Movie Review

Movie Reviews, often by Steve Anderson of Reel Advice

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

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Every so often I’ll take a brief break from webcomic reviews to talk about other genres that have caught my eye. Given the huge media storm surrounding the latest movie release (not to mention my own intense love for the fantasy genre), it should come as no surprise that I’ve decided to weigh in on the hit movie The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. But don’t worry, I promise that the criticisms I do have reason behind them rather than some gut feeling caused by a puritanical belief of Tolkien’s written word.

First, I suppose I should speak a heretical belief of mine. Please note, this is only my opinion and I know plenty of people will beg to differ. But I feel the movie is far superior in two dimensions rather than as a 3D film… and I honestly wish I’d seen it first in 2D so that the issues I noticed in 3D wouldn’t have colored my opinions of the alternative viewing version. My primary problem with 3D lies with the use of focal points; I have a tendency to view the entire screen to catch as many details as possible. Unfortunately, out-of-focus characters in 3D catch my attention and disturb me on some fundamental level.

Admittedly, this may be because The Hobbit is the first movie I’ve seen in 3D since the 80s or maybe early 90s back when they used colored plastic lenses to manipulate 3D images. As such, I’m not used to 3D movies and honestly don’t see the attraction to paying extra money just to have things pop out of the screen at you. Fortunately, Peter Jackson went with a more subtle 3D effect using depth for the images… but unfortunately there were multiple scenes in which the characters looked as if they were acting in front of a painting of a blue cloudy sky. Fortunately, this effect was mostly lacking in the 2D.

Do note that I said “mostly” as I noticed this rather odd effect with the start of the movie when watched in the 2D – the backgrounds seemed artificial. The largest culprit was the blue sunny skies which just failed to seem real for some reason. I’ve seen several reviews comment on the same effect, and it seems to be inherent with using 48 frames per second. After a little bit I stopped noticing this effect… and it seems to have vanished when characters were indoors; the solution may very well be to start a story in a shadowy area and slowly increase the lighting and background for people to adjust.

Oddly, I found the IMAX 3D to be the least satisfying of the three; while the images did not suffer the sense of artificiality that the higher definition versions did, the image did suffer frequent blurs when characters were moving quickly (for, say, combat). Admittedly, the sound for the IMAX was excellent, but I must admit to being puzzled as to the inferiority of the picture, given that IMAX is touted to be the superior viewing system.

Next, I must warn diehard fans that this ain’t your father’s Hobbit. This is an adaptation of Tolkien’s classic tale… which when you get down to it is a delightful story, but isn’t exactly the best told of stories. One such problem lies within the Last Battle where Named Foes came out of the woodwork – foes we’d not had any hints of prior to the Battle or comprehension of the stories behind them. Jackson decided to rectify this by introducing Thorin Oakenshield’s big antagonist within the first movie… and have him as a threat that shadows Thorin and crew through much of the movie.

Purists will whine about this “bastardization” of their classic story. But they’ll be whining anyway because Jackson created a trilogy out of a single book and added plenty of dialogue to a tale that was sparse when it came to the spoken word. Doubt me? Here’s a quote from page 80, soon after Bilbo rejoins the dwarves and Gandalf once they escaped the goblins: Then he had questions of his own to ask, for if Gandalf had explained it all by now to the dwarves, Bilbo had not heard it. He wanted to know how the wizard had turned up again, and where they had all got to now.

There’s a term for this: telling, not showing. While telling can be a right useful method of speeding a story along, when it comes to cinematography you risk boring an audience to tears if you tell things rather than showing it to them. But seeing that Tolkien is dead, it’s impossible to ask him what was happening. Thus creative artistry must take place. Adding in Thorin’s antagonist in the first movie not only creates a sense of tension, but also creates a more concise and intelligent story in which enemies don’t just pop out of the woodwork at the climactic scene with no rhyme nor reason.

What’s more, it allows for Bilbo himself to undergo character growth through the first movie. At the start of the movie he’s not entirely sure why he went haring off on an adventure (though I must admit that his deciding to do so, rather than letting Gandalf bully him into it as happened in the book, allows for Bilbo to not only be more likable). Jackson chose to increase Bilbo’s presence in the movie by having him do more (such as Bilbo stringing along the trolls, rather than Gandalf being the entirety of the deus ex machina to save their hides). By doing so, Bilbo became the movie’s true protagonist instead of an observer.

I suppose you could say that The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is the story of a grown man who, after having lived a safe and predictable life for so many years of his existence, goes off to help others and in the process learns who and what he truly is. While Bilbo claims he’s not a hero (or even a burglar, despite what Gandalf claims), truth be told he is a hero. Because a true hero is not measured by his or her skill at arms or how many he or she has killed, but in overcoming personal fears and doubts and fighting to protect those in need. Even if that person has doubted the hero through much of the tale.

Could the story have been told without extraneous elements, such as Radagast the Brown or character bits with the dwarves or even Thorin’s ire against the elves? Yes. In fact, by doing so the movie would likely have been reduced to two pieces (or even one if Jackson had cut out certain scenes, much as Ralph Bakshi did in his animated version). But little tidbits such as Saruman’s disdain for Radagast due to the latter’s enjoyment of mushrooms (an interesting echo of his sentiments toward Gandalf’s enjoyment of pipeweed during LotR) and the story of how Thorin gained the surname of Oakenshield help to flesh out the story and transforms it into something greater than the source book.

And thus I speak my final heresy: I honestly believe that this movie is better than the book – or at least the portion that the movie focuses on. While the dwarves are not all fleshed out, they’re more than just the barely-named ciphers that existed in Tolkien’s tale. Likewise, Bilbo has moved from observer and narrator to a genuine protagonist. The mixture of humor and drama will have most laugh, with the humor brightened and the drama darkened by existing side-by-side. Finally, the inclusion of Thorin’s antagonist helps create not just suspense, but a sense of continuity. The end result is a movie well worth watching… and rewatching. Needless to say, I highly recommend it.