The Monocle – “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey”

Directed by: Peter Jackson
Written by: Fran Walsh | Philippa Boyens | Peter Jackson | Guillermo del Toro
Released: December 14th, 2012
Theatre watched at: UltraLuxe Anaheim Cinemas, Anaheim

In 2004 I remember having to do these horribly tedious, monthly “book reports” for my 8th grade honors English class. Each annoying report had a set of meticulous questions we had to answer very thoroughly using quotations we had to cite with page numbers. Now, as a human born with a “looking at words in succession for long periods of time” deficiency, I made like a pimp, pointed at those reports and said “f*ck that,” and watched movies to report on instead–luckily Mr. Moore never asked to see the books we were “reading.” A year earlier The Lord of the Rings trilogy had wrapped up and I remember absolutely loving The Return of the King but I hadn’t bought the DVD yet. So, light bulb! Went out, bought the trilogy (extended versions by the way), watched them all through and wrote an entire months worth of a book report on three films based on three books that I made seem like was one book. Extended trilogy DVD’s? $60. Four family sized Cheeto bags to last me two nights of writing? $17. Ink and paper used for a 12-page book report? $3. The look on Mr. Moore’s face when I turned that cement block in? Priceless. To J.R.R. Tolkien, Peter Jackson, and the rest of the crew behind the LOTR universe, thank you for creating one of the most rich, lively, and hot-looking-elves filled fictional universes of all time for nerds like me to conquer academic atrocities like that.

It’s 2012 now with 2013 peeking just over the horizon and Peter Jackson has us revisiting Middle Earth with the first part of a new prequel trilogy to the LOTR known as The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. As a big fan of Jackson’s LOTR trilogy, it sadness me to say that the beginning to this journey is indeed not what I expected–all of Jackson’s familiar elements in making a LOTR-esque epic are present, but close to none of them return to better or even matched effect to its predecessors; the fact that the source material is written more for a children’s audience could be the reason for its apparent shift into a lighter and far less engaging narrative. In this prequel we are reunited with younger Hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), the “uncle” to our previous protagonist Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood). One random night in the Shire, wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) along with a company of 13 dwarves visits Bilbo in hopes of recruiting him as a “burglar” on their journey to reclaim their former mountain home Erebor from the nasty dragon Smaug.

Although it may seem that I’ve completely bashed this film already, by no means is this first outing a complete failure. In fact, I very much enjoyed it as a whole because it retains such a vivid imagination, however what it tries to accomplish with its need to entertain, it fails in its execution of the character and mythical majesty that came to define its predecessors. For one, An Unexpected Journey is ironically way too long, with most of its fluff appearing at the get-go. I’m sure there is much back story to explain especially with 13 dwarves to juggle around (they need their screen time), but 45 minutes to get the ball rolling with no real character development to make me care about these dwarves had me at a yawn. As the group finally gets their barrings the film picks up the excitement and pace as they encounter a slew of the mythological races we’ve come to know and love such as: trolls, goblins, orcs, elves, etc. Also, is it just me or do all the creatures have an unresolved hostility for one another? You would think having language as a common trait would bring the likes of the humanoid species and the creature species together at the dinner table for some interesting discussion.

The film’s two saving traits have to go to Andy Serkis (let’s face it, the man is a gem in nearly every movie he’s in) as the “loveable” Gollum, and Martin Freeman who impressed me with his take on Bilbo as an anxiety ridden Hobbit. Despite a few returning favorites, the new characters fell so flat with me; from the dwarves to the BBQ stick-handed pale orc, there seems to be one straight motive for all people involved and they get to choose whether it’s: 1. Kill the dwarves and their wizard and hobbit friend, or 2. Get to Lonely Mountain and kill Smaug. You can guess which goes to who. I miss this side stories of treachery, love, and jealousy that riddled within the characters of the LOTR! Perhaps I’m purposely trying to overlook the fact that it is a children’s book this is based off of but I know Jackson is more than capable of being able to extract the intriguing human aspects out of these characters.

If you didn’t know, all three LOTR films won the academy award for Best Visual Effects (among other things), so my expectations for this film’s visuals were pretty high. Unfortunately I can’t say very much about how it blew me away because in all honesty I feel like the VFX are even a smudge below the previous films that were made 8 years ago. There is a significant loss in texture and environmental detail that made the world in the previous films believable and gritty, this time around, which I believe could be attributed to Jackson’s use of 48 fps, everything looks rubbery, smooth, and cartoon-y. There is an entire underground goblin lair escape sequence that made me feel like I was seeing a cut scene in a PS3 RPG video game, no lie. The one grace note in all of this is the absolutely stunning CGI work they performed on Gollum (2 points for Gollum); that is the kind of quality I’m use to seeing, where you can make out the texture of his skin and the wrinkles of his face and even the lonely strands of his hair. I’m guessing if there was a sequence to nail, it would have to be that one over all the rest.

Cinematography wise the film also comes short; it’s riddled with the same wide, fast roaming landscape shots that has been a signature of Jackson’s, but the dynamic and choreographed flow of Return of the King has seemingly been thrown out. I honestly hate to compare it to its older cousins, but it’s difficult not to especially when the changes made don’t seem to be deliberate ones but rather forced curves they had to make to go around their ambitions in trying to redefine the visual cinematic experience via 3D and frame rate.

An obvious disappointment to me, but I still feel this film is worth watching if you are a J.R.R. Tolkien fan for the sheer visual realization of the events that take place in the book. The rock giants sequence isn’t perfect but is nonetheless breathtaking in some aspects, as well as the absolutely gorgeous city of Rivendell. The performance of Martin Freeman as our new protagonist as well as the hindsight bias of the bombardment of new and old characters to come has still got me excited for The Desolation of Smaug (2013) and There and Back Again (2014). Let’s hope the crew learns from their shortcomings.

P.S. If you plan to watch this flick and you are around the Anaheim area, make sure to check it out at the UltraLuxe Cinemas at the Garden Walk in Anaheim. I’m telling you, their paninis? Well worth it!

Bow Tie Score - 3.0