21 December 2012

First Impressions: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey Part II - Characters, Plot, and More Crap

Alright folks, we're back at it with more discussion of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012). Yesterday, we put the flick in context with the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, but today we're letting that sucker stand all on its own. There will certainly be SPOILERS to follow, but then again, the book is like eighty years old and you've read it, so who cares.

The Big Picture

I also read The Hobbit book after reading all of the Lord of the Rings books, so I suppose this order of films works fairly naturally for me. We should, however, state again right off the bat that it is ridiculous that this one little book is getting three distinct films made from it. From what we saw in The Hobbit, it seems like most of this will be elements from Tolkien's Unfinished Tales, and other work like the Appendices to The Return of the King book. And you know there's nothing more thrilling than making film versions of appendices. The Hobbit seems to work in this material well, though, and doesn't really feel slow once it gets on its feet a little bit. Pete Jackson tends to overemphasize the epicness and importance of the stories in his films, and there's certainly quite a bit of reverence (undue or not) to get this sucker going.

How is his hair connected anyway
In general, though, this is a really fun film. Take trolls, for instance. In the Lord of the Rings, Trolls were mean, mindless, and dangerous. In The Hobbit, they're silly, doofy, and dangerous. Now I'm comparing trilogies again, but this film turns things just enough to lighten up the atmosphere and give a really wacky ride. Take the Rock God fight in the mountains - why is that in existence? It serves no purpose really except to heighten the inherent craziness of Middle-Earth and demonstrate that anything can happen at anytime, especially if it serves the plot.

Even though there are way more songs and slapstick humour (the kind of stuff Pete definitely couldn't get away with on his first go-around - but with the popularity of this shit in the Extended Editions as well as his enormous clout as an epic director that now rivals Spielberg, Jackson can do just about anything he wants), there is a bit of sinister undertones. There is a constant foreshadowing of bad shit to come - the spiders that attack Radagast's Hedgehogs, the shadowy evil at Dol Guldur, and the final eye shot of Smaug all point to a ton of calamity on its way for our poor dwarves.

Bilbo and the Seven Dwarves

There's actually a dozen dwarves, but that's besides the pun. The dwarves are treated virtually identical to how they are in the book, which is a good thing. That is, they are quickly mentioned by name and then completely undeveloped. I'm not sure if Dori even had a line. Or maybe that was Ori. But basically, we get to know Dwalin, Balin, Fili, Kili, Bofur, Thorin, and then we all just recognize Bombur as the fat one and the rest are interchangeable for comedic effect. I repeat, this is EXACTLY as the book treats them, in fact, the film develops the characters of everyone besides Thorin much better, and gives them all little things to do. Again, just those five, though.

That brings us to the slapstick of Bombur - he's really just a movie-long fat joke, which is kind of immature for a 2012 film. It's as if Norbit (2007) seeped its way into The Hobbit, which provides a really jarring experience. In general, though, the dwarf race is never really developed in the Lord of the Rings, which focuses much more on Men and Elves, who, frankly, are much less interesting. The dwarves are a much better way to connect to an audience than the lofty, erudite elves, and again, help with that fun experience. The few elves that do appear here only serve to overemphasize the difference between their stuffiness and the dwarves' revelry and crudity.

This is apparently the best the Valinor can muster against Sauron
So let's talk wizards for a second - Gandalf forgetting the names of the Blue Wizards is spot-on (Alatar and Pallando, for starters - and by the way, their journeys seem fairly awesome yet mysterious and will never be developed at this point), but the real star of this entire film is Radagast the Brown. About a third or so into An Unexpected Journey, this just becomes the Radagast Show, as all his oddity is on full display, including his chats with plants and small fuzzy animals and his legendary Bunny Sled. Yes, the Rabbits of Rhosgobel are a ridiculous and incredible sight in this film and really breaks the line of Lord of the Rings tonal continuity. The wacky dude, with half his face covered in bird shit, is also nearly identical to his literary depiction, though, so kudos to Pete Jackson on that one. We've also got Saruman back again, who is still a total dick.

As far as hobbits in the film go, we get to see Elijah again on a break from Wilfred. Between that and the Beastie Boys, he's had a fairly decent little run during his post-epic years as of late. In fact, unlike Star Wars, most of the cast has done pretty awesomely, avoiding typecasting and stagnation. Martin Freeman is also a great Bilbo, considering we didn't see a whole lot of Ian Holm in the original trilogy. He's really given the character some life, a crystal clear arc (if not an inexplicable way of getting there), and is again a testament to the bravery and underrated skill and character of hobbits as on the whole. Or hole, oh ho ho.

Keep Eagles on Speed Dial

There really isn't that much of a plot to this movie, it's more like just a bunch of stuff that keeps happening. It hits its beats from scene to scene and tells a story for sure, but it's more like a series of events and distractions rather than a continuously focused narrative. The basic premise is that the dwarves are trying to get back to Erebor and that that journey is very difficult, so they keep getting sidetracked. That's really it. It's basically a huge fantasy road trip movie, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, as it detracts from the humanistic quality of the film but certainly not its value or potential to entertain.

But really, like the Lord of the Rings, or perhaps even more so, so much of the film is just walking. It's also important to note how much more distance Aragorn and the hobbits covered on foot than Bilbo and the dwarves did on pony (I actually don't have an online link, but a physical link to this source in The Atlas of Middle-Earth by Karen Wynn Fonstad - pick one up here). It's a testament to the greater casualness and ridiculousness of this story.

I, too, often find myself yearning
to sleep on big piles of gold.
The one thing that does really stick out is the sheer number of really bad main villains both in this tale and to come in later installments. The only one they really dealt with was the King of Goblin-town, who is tough to remember has nothing to do with Azog or the other Orcs, even though their appearances are close to each other. One of the reasons this series is likely to take so long is probably due to the fact that sometime over the next three films the party will have to deal with Azog the Pale Orc, Smaug the Dragon, and the Necromancer of Dol Guldur, the latter of which has not thoroughly been developed at all yet. My guess is that Azog will replace Bolg as the Goblin Commander in the Battle of Five Armies, which should take the majority of the third film, or perhaps they'll save that for Dol Guldur. There's no telling.

We've also got Gollum, who doesn't really appear later in the book, but with the greater connections being fleshed out (which again, was covered in literature through appendices), we may see more of his journey, his encounters with Strider and Gandalf, and his imprisonment and release from Mordor. That's another villain to deal with. One great part of The Hobbit, though, was the wonderful intactness of his riddle scene with Bilbo, that is completely uninterrupted. It's another diversion, though, that seems jarring without the context of the extremely significant part Gollum and of course the Ring plays later in the franchise.

There are many other moments that are greatly lifted from the book. One after the escape form Goblin-town is Thorin and Gandalf's "Out of the frying pan" "and into the fire!" exchange, which is lifted from the title of Chapter 6 of the book. Speaking of which - is there any stronger physical force in Middle-Earth than the Eagles? They're the best! They even give the Nazgul a run for their money in Return of the King (2003). Gandalf seems to be the only dude who can call on them - I can just picture him landing in Middle-Earth and visiting the Eagles' Eyre first and just making friends with them immediately. That's paid off so well for him so many times. They kick everyone's ass - they're the Optimus Prime of Middle-Earth, it's not even fair. Thank goodness they generally fight for the good guys!

So all in all, this is film is pretty tight butthole. It may not have as strong a story as Fellowship, but it's just as competently produced and certainly a lot of fun to watch. Where will the trilogy go from here? If its eclectic tonal mix of wackiness and serious destiny (the latter really only comes whenever Thorin enters a room) continues, this could be a really special trilogy. Or one that's pretty easy to write off.

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