“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey”… The return of the ring

That thing they say about men with big feet, it clearly doesn’t apply to hobbits – at least, it doesn’t matter. With all those long quests, endless days cloaked in physical and spiritual enfeeblement, you’d think one of them would opt for a night’s distraction, a well-earned roll in the hay. But no. The morning dawns and the quest resumes. JRR Tolkien’s characters are cut from sterner cloth than the people that populate the lusty adventures we know and love, like the Robin Hood tales or the Arthurian legends. Even their constitutions appear other-worldly – all that trekking over mountains and into the bowels of Middle Earth, and no one sheds a kilo. Peter Jackson’s toughest challenge, with the three Lord of the Rings movies earlier and with The Hobbit trilogy now, has been to humanise these impossibly exalted archetypes, draw them closer to our realm of experience, so that we are invested not just in what they do but who they are.

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And as with the earlier movies, Jackson does this beautifully in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Take, for instance, Gandalf (Ian McKellen). He’s fleshed out as a pointy-hatted purveyor of orotund wisdom and an eccentric old man who polishes the stem of his pipe with his flowing beard – but more crucially, we sense a canny manipulator, the template for the wise and eccentric Professor Dumbledore, him of the equally formidable beard. After an amusing sequence (which, like everything else in the film, goes on a little too long) where the hole-in-the-ground home of the hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) is invaded by a horde of dwarves, it is decided that Bilbo will accompany his uninvited guests on a quest to reclaim their lost gold from the lair of the dragon Smaug. The dwarves’ leader Thorin (Richard Armitage), unconvinced about this arrangement, whispers to Gandalf that he won’t be responsible for the hobbit’s life – and Gandalf simply nods, no more troubled about Bilbo than a chess player about to sacrifice a pawn. And later, among the elves at Rivendell, he hints at being as much magician as Machiavellian.

How easy it must have been, for Jackson and his writers, to reduce Gandalf the Grey to Gandalf the Black-and-White, an unvaryingly crowd-pleasing dispenser of magic. But if we are to care about characters over decades – the first Lord of the Rings film was released in 2001 – then this is how they should reveal themselves, slowly, in layers. A different kind of slowness, however, hampers The Hobbit, which begins briskly enough, with scenes featuring the older Bilbo (Ian Holm) and Frodo (Elijah Wood) that refer to a future where Lobelia Sackville-Baggins will be suspected of stealing Bilbo’s silver spoons while also reminding us about the past. Like the first Lord of the Rings film, The Hobbit, early on, contains a scene-setting flashback of a great war, but unlike that film, we don’t hit the ground running. Part of the problem is the significance of the quest. An evil-enabling ring portends the end of the world; a treasure in a distant dragon’s lair merely points to adventure.

Added to this lack of immediate urgency is Jackson’s decision – no doubt with an eye on the box office (why make one money-spinner when you can make three?) – to prostrate himself before Tolkien’s prose. The Hobbit is not so much an adaptation as a fossilisation of every page, every paragraph, every comma and period, and at times, we wonder if we’re watching a movie or a mini-series. Some of the scenes, like the one with trolls that’s intended to be scary-comic and ends up being neither, go on forever. By the time we land in Rivendell and are made privy to the contents of an elvish lunch, it’s the audience that’s overfed. Earlier, when we witnessed Bilbo explaining to a boorish dwarf the difference between a dishcloth and a doily, we learn of his fastidiousness, which, when contrasted with his reckless bravery towards the end of the film, imbues his character with a rousing trajectory. But what purpose is served by the revelation that elves nibble on salads, except to explain why the 7000-year-old Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) glows the way she does?

With all this dawdling, our attention wanders from the story and the characters, and we begin to notice how similar these extensively post-produced movies have come to look, so ready for a seamless mashup: The Lord of Narnia and the Deathly Hallows. The scenic vistas encompassing vast depths and heights are merely leftover wallpaper from earlier productions. The ash-skinned trolls, here, resemble the one that lumbered through the bathrooms of Hogwarts. We get just a teasing glimpse of Smaug towards the end, and that hints at the scaly reptiles that have singed our screens over the years. And the Great Goblin, an overweight, jowly, pustule-pocked creature, looks like Jabba the Hutt hit by a bad case of psoriasis. This isn’t to demand the constant creation of unseen, unimaginable worlds and their inhabitants – merely to suggest that, unless coloured with distinctive personality, everything is interchangeable. This is also another way of saying that every fantasy-film franchise needs its Gollum.

The Hobbit is stuffed with orcs and trolls and stone giants and giant eagles, and it thunders along with manically detailed action set pieces – one across a bridge, with malignant goblins multiplying like cancer cells, is particularly impressive – but it’s upon Gollum’s entry that this fantasy turns truly fantastic. The remarkable Andy Serkis, as always, plays the part, and the stretch where Gollum and Bilbo dance delicately around each other, armed only with riddles, is the film’s most thrilling battle. With the gaze telescoped from the general to the specific, something, finally, seems to be at stake. Martin Freeman is excellent at conveying flustered bewilderment, which Gollum counters with schizophrenic scheming – not for an instant do we doubt that they really exist, that this really happened. Of The Hobbit this much can be said: it gets better as it goes along, and it lays a solid foundation for the future films. But this much should be said: it’s time to institute an Academy Award for Best Supporting Creature.

An edited version of this piece can be found here.

Copyright ©2012 The Hindu. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

21 thoughts on ““The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey”… The return of the ring

  1. Well written review. I liked the movie too and it certainly set the pace for future 2 movies. Did you see the movie in HFR-3D? I saw it in HFR-3D and frankly it didnt make any difference to me at all.

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  2. “Added to this lack of immediate urgency is Jackson’s decision – no doubt with an eye on the box office (why make one money-spinner when you can make three?) – to prostrate himself before Tolkien’s prose.”

    I’d say this might be a tad unfair. While the studio MAY have been pleased with Jackson’s decision to split the book into three parts, I doubt Jackson’s decision is solely money-minded.

    Bloat has always been a problem with Jackson’s films, hasn’t it? King Kong took nearly an hour to get to Skull Island. The Lovely Bones… well… the less said about the bloat in THAT film, the better.

    That said, I’ll probably enjoy the indulgence here; I enjoyed the first hour of King Kong myself (although I understand the complaints). Also, if The Hobbit WASN’T a single, slim book (if the book hadn’t existed at all), would people have noticed the bloat?

    Loved the comparison of Gandalf with Dumbledore by the way. Dumbledore was a canny manipulator, wasn’t he? :D

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  3. Oh god, the interminable never ending bore-fest is back , out of the first 3 LOTR films – the second one had its moments but otherwise the whole thing was a royal pain.

    And this was the guy who made Braindead. Curse the bloody gene that makes them want to be “serious” film-makers.

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  4. I would challenge the notion that the “LOTR” trilogy represents a step in “serious” film-making for Jackson. It’s not like he went from his low budget splatter flicks to something like No Country For Old Men. I would say that Heavenly Creatures and The Lovely Bones are the closest he got to weighty stuff. LOTR is about as commercial a crowd pleaser as you can get, albeit one with an epic length and collossal budget.

    As for you not liking it, I can respect that. I love it and watch it once a year (yes I have watched all 3 in one sitting) but understand it’s not to everyone’s taste. My wife calls it 12 hours of watching people walk.

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  5. that’s strange.. I also saw it on 48fps here in US, and it was definitely obvious what people mean by saying things like “too real”, “theater-like rather than movie-like” etc. It stopped being distracting in the second half of the movie, so maybe one does get used to it after a while… or maybe it was just because the movie got much more engrossing later.

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  6. Well said, BR! I too enjoyed the movie though i felt some parts of it like the mountain trolls, introduction of the dwarves, the frodo part(which was totally irrelevant ) were a tad too long. Also, not only do they not shed a kilo, none of them are even mildly hurt from all the fights and even falling on a crevice with a huge goblin on them!
    Of course, Gollum was the show-stealer!

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  7. While the “canny” side to Gandalf that you mention is certainly present in the character, I disagree that he is “no more troubled about Bilbo than a chess player about to sacrifice a pawn.” He does care about Bilbo, as can be seen in the sequence where he and the dwarfs escape from the underground caverns of the orcs, and Bilbo is running behind them, invisible because he is wearing the ring. Gandalf counts the dwarfs, and asks, immediately after that, where Bilbo is, and he looks nearly sick with worry at not seeing the hobbit anywhere. This clearly shows his concern for Bilbo. And the way he talks to Bilbo at the beginning betrays his affection for him. The reason he nodded in response to Thorin’s words is that he didn’t want to wrangle with the dwarf leader, given the latter’s stubbornness, which Gandalf would have to handle aplenty anyway. So, while he, like Professor Dumbledore, can resort to secrecy and canny tactics to accomplish a mission, he–once more, like Professor Dumbledore–cares for the people he is working with. He doesn’t use them like “pawns.” Such a reading of the character is unfair to him.

    Awesome review, as always.

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  8. Its a shame that Andy Serkis will never be nominated for an Oscar. Very few could pull of what he has done as Gollum

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  9. Those who say that the scenes in Neethane En Ponvasantham go on forever have not seen The Hobbit. Saw it in IMAX. Will see it in HFR 3D again.
    Not been a fan of the LOTR movies or the fantasy genre, but the plot seem the same, innit? They all go on a Quest and the Exotic Monsters of the Middle Earth get in their way.(I liked the quest, the adventure and its mythical undertones this time.) A Tolkien Fan would no doubt look forward to each one of these movies.
    But, for Peter Jackson it’s largely Been There Done That. Not sure why he would spend an entire decade remaking his own stuff.

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  10. BR, the bigger question here is did it feel a bit tired and redundant at some point? I mean LOTR itself spanned across 3 films and did we need another trilogy about those same Hobbits but on a less ambitious adventure as you pointed out? what made you interested and not get bored quickly? (besides some more charaterization and texture)

    Just reading about this now, I went “Oh come on..” I can always go back to LOTR if I wanted some of this stuff. Its not like as if they were made 30 years back. It wont be easy to dazzle anymore after LOTR and a lot of the curiosity factor(for those who wondered how he would have visualized the books and how would the hobbits look like and so on) are’nt going to be there for this trilogy. Tough challenge.

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  11. KayKay : You have a point – the early Jackson films are a lark , they are “lets try this and see if it sticks”. I love that spirit. LOTR if nothing else takes itself seriously, too seriously. Commercial yes , taking itself too seriously – yes. It would have been fun if they were like the Raiders of the Lost Ark. A fun ride.

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  12. To sum up, it’s not a matter of “durrr more frames mean better”. There’s a whole art to filmmaking and cinematography – one that has been continually advanced and mastered by craftsmen in the industry. The reason films are shot at 24fps isn’t because of a lack of technology or something silly like that (we’ve been able to shoot at higher frame rates almost since the dawn of film), it’s because that’s what achieves that very specific look that human eyes equate to “film”. Anyway, it’s a good film just not great. Nice review.

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  13. vijay: But if you look at things that way, then why make another Bond movie or Bourne movie or Star Wars movie or Die Hard movie? In all these cases, you can say, “I can always go back to the earlier stuff.” I guess the point is how well the sequels make a case for their existence, the way “MI: Ghost Protocol” did. This one was a so-so affair.

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  14. BR, a Bond movie has become its own genre, like Tamil masala films, with few more specifics. (Personally I want the franchise to be buried, but thats a different issue).LOTR seems like a one-time epic to me. Maybe someone else can remake LOTR 10 years from now with then available 4D hi-fi tech for that generation of movie goers. This just seems too soon.In general there is a tiresome tendency to make a franchise out of every other successful venture in Hollywood. I hope we dont get to see Taken 5 6 years from now with a 70-yr old Liam Neeson.

    And I dont under the franchise being built around Bourne either. He doesnt have a Bond-like uniquely defined cinematic personality and its the taut plotline/action with amnesia-driven suspense that kept those films going. Rest of it is pretty generic, the hero could be anyone and you can call him anything. You have done that, keep moving on. This is not exactly Sherlock Holmes and Watson. Same with MI. I can get most of the things what MI is offering from other assorted films released in the same year.

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  15. ” I hope we dont get to see Taken 5 6 years from now with a 70-yr old Liam Neeson”

    I wouldn’t mind, given that I enjoyed an 80-yr old Clint Eastwood kicking ass in Gran Torino. As long as it’s done Hollywood style (translation: Liam Neeson ACTUALLY plays a 70 yr old) with Bryan Mills now a doting grand-daddy forced to hunt and bring the wrath of Zeus down on creepy Eastern European baddies who now target his grand-daughter for a child-traficking cartel. Done Tamil movie style, he’d first have to fend off the advances of a horny-as-hell Scarlett Johansson in the first half before remembering his mission to kick-ass post interval. That I can do without.

    As for the reason behind the emergence of The Hobbit so soon, well that’s relative. Return Of The King was released 9 years ago. So a return to Middle-Earth almost a decade after the last movie, that too one based like the last one on a well-liked book is something I can live with given the fact they rebooted Spider-Man a mere 5 years after the last installment.

    More importantly, a case can be made that after LOTR, no other director could successfully launch or sustain a fantasy series. We’ve had 3 boring-as-dried -dog- turds Narnia movies, a botched attempt at bringing Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials to the screen after the forgetable The Golden Compass and the flops of Water Horse, Eragon and The Spiderwick Chronicles. So it makes sense that if anyone can breath life back into the genre, it’s Jackson

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  16. “I wouldn’t mind, given that I enjoyed an 80-yr old Clint Eastwood kicking ass in Gran Torino.”

    I liked it as well but then it was not exactly Dirty Harry 7.

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  17. Well-written as usual, especially that last line. Haven’t seen it yet, and for those of us who karachu-kudichified Tolkien or rather tried to, it is a must-see, however long and dragged-out it might be.

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  18. I am astonished by your review. When you say he has been a slave to the prose, it is clear to me that neither he nor you are familiar with the actual book. This is Jackson’s awful vision, not Tolkien’s that we are seeing on screen.

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