few chapters of the book into a three hour film remain, and we already know to expect more PJ additions (helloooooo, Tauriel!). Also, Azog is probably still out there, the fucker. If we get to see Smaug or the Necromancer for real though I’ll cut PJ some slack.

That reminds me of one other point. We see the skin on Smaug’s snout and around his eye pretty closely in the last shot of the film and it’s clearly NOT golden. As far as I can tell Smaug’s scales are grey with some significant reddish patches. No word yet on how his belly full of gems will took since our view of him so far has been obscured. He was sleeping under the gold in Erebor so it might be encrusted on more than just his belly.

Speaking of Erebor, I do have one final point (I promise this really is the last one!). The designs of Erebor and Dale are really quite cool and I didn’t even mind the Mediterranean architecture. However, Erebor and especially the Arkenstone in the prologue were probably the worst CGI in the entire film. It wasn’t Clash of the Titans level shit, but it was closer to that than anything comparable in LOTR. Sadly it was not the only instance of sub-par CGI in the film. The Eagles and several of the full-CGI goblins looked pretty bad too. This doesn’t ruin the film or anything but it’s kind of surprising since LOTR almost always set the special effects bar as high as possible.

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