Guest Post: HOBBIT #1: An Unexpected Journey , Review – John Stringer.

[There are NO spoilers here: we all know the story of ].

I took Domestic Goddess to see this last night.  We watched the 48 frames per sec 3D version (there are three options) and this is the way to go, although 3D gives some people a headache. I loved it, there is no going back, and 3D/48 is the future (like talkies and colour TV).  The future is full immersion with the audience ‘inside’ the movie using 360 cameras (now achievable) and being able to shift yourself about as one of the characters with different perspectives (10 years time?).  I have already seen this done in live theatre with wrap around screens, projection and live performance.

Far o’er the Misty Mountains cold

To dungeons deep and caverns old

We must away ere break of day

To seek the pale enchanted gold.

I WAS STUNNED.  This is the best cinematic experience I have ever had.  Peter Jackson is brilliant.  I’ve had occasional doubts about him (Lovely Bones) but this proves (or reproves) he is a true genius and can do anything with film. I have no hesitation calling him the greatest filmmaker and story-teller alive.  Guillermo del Toro (Hell Boy, Pan’s Labyrinth) also a great director, was originally hired to direct, but moved on after the union delays. I am so glad Jackson was hands-on here to complete the tale in his characteristic style. Hobbit #1 is another stunning classic in the canon of film and will forever be the crossover movie into 48 frames.  Andy Serkis (Gollum) managed the second film unit, so establishes himself as a close Jackson colleague, having starred in many Jackson productions.

Sequel Syndrome Challenges

Telling The Hobbit on the tail of LoTRings is a daunting task.  Most sequels flop or arrive as re-hashed re-grooves.  But The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a completely new experience, with a different but complementary ‘feel’ to LotRings.  It is doubly awkward, because it comes before LotRings, so Jackson is working backwards with characters and plot. He fleshes out the Shire and Rivendell more within their contexts.  Gandalf is more wizened here and quirky (less the austere all-powerful wizard) and a maia with much more personality and obvious weaknesses. There are five mysterious maiar in Middle-Earth: Gandalf the Grey, Radagast the Brown, Saurman the White and two unnamed others.

Pace

The movie starts slowly as narrative, but this is fine, as we spend 20 minutes establishing rich characters (Bilbo and the dwarves).  Jackson fleshes out the Hobbit dwarves more deeply as a people (tinkers, tailors, toy makers, their lust for gold, their vulgarity and stubbornness) in contrast to the lithe gracefulness of the elves. Hob1 is perfectly paced, with action, back story, flashback, and appropriately placed drama roller coasters. One is never bored.

Characters

Martin Freeman (Bilbo) channels Ian Holm (Bilbo in LoTR) to create a seamless transition between the two actors. Ian Holm is in this too, as the older Bilbo in the first 20 minutes, along with Elijah Wood as Frodo to establish the latter’s connection to the earlier story, when in the book he is not present. Freeman is perhaps best know to us from The Office (UK). I was dubious about his casting at first, but he is fantastic. Hugo Weaving returns as Elrond and Cate Blanchett as the magnificent Lady Galadriel with gorgeous dresses.

Thorin II Oakenshield, son of Thráin, son of Thrór, King Under the Mountain has a nemesis. Azog is a pale, scarred orc captain who rides a warg, visceral and threatening, like some zombie SS Einsatzgruppen at work in Poland. His son Bolg features later in the Hobbit story.

Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield (so-named after fighting Azog with a real log of oak) is perhaps a little pretty for me here, with his Jesus eyes; he also sounds very like Boromir which I found distracting.  I would have cast him more bulbous-nosed, stumpy and war-scarred (not Fabio meets Conan).  Bombur looks like a cartoon Obelix, but otherwise the dwarves are brilliant, with Mark Hadlow of Christchurch the dwarf with plaited white hair.  Jackson captures the essence of Tolkien’s dwarves, with their Celtic livery, accents and roguish lustiness. I love their head-butting greeting. They are best characterized as a dwarfish army in a flash back to a great battle with the orcs, where we witness classic Tolkien epic brought to visual extravaganza.  The allusion of the dwarves to the Jewish Diaspora is obvious (which I have written on elsewhere) as well as the adoption of Jewish mythical “golem.”

Barry Humphreys (Dame Eda) unrecognizable as the Goblin King is brilliant with his hideous neck goiter.  His voice and dialogue is gripping, and ghastly, evoking chilling isolated terror of being caught down there in his kingdom with nowhere to go, in the hands of some psychopathic serial killer who will kill you long and slow.  Ugh.  (“Be good children, or the goblins will get you!”). His demise by Gandalf is apt. The variety and design of the goblins is great. I loved the messenger goblin with deformed feet on a flying fox.  The goblins (small orcs) with their long ears are well characterised (if moving a little too quickly for my eyes).  I would have preferred more medieval hoods and armor much like they were portrayed in Labyrinth (David Bowie) but this is Jackson’s style.

Gollum is a real star in this, and obviously should be.  His character and schizophrenia are crafted more and he is portrayed a little blacker than in LotRings and slightly more dangerous, perhaps with the added confidence of having his Ring. The riddle scene with Bilbo is critical and Jackson carries this off.  There is a gut-wrenching scene where Gollum has lost Precious (after 500 years) and is arched, gasping desperately at the water’s edge, lamenting the loss of his everything and all.

I don’t know what happened to Christopher Lee’s Saruman in this movie, he is pallid and ordinary, like a school headmaster lecturing a student on his way to a fancy dress party.

Special Effects CGI

The special effects are amazing, but 48 frames a second is unforgiving and a few fakes are evident.

  1. The two heavy axes on the bald dwarf’s back appear obviously plastic at times, they sway and move as if light.
  2. Hobbit feet seem prosthetic and rigidly clumsy at moments.

However, the covering of horses in wool and packing them out to make them seem like little ponies as the company ride out of the Shire is brilliantly convincing.  I am not a huge fan of CGI.  Most CGI creations move too quickly, to mask the limitations of the technology; I would have liked the orcs and wargs to slow down a bit so I can take them in. The underground dwarf kingdoms contrasted with the ramshackle maggot labyrinths of the goblins, also underground, are among the most startling special effects and cinematography of the film (and rival LotRings) are gob dropping in their sweep and creativity.

Jackson does well to restrain Smaug in Hobbit #1; we get only tantalizing glimpses, and never a full view, but enough to evoke the terror and power of this Fire Drake from the North, of which more later.The three stone trolls are brilliant and just how Tolkien wrote them.  I enjoyed this episode for its humor and fleshing out trolls more as viable creatures with personality rather than as mindless oxen of LoTRings.

Gawihir Windlord and his wonderful giant eagles are again the cavalry hooray factor, and they play across the other star in this show, New Zealand, with gorgeous sweeping vistas and landscapes (no need for CGI here).  Jackson uses visual hyperbole: precipices drop not hundreds of feet but thousands, toppling trees hang inches from chasms, destinations lay on horizons swathed in mist, etc.

Drama

There are moments of real dramatic pathos here, although the film lacks a romantic element (like Arwen and Aragorn) hinted at only slightly by collegial affection between Galadriel and Gandalf.  The two moments that stand out for me, are:

1) BIlbo invisible with the ring on about to stab Gollum through the throat, who cannot see, but senses the hobbit.  They stare at each other full of loss, hatred, desperation, fear, loathing, compassion all-in-one. This evokes the central line of the movie, spoken by Gandalf at the beginning, “true courage is to know when not to take a life” obviously setting up Gollum’s critical role in the whole long epic.  Frodo confronts the same crossroads. Bilbo’s insight and compassion are moving, a lesson to us all.

2) The second scene is similar, as Thorin and Azog eye each other up in the dramatic forest burning scene.  Thorin heir of Durin marches magnificently towards Azog through fire, like the Terminator, to avenge his fathers, a gripping moment of goody vs baddy that ends not quite as you expect.

Weak scenes

A few implausible scenes that bordered on the annoying rollicking of Tintin:

1) Toppling down in to the goblin tunnel that no one would have survived.  Not one compound fracture; are dwarves made of concrete?

2) The collapsing platform inside the goblin kingdom with everyone onboard, after mass slaying of goblins, is too Indiana Jones. We need plausibility to create real terror throughout the epic.  If they survive anything, it becomes ho hum. Good fantasy is ‘real.’

3) The Stone Giants scene was a bit slo. mo. Transformers for me, and the characters hanging on to them as Ragnarock is played out, might have been best edited out of the movie.  Although, how can you omit the Stone Giants smashing mountains?

Myopic

Somewhat contradictory, I still enjoyed the Disney-esque rabbit Santa sleigh of Radagast the Brown.  He is a wonderful character, and adds breadth to Gandalf’s valar order.  Radagast played by Sylvester McCoy (the 7th Dr Who) is reminiscent of Catweazel played by Robin Davies. I especially enjoyed the assault on his quaint dilapidated forest cottage by large shadowy spiders, a hint of things to come. He adds real humor while contrasting completely the sinister yet mysterious Necromancer in the ruined tower (the Witch King of Angmar returned) that preoccupies Galadriel so much.

There is no Jackson cameo here, that I could see.  Also, Radagast is using Gandalf’s staff from the LotRings movies.  I don’t know if this is significant to later Hobbit films, or whether it was an unnoticed prop share between the actors (unlikely).  So watch for that in Hob#2.

Music and Title Lettering

Light reflecting across uneven (ie handmade) brassy title  lettering in Tolkien script, tick. Theme sung by Neil Finn, excellent.  I liked how Jackson sub-titled his movie “An Unexpected Journey” about 20 minutes in, the dual titles and how they fitted with LotR three sub-titles was always going to be problematic.  Jackson’s ability to chop visual story-telling into related and coherent chapters is one of his strengths.

Length and How to End Hob#1?

I wondered how Jackson could spin this out across three movies, but he achieves this admirably.  Hob#1 is a coherent self-contained movie in its own right, but obviously part of a whole.  It has its own drama (fights, the riddle episode, the three stone trolls, the burning forest, the goblin kingdom) and we await so much more: Beorn, the Battle of Five Armies, Smaug, Dale, the Lonely Mountain. This is such a rich and deep tale that it can easy stretch three movies (good on New Line Cinema for agreeing to that).

But how to end Hob#1?  I wondered as we drew to a close how Jackson might do this.  I won’t spoil this for you, but let’s just say it is a genius segue to LotRings but using the context of the Hobbit with an eye for detail.  Nuff said.

This was so good I would go back the next day and watch it all again.  Enthusiastic 10/10. I recommend 3D 48 frames version (take your glasses to save $1).

Looking forward to Hobbit #2 next Christmas.

BASIC STORY for the Uninitiated: Hobbit #1

  • Dwarves live in magnificent opulent kingdoms of power and wealth underground toiling and mining.
  • They are corrupted by lust for gold and the jewel Arkenstone (the heart of a mountain).
  • A fire drake name of Smaug attacks the realm of the Dwarves like a flaming Exocet missile entering a terrorist bunker.
  • Dwarves flee and are dispossessed (sack of Jerusalem 70AD by the Romans).
  • Smaug snuggles into a mountain of gold and gems plunder (Scrooge McDuck’s swimming pool of money).
  • Not heard of for 60 years.
  • Durin’s-heir Thorin Oakenshield  gathers willing dwarves to seek to retake their homeland.
  • Birds have started returning to the Lonely mountain, a prophetic sign the dragon will be dispossessed.
  • No one will help.  Enmity between dwarves and elves for past grievances.
  • Gandalf gathers 13 dwarves and 1 hobbit (Bilbo).
  • Adventures on the way towards the Lonely Mountain and Smaug’s stolen lair with monsters and battles.
  • While lost in the heart of the mountain and the goblin kingdom, Bilbo meets an unusual creature called Gollum in a fetid lake.

He finds a magical invisible-making ring, the possession of Gollum for 500 years.

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