I am an absolute and certifiable Lord of the Rings nerd. I have spent time reading The Tolkien Beastiary, and even tried my hand at elvish once in eighth grade. I watched the Fellowship of the Ring nearly 10 times in the theaters, and I have probably tripled that with DVD and BluRay. So believe me that it truly saddens me to tell you that I did not like The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.
The problems stem from the source material, but extend all the way through the production of the film as well. The novel was originally written before Middle Earth was fully conceived, and so the world of The Hobbit just doesn’t entirely fit into the world of The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien attempted to tie things in, but most of these are small details that are almost glossed over, such as mentioning the Necromancer in the end. But for the most part, the novel is geared towards a younger audience. It’s lighter, more episodic in nature (one thing happens after the next), animals talk, and there are more fantastical elements. But the characters are not as fully developed, the world is not totally seamless, and the journey is not as strong of a mental and physical arc. These problems would pose challenges for any screenwriter, and from my perspective, there are three options when adapting it: change the story drastically, present the film like the novel was intended (a fantastical, standalone, single installment, children’s story), or, god forbid, not adapt it at all.
With all of this in mind, we come to the film itself. Jackson’s adaptation brings a bit of a fusion between the first two options. The story is not changed drastically, but the screenwriters have brought in much detail from the extended literature of Middle Earth and the appendices of The Lord of the Rings. This is an interested decision, because it brings the story more into the world of The Lord of the Rings, but it ends up feeling tacked on. This is because the filmmakers both embraced the source material of The Hobbit, with all of its problems, and forced it into the lore of and formula of The Lord of the Rings. They desperately packed in many of the original actors, even if the appearance of their characters doesn’t quite make sense, and sprinkled in tons of visual and auditory cues and similarities to the original films.
Three highlights of the film were Ian McKellen as Gandalf, Martin Freeman as Bilbo, and Andy Serkis as Gollum. Both did fantastic jobs playing their characters, even though both of their characters (Gandalf in particular) were just not strong enough. I love Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings, but in this iteration, both the novel and the film, his character just doesn’t seem terribly wise, clever, interesting, or even mysterious. In each scene he is either given too much to do or too little. His magic is a bit more far-fetched too, whereas in the previous films, he was reserved in the use of his magic, as if he had fallen in love with this mortal world and would almost rather live as a normal human being than a demi-god in human form. In The Hobbit, he almost relishes the use of his magic. Many of the times he uses it, it is to create a link between this film and the previous ones. For example, on multiple occasions he fractures a piece of rock with his staff, much in the same way he broke the Bridge of Kazaad-Dûm. An another occasion, he stood up and made the whole room go dark in order to get the attention of the dwarves, much in the same way he did with Bilbo in The Lord of the Rings. It’s all very well and good that the screenwriters are trying to pay homage, but it just all seems unnecessary and distracting and the way it is all portrayed is not as powerful as it was in the previous films.
Martin Freeman played a great, timid, bumbling hobbit. But his character needed a bit more of a powerful arc to take us through his transformation. Frodo had a great arc. He was thrust into a situation with the fate of the world hanging around his neck. He was hunted and nearly killed on multiple occasions, but he had a true determination that is simply lacking in Bilbo’s motivation. Frodo was totally and fundamentally transformed from hobbit to hero, and in the end he found that he simply could not be the person he once was. Perhaps this sort of thing is in store for Bilbo as well, but we all know how Bilbo’s journey ends. He never truly finds himself changed until he gives up the ring and leaves the Shire once more. But those events take place in The Fellowship of the Ring. The writers simply have nowhere to go with his character. He begins a hobbit, and ends a hobbit with a magic ring. His quest and his actions during the quest don’t have the same weight as Frodo’s. The fate of the world does not hang around his neck. The only thing his character has going for him is the idea that he has to convince the dwarves that he is worthy of being “a part of the company.”
Of course, Andy Serkis is back as the pitiful creature of Gollum. It is a good return, and he certainly plays the part fantastically well. He is disgusting, creepy, and downright crazy. His voice work alone is enough to drive this character. Gollum still looks digital and a little off, but he has certainly come a ways since LOTR.
The music is great. It seems to slip more into the background in this installment, but that doesn’t make it not worth listening to. The Misty Mountains theme is perfectly grand and epic and really embodies the idea of adventure in a fantastical world.
The story is a bit too “one bad thing happens after the next and then they escape.” They’re safe one minute, then running from orcs the next. Gone are the politics, the sense of travel, and the complex party relationships. Instead, all the characters get along, except that the dwarves are always making fun of Bilbo, there is no sense of place, and nothing of any importance really happens. Action is less frenzied, but less focused as well. There are simply too many dwarves! There are quite a few humorous moments. Occasionally, I found myself rolling my eyes, but other times I smiled and chuckled. Martin Freeman certainly played a humorous hobbit. As for the dialogue, much of it was lifted and paraphrased from LOTR. It was generally quite disappointing in this regard. Again, the screenwriters were trying too hard to repeat the success of the original films.
The real locations that were utilized in The Lord of the Rings felt so genuine because they were real. Now, we are treated to green-screened effects. For someone who spent about the same amount of time watching the behind the scenes documentaries as he did watching the actual films, I am truly disappointed that Jackson has turned away from the usage of miniatures (or Bigatures, as they called them). Miniatures gave those films a sense of classic Hollywood fantasy-realism. They felt genuine, because they were actually real pieces of artwork, but they also felt hand-made, as if the author of the novel had fashioned these city-scapes directly from his imagination. Now, cities and buildings have a digital fakeness to them.
Enemies were portrayed by real actors donning complex makeup effects and dark robes and armor. Now, prosthetics are almost exclusively reserved for the dwarves and there are only two or three orcs that are actually played by real actors. With the introduction of many orcs, Azog, and the Goblin King, Gollum is no longer the only speaking CGI character. Azog, the pale orc, is massive but absolutely not terrifying. And that is the cast of villains in The Hobbit. A bunch of rubbery, digital looking CGI characters that are not in the least bit scary. It’s a pity considering that The Fellowship of the Ring created one of the most satisfyingly terrifying villains in the film, Lurtz, the massive Uruk-Hai that filled Boromir with half-inch thick arrows. It is obvious that the success of such a villain has been tried to be replicated here with Azog, but certainly not successfully.
While the digital effects leave something to be desired, the cinematography takes on a similar, glossy, digital, fake look. The Hobbit was shot on Red Epic cameras, which are digital. In addition, the film is shot in 3D, with the cameras running at 48 frames per second. As a filmmaker and film scholar, I spend much time thinking about aesthetics and how there is usually a sort of “appropriate aesthetic” for given materials. Now, here are three things that, in my opinion, present an issue when portraying fantasy. However, I must admit that I did not see the film in 3D or projected at a higher frame rate, so take the latter two points with that in mind.
Thing One: A digital camera results in an image that looks more documentary than it does painterly. It harkens to the present and to reality more than imagination and fantasy. There are ways to bend an image like this into a more painterly aesthetic, but this can only go so far, and one has to consider how the digital camera actually goes about recording an image. It is a fixed matrix of pixels and its rendition of highlights are less than stellar. Because of the pixel array, small details, like the pores on someone’s face, end up standing out like a bunch of little sore thumbs. This sort of image-making device does not produce a fantastical image. It produces an image that looks too “real” to be fantasy. Contrary to this, 35mm film produces incredibly painterly images. This is because it has a random grain structure, which moves organically. This makes the image feel soft to our eyes, even though it has much more detail than any digital camera on the market. 35mm film is one of the unsung heroes of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, because it allowed the filmmakers to portray fantasy in a way that felt organic and genuine. Every moment of The Hobbit reminded me of just how bad a digital camera looks when it is portraying fantasy, and just how good The Lord of the Rings looked in comparison. It is also important to realize that I have nothing against digital capture for certain aesthetics. Low light shooting is great on a digital camera, and a film like Upstream Color, the newest piece from the writer and director of Primer, looks great because it embraces and takes advantage of the lower budget aesthetic.
It is simply this (LOTR). The slightly teal colored sky is due to a slight increase in yellow to help give a visual distinction to the shire:
Versus this (The Hobbit). Pay attention to how there is very little detail in the clouds and to how the skin tone looks:
Or this (LOTR), in which the grass has a luminance to it that makes it almost like you can feel it:
Versus this (The Hobbit), in which the grass has a fake green tint and details have been smoothed over with a low contrast filter:
Thing Two: 3D has the ability to trick our minds into thinking we’re watching reality. This is not a good thing when it comes to fantasy. Like I detailed above, fantasy tends to thrive on a painterly, organic aesthetic. It actually feels more genuine to our eyes when it looks a little more like fantasy, and when it engages our imagination more than our eyes. 3D, studies show, actually makes our brains react incredibly similar than if we were watching real life. But I will reiterate. Try to make fantasy real, and you make fantasy fake, make fantasy organic and painterly, and you make fantasy genuine. Another thing with 3D is its ability to make a filmmaker try too much in the way of camera movement. The camera sweeps up and around occasionally, defying the logic of a physical camera, simply because it would look cool in 3D. The fact that CGI is used so heavily certainly makes this possible to do as well. I remember a shot in The Fellowship of the Ring when the camera zip-lines through the trees in a moment that connects one part of a battle to another. It was a fantastic shot that almost single-handedly made me want to be a filmmaker. There is none of that here, because instead of a simply point-a to point-b arial shot, we are treated to the camera swooshing and flying here and there as if the camera is being operated by a bumblebee. There is simply too much of this, making the film a little too much like a roller coaster.
Thing Three: The same as above. A higher frame rate further tricks our brains into accepting the image as reality, because there is less strobing and flicker. Movement looks more real. Fantasy is not supposed to be real, etc etc, blah blah blah.
The basic idea is this: I believe that Jackson and company made a couple huge mistakes in choosing their aesthetic. CGI, 3D, digital cameras, 48fps, all seem like great immersion tools for filmmaking, but they simply devalue what cinema is. Cinema is memory and dream, not reality. When one applies this to fantasy, let along my favorite fantasy world, it makes me quite disappointed. It makes me even more disappointed when the people who chose these things turn around and say things like how they wish they had these tools back when they made such and such, as if the tools they had used back then are suddenly the bane of every filmmaker. Well, Jackson, I don’t think those older tools were your bane, I think they were your blessing. Take this as a warning, because this is exactly what Lucas said after he began making The Phantom Menace, and in hindsight, most people would agree that those older methods and restrictions are exactly what made the first series of films better than the newest installments.
For what my opinion is worth, I believe The Hobbit was overlong, bloated, and boring. Lacking all of the charm and allure of the previous films. It was too much of a cinematic experiment and it failed. The technology it tried to utilize backfired, and the way the filmmaking methods have changed since LOTR has unfortunately been a great burden instead of a blessing. The film exists in the shadow of the colossus that is The Lord of the Rings. As a fan of Middle Earth, I feel more nostalgia when playing a Lord of the Rings card game than I felt watching The Hobbit. Many others will find plenty of enjoyment in this film, however. It certainly has its fair share of action and humor.
Art Direction: 10/10
“Film as Entertainment” Rating: 6/10
“Film as Art” Rating: 2/10