19 December 2012

First Impressions: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Part I: Comparisons and Callbacks to the Lord of the Rings

The Lord of the Rings is the kind of poorly written but timeless story that has captured the attention of every other generation since its inception, whether it be the Zeppelin-loving potheads of the 70s, to the Fantasy-loving Second-Life Queers of the Present Day. What remains at the end of it all, is a beloved story of a bunch of dudes and some hobbits roaming around the words. Immortality, thy name be Tolkien.

What a strange DVD cover
James Randolph Rodrigo Tolkien originally wrote The Hobbit, or There and Back Again, to quiet up his wiener kids as they were always running around and screaming around the house when it came time for bed. He sought to craft a story so tiresome, so boring, that anyone who listened to it would instantly fall aslumber. That story would eventually become The Silmarillion, while The Hobbit turned out much better, and probably his most interesting and engaging writing.

Tolkien of course would later compose The Lord of the Rings, which is by far his most popular work. These flicks eventually then became some of the best films of the past decade, directed by Peter Jackson, famed director of such epics as Bad Taste (1987) and Meet the Feebles (1989). Nevertheless, this bloke from New Zealand (also know as Australia's Canada), went on to make a trio of excellent adaptations that are way more fun to watch than those books are to read.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012) is then in an unfamiliar relationship with the cinematic Lord of the Rings than their literary counterparts were. The Hobbit novel was very fairy tale in nature and Tolkien was able to codify his universe through the Lord of the Rings trilogy (and much of its appendices, as well as The Silmarillion, some of which he had written down at the time of The Hobbit). Either way, while the Lord of the Rings was a follow-up to The Hobbit, the film is a prequel. This means that there are going to be some very different aspects and expectations going into the film - namely that much of the world that is kind of wacky in The Hobbit has already been codified through the previous Lord of the Rings films. Peter Jackson thus has the unenviable task of crafting a story as deep as his previous work while also making it congruent with what would follow within the universe.

Luckily, he's just about thrown out the latter.

It may seem strange to take a single book that is much shorter than any of the three Lord of the Rings books and make three films of equal length to the Lord of the Rings films - but there is a sense of fun and thrill here that is totally absent from the first trilogy and much appreciated here. The Hobbit is not nearly as good of a flick as any of those earlier entries - but damn it isn't one of the funnest. Let's round out Part I of this review by setting this thing up in context against the other Trilogy.


The ten years of advances in filmmaking since The Lord of the Rings is extremely evident here. Middle-Earth benefits incredibly from high-definition and 48 fps shooting, the world is visualized and grander than ever before. Every shot is far more intricate and even the Shire is beautifully realized with depth and precision previously impossible. The environments and settings are so much more immersive in The Hobbit, it actually does nearly the unthinkable - realizing the fantasy realm as a factual location greater than The Lord of the Rings did.

So, with all this, we're stuck wondering what parts of New Zealand we haven't seen yet. There already seemed to be some re-use of some lands from the earlier trilogy (Eregion sure looks like Rohan, for one).
Still, it's good to see that the enormous production studio Pete Jackson founded in New Zealand is getting some use - it's basically only been used for the Lord of the Rings films and King Kong (2005). I'm wondering if New Zealand goes into massive waves of unemployment whenever Pete's not making some epic film.

A little Proactiv never hurt, pal
The other big change in this film is the use of CGI to make many of the Orcs and Goblins in the film. The Lord of the Rings primarily used actors in live costumes to make these creatures, with CGI used for the other, more ridiculous things like Trolls and Nazgul. The residents of Goblin-town are also quite different from the other orcs seen throughout - it is always a testament of the production crew to make these different little pockets of Orc Culture. The Goblin-town Goblins are dirtier, covered in more pustules and boils, as well as paler and squirmier. Just as Goblins should be - much more menacing, twisted, and maniacal.

To that effect, the battles are pretty different, too - more visceral and intensely lit and shot. They occupy much briefer spots in the narrative, of course, but they're highly stylized and more flush with colour. They work with the heightened vibrancy seen throughout The Hobbit's palette, an element of the High-Def, High-contrast shooting style that pops far more than the muted tones of the Lord of the Rings. My only real issue is that the Orcs seem to be fighting fine in sunlight, or at least at dusk or dawn. Then again, that was an issue in the Battle of the Pelennor Fields in The Return of the King (2003) as well. It will be interesting to see this treatment during the Battle of Five Armies that should take place in the final installment of this trilogy - a big huge battle that ought to take the majority of the film.

What's great is that many actors from the original trilogy were able to return here; quite the feat that Chris Lee and Ian McKellan are still alive! There's also an interesting moment between Gandalf and Galadriel when you realize they never encountered each other in any of the Lord of the Rings films until the last scene at the Grey Havens at the end of RotK. And Cate Blanchett, by the way, is still quite the babe. And the pyschic weirdo she always is. It's nice to remember that she's possibly one of the oldest beings in Middle-Earth, having come over from Valinor with the Noldorin during Feanor's first chase of Morgoth after he stole the Silmarils. She knows her shit.

There are two characters we need to highlight in particular because they clearly echo characters from LotR that are absent here. The dwarf Kili is by far the handsomest cast member (and best-looking dwarf), and they stuck him with a bow and arrow that never misses. Legolas anyone? Besides that, they added the Dwarf leader, Thorin, who has lost his home and has wandered the wilderness struggling to reclaim it. Aragorn, anyone? It almost seems as if Pete struggled to break from these tropes he exercised so well in the first trilogy.

The biggest difference though, comes from this Screen Rant article, that states simply the points where the basic character arcs and themes diverge between The Hobbit and LotR. Frodo and Aragorn in LotR find ways to deal with destiny thrust upon them and rise up to meet the expectations of others in the grand scheme of the World's Workings. Bilbo and Thorin in The Hobbit are finding their own destiny and carving their individual paths in a story confined to individual success and reclamation. It's a narrative difference at the heart of both stories in Pete's interpretations, and where The Hobbit takes this and spins itself differently from its predecessor remains to be seen.


There are a few moments that offer subtle callbacks to the first trilogy that were fairly amusing. This ranges from simple things like Gandalf bumping the chandalier in Bilbo's home as he does in The Fellowship of the Ring (2012) to his constant use of Moths to call down Eagles for aid. Damn those Eagles are handy. The Hobbit is also adeptly able to build on the conventions of the previous trilogy through its musical cues - the moth certainly being one of them, as is a familiar melody when the One Ring is first sighted. It's awfully handy to have these cues on hand to remember not only old echoes of plot, but old themes repeated here. There's even a new little dwarf riff based on this haunting number. The music in this join, on the whole, is spectacular.

Is it a...rocket...in your pocket?
We also get some nice chances to see some inner workings of both the Lord of the Rings and moments that were referred to in the first trilogy. First is the little scene we get to see of Elijah Wood's Frodo moments before his now iconic Tree-Reading / Gandalf Hugging Scene that helps to open FotR. What's a bit cooler is witnessing the moment between Gollum and Bilbo that invokes Gandalf's line in Moria in FotR, "Pity? It was pity that stayed Bilbo's hand." The Hobbit explores the first meeting between these two ringbearers (it's a bit rocky), the great fear and insecurity gripping Gollum in that moment when he's lost both Bilbo and the Ring, as well as Bilbo's rational and level-headed character. It's a great bit of development for everyone. It's also a nice reminder that when Bilbo puts on the ring in this film he doesn't have the Nine Ringwraiths bearing down on him immediately - it's more a cool magic trick. Such is emblematic of the greater innocence to behold in this version of Middle-Earth.

Lastly, and perhaps most significantly, this flick has helped to make the Lord of the Rings relevant again. It really is the trilogy for this generation, denser and headier than Star Wars for sure, but nevertheless beloved. So, how may we hold this new Hobbit Trilogy against the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy? If An Unexpected Journey is any indication, it does just enough to differentiate itself from the previous films while maintaining much of what made them beloved in the first place.

It's ultimately difficult to judge which is a better film - An Unexpected Journey or The Fellowship of the Ring. FotR is certainly a lot more serious, but that doesn't make it a better film. FotR also has many more characters and arcs to deal with, the most interesting of which is probably Boromir's, but AUJ (oh, what an awful acronym) doesn't even pretend to treat its insane subject matter or ridiculous number of dwarves seriously, which works within its own context. It's also difficult to sort out biases of nostalgia or the introduction to the wonderful world of Jeffrey Raoul Rango Tolkien that FotR gave us. The Hobbit is certainly jazzier, whether or not integrating that jazzy mix into the otherwise contingent world of Middle-Earth will make it a lasting film is yet to be seen. One cool thing is, though, that the final shot in both is virtually identical - as the remaining party members look on to their final goal across the many challenges ahead.

Check back as we dive deeper into The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey itself with Part II!

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