Far Over the Misty Mountains Cold: Peter Jackson’s THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY

THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY

Sometime in the years following the first World War – while in the midst of grading an assortment of student papers – J.R.R. Tolkien had something akin to a flash of inspiration. Grabbing a piece of blank paper, the author jotted down a single sentence:

“In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit.”

Not knowing himself what a hobbit was, Tolkien went about trying to figure out just what this creature might be. And 75 years later, the word has essentially cemented its way into the vocabulary of the Western world.

This is in no small part thanks to the efforts of one Peter Jackson, whose LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy turned out to be a corner-piece of turn-of-the-century filmmaking. Making nearly $3 billion at the box office and taking home 17 Academy Awards between them, Jackson’s take on Tolkien’s “unfilmable” story wormed its way into households across the world. The effects and legacy of this series cannot be measured or properly quantified; needless to say, Jackson upended the way we look at blockbuster films. For years following their release, audiences were treated (often begrudgingly so) to wave after wave of entries in the fantasy genre as studios tried desperately to capitalize on the phenomenon. Ten years on, the Hollywood system is still feeling the effects of Jackson’s juggernaut series.

These effects do not merely exist on a superficial level, either. James Cameron has on more than one occasion cited Andy Serkis’ performance-capture work as the villainous Gollum as the motivation he needed to finally make AVATAR a reality, thus making the effect a legitimate tool in Hollywood’s arsenal. Jackson and his team’s creation of the MASSIVE program (a computer-animation and artificial intelligence software package used to to generate realistic crowd effects) has been used in everything from 300 to HAPPY FEET to BLADES OF GLORY. And to say that the films popularized the idea of “extended home editions” might be a bit of an understatement. These films changed cinema in a tangible way.

So it came as little surprise to anybody when Jackson declared that, should an adaptation of Tolkien’s precursor to the legendary RINGS series by made, he doubted that he would be up to the task of competing with himself – at least, as a director.

But the road to this point in Jackson’s decision was far from a simple one. In reality, the story actually dates back several decades, to a time when Professor Tolkien sold the rights to his works out of desperation. The results of these transactions left the rights to “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” at United Artists, a studio which would eventually be acquired by MGM. And through a long series of legal disputes and production history, Peter Jackson and his team had come out of THE LORD OF THE RINGS with a significant question: was making THE HOBBIT even possible anymore?

On the road to adapt “Rings” for the big-screen, Jackson and co. had originally set their sights on the smaller, more manageable precursor, and had found that the rights issues were simply too thorny to be waded through: with the production rights in the hands of producer Saul Zaentz and the distribution rights still sitting over at United Artists, it seemed an economically questionable issue to involve a third party in the proceedings. And so, as history has shown us, audiences received the professor’s trilogy instead.

So when Jackson asked the question of whether a return to Middle-earth would be possible after the smash success of his trilogy, the same legal issues that had arisen a decade prior began to sprout up again, and it began to look like the film was a pipe dream. And if that were not enough, RINGS producers New Line Cinema soon found themselves being sued by both Jackson and Zaentz, citing a failure to accurately honor contractual agreements. The result of the lawsuit caused the studio to declare that they would never again work with Jackson, and to even go so far as to threaten production of THE HOBBIT without him.

By this point, people were already started to insist that the production was cursed. And to be fair, it sort of looked as if they might be right: after the lawsuits, New Line Cinema nearly went bankrupt and was folded back into Warner Bros. as a subsidiary (placing the production rights at Warner Bros., in direct contrast to the distribution rights, which remained at MGM), followed by a legitimate bankruptcy by MGM (the effects of which are finally being ironed out this year, with the release of RED DAWN, CABIN IN THE WOODS, SKYFALL and THE HOBBIT, all of which were sucked into MGM’s economic crisis at varied stages of their productions).

None of which stopped Peter Jackson. The director, who has notoriously steered clear of Hollywood as much as possible, had already sunk tens of millions of his own dollars into the pre-production of THE HOBBIT, acting as producer. Without a greenlight from the economically floundering studios, Jackson continued pushing forward with the project, funding it himself in the face of almost certain disaster. With rights expiring and the rivaling studios using the project as a leveraging chip to avoid bankruptcy, Jackson never relented.

During this period, Guillermo del Toro was brought on as director. Jackson had, up until this point, remained adamant that he would not compete with his own trilogy, and that a fresh vision was required in order to make this film a success. Though the decision was faced with some level of controversy amongst the fanbase, many deemed it to be the right way to go. But after a year spent working without a greenlight (as MGM’s fiscal status was still being settled), del Toro left the project, declaring that he simply could not spend any more time on a film that might never be made. In stepped Jackson to fill the void, and the fanbase rejoiced.

Which brings us, at long last, to THE HOBBIT films.

Yes: films. There will be three HOBBIT films, serving as a precursive trilogy to THE LORD OF THE RINGS. Though originally intended to be a pair, Jackson made theĀ  unprecedented move of shifting gears mid-production and retinkering the films into a trilogy. How this gamble will pay off is yet to be seen, but it’s an interesting decision that requires an entire conversation and article unto itself. Was it done purely for money? (Absolutely not, and anybody who says so completely misunderstands the context of the material, the filmmaker and the history of the franchise – though, it would also be naive to claim that money isn’t one of the factors.) What ramifications does it have for the serialization of cinema? Do we need to rethink our judgments about how cinema operates on a basic level, insofar as judging arcs and self-contained stories as something inherent to a single film, rather than a series of films?

The answer to the last question is, I think, yes. The serialization of cinema is something that has been much talked about in the last few years, starting primarily with the decision to split the final HARRY POTTER film into two pieces. And though that move seemed originally to be made entirely from a financial perspective, it resulted in a fascinating conversation about cinema’s relationship to television, and the convergence of the two as storytelling mediums. While many denounced HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS, PART I as a waste of time where nothing seemed to happen, some saw it as something else: the penultimate episode of a series, where considerable time is taken for character dynamics and motivations to be laid bare before the final confrontation. This serialization of cinematic storytelling is something that exists for the fans, and this cannot be stressed enough – it is an entirely new approach to filmmaking, where out-of-context perspectives are understandably baffled by their atypical existence. The old rules (some say the only rules) do not apply to these films, and to try and fit them into that seemingly century-old mold seems like a fool’s errand. This isn’t to say that creating this new kind of film precludes the piece from proper criticism – merely that we may have to adjust our perspectives in order to appreciate what the piece is, rather than denounce it for what it isn’t.

And Peter Jackson seems to agree. For THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY isn’t just the first chapter in a new trilogy, and it isn’t just the next chapter in the discussion of serialized cinema; it’s a new chapter for cinema, period. There’s a reason that this review (/essay/article) started with a brief look at the historical context of this trilogy: with THE HOBBIT, Jackson has – even more so than he attempted to do with his previous Middle-earth trilogy – attempted to change cinema in a tangible way.

I took it upon myself to see this film four times before writing my review, and each time I experienced it in a different format. The fact that this exists as an option is worth discussing as well, but will likely have to be saved for a later point in time. With each subsequent viewing, I experienced something slightly (sometimes massively) different, and I’d like to take some time at this point to discuss the tech before I discuss the film, because they are wildly different topics and should be treated as such. These four formats were: High Frame Rate (HFR) 3D, 2D Standard Frame Rate (SFR), HFR 3D Atmos and IMAX 3D SFR.

Firstly, the HFR 3D – the format in which Jackson intended you to see this film. Again, some context is necessary for those who do not know.

Around the time that sound was invented for film (almost a century ago), the film community was forced to make a decision. Since audio tracks were included alongside the film reel, studios/filmmakers/theater owners/etc. had to decide on a universal speed to project their films at, as to ensure that audio would not sound sped up or slowed down to the audience. As film stock was, at the time, very expensive to produce and develop, it was decided that they would use the lowest speed possible, as to minimize the consumption of film stock. Thus, it was determined that 24 frames per second (fps) would be the universal speed at which film was shot and projected – it was slow enough as to not cost too much money, and fast enough that it created the illusion of constant movement.

Now, 100-some years later, we are still filming and projecting our films at that speed, regardless of the fact that most movies are shot and projected digitally – a format where the question of film stock cost is no longer a relevant one. Even as we attempt to move cinema forward into the third-dimension, we are still, for some reason, shackled to this projection speed, even though digital projectors the world over are all capable of being upgraded to utilize higher speeds – speeds which would remove motion blur and create a generally more realistic picture.

This, anyway, is the argument: why should we remain attached to the way films are “supposed” to look when that decision was made out of complete necessity almost 100 years ago? Why not try and push cinema forward into newer, more realistic places, especially when technology is fully capable of it? Say, twice the speed – 48fps, which THE HOBBIT was shot at?

The answer is not clear. There has been significant (often conflicting) debate in all academic circles already about the notion of HFR, most of which seems to coincide with the “legitimization” of 3D. Does creating a format that differs so wildly from “conventional” cinema somehow affect the way we perceive it? Yes and no, it seems. Much like in the first forays into contemporary 3D, HFR can, at times, affect the way one perceives the film, but only in certain cases. For some it may not be an issue at all, while for others it can be disastrous.

The effect is, needless to say, jarring. For avid cinemagoers who are used to films looking a certain way, it can be downright shocking. The 48fps (combined with the shot-in-3D images) is brutally, uncompromisingly real – sometimes to the point that it all looks just a bit fake. The best description I’ve come up with is that it appears as if one is watching a staged play; like the back of the theater has been punched out, and beyond it a large-scale play is taking place, where actors in noticeably-dressed costumes are acting out scenes before your very eyes. It can be distracting at times, and it can be wonderfully awe-inspiring at other times – it all depends on the person, and the scene. Perhaps a film that depends on the combination of CGI and live-action to the extent that this one does may not have been the best guinea pig for the format, but we are stuck with what we have, and the effect is generally mixed.

It is worth noting that the HFR makes 3D a much more digestible and pleasurable experience, as the elimination of blur and strobing that are inherent to SFR have been removed. This makes the 3D picture much easier on the eyes, and everything looks much more real and vivid.

I will say, however, that I did enjoy the format significantly more on a second viewing, and I highly recommend trying it out – though, perhaps, only on a second viewing. I look forward to the evolution and progression of the format, in ways I didn’t look forward to the evolution of 3D.

The 3D in SFR, it is worth noting, is quite gorgeous, and I found that IMAX 3D was the format I most preferred out of all of my viewings. The picture quality was crisp and stunning (unlike at other screenings, where it was quite noticeable that the projector was not quite calibrated correctly), and, barring PROMETHEUS, you are unlikely to see a more accomplished use of the third dimension at the cinema this year. Jackson uses the format with subtlety, and one gets the definite impression that he altered absolutely nothing about his directorial style in order to accommodate the new format.

Lastly (as the 2D version will be the one that I am properly reviewing) there is the inclusion of Dolby Laboratories latest audio format, Atmos. This new system is unlike anything you have experienced in a cinema before, and when it is placed alongside the 3D HFR, it becomes a rare and unique presentation that you will not be able to get elsewhere.

The format, which uses around 120 speakers around the room, basically creates the illusion of a three-dimensional soundscape. As the entire ceiling is lined with speakers, filmmakers are able to carefully pinpoint very specific places around the room from which sounds come from. For instance, in scenes where characters were singing and tossing objects around the room, one gets the impression that the voices are coming from all around them. When an arrow shoots towards you in 3D, the sound follows it right past your head. It is the pinnacle of audio immersiveness, and I’m excited to see what filmmakers do with it as the format evolves.

But outside of all of those (many, many, many) technological advancements and format options, there’s still a movie at the core of this discussion. Because, although it is easy to allow the trimmings to affect your perspective of the film, there are still some very basic categorical elements that exist entirely independently of them, and to judge those in tandem with the film itself would be a disservice.

This film is not THE LORD OF THE RINGS. Although it follows a similar trajectory to THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING, it is a decidedly different kind of film, and that is partially due to the last-minute decision to divide the film (for a single film it almost certainly is) into three parts, rather than two. Much in the same way that FELLOWSHIP takes a substantial amount of time getting off the ground in its first half, AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY revels in its beginnings, and that’s not a bad thing (though many will perceive it as such). This is, after all, the first three-or-so hours of a full, seven or eight-hour epic.

It is immediately apparent that Jackson has gone for a different tone with this new trilogy, though it does begin to skew back towards the one we know and love from the originals in the latter half. This, again, is almost certainly a result of moving the ending of this film into the beginning of the next, as the plot developments which follow the ones depicted here are somewhat darker and more in line with the earlier films.

That being said, the bulk of the discussion next will be about the film’s tone, as it is the most crucial and wildly overlooked / misunderstood element of AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY. Though fans and non-fans alike are quick to mention that the decidedly lighter and sillier tone of the film is appropriate given the source material, there is a crucial contextual argument that seems to be missed in all of the debates: the existence of the revised novel. For this, a bit more history is necessary.

Tolkien’s novel, “The Hobbit” was written in 1937. It was successful enough that it warranted a sequel – one which would, after 17 years, become “The Lord of the Rings”. In between those two publications, it became clear to Tolkien that the tone and general style of his first novel was out of sorts with his newer, more mature and sophisticated one. He then went back and rewrote the “Riddles in the Dark” chapter, giving it a darker and edgier tone and rewriting the character of Gollum and his relationship to The Ring to fit more in line with what would come in the sequel.

In the early 1960s – after the smash success of “The Lord of the Rings” – Tolkien decided to go back and rewrite his precursive novel, recreating it in the style and tone of “Rings”. After a few chapters, he abandoned the project, deciding that it simply wasn’t “The Hobbit” that people knew and loved. These manuscripts are widely available, and detail a more sophisticated version of the book that would never see the light of day.

Enter Peter Jackson. When it became clear that Jackson would return for the series, it became obvious that the only way to rationalize his existence as the helmer of this prequel would be to resurrect that version of THE HOBBIT; to make the version that Tolkien intended to but never did, one which made sense as a complete work. Jackson often made mention of these manuscripts and the portions of which were made available in the appendices of “The Lord of the Rings”, and it stood to reason that fans would finally see the 1960 “Hobbit” come to life.

Except that’s not what happened.

Instead, Jackson took a bold risk and decided to balance the two versions of the book, the ’37 and the ’60. The hodgepodge result is what we’ve begun to get a glimpse of in THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY, and it’s equal parts baffling, satisfying and mesmerizing. What might have been the film’s downfall (and, to many critics’ eyes, it undoubtedly is), turns out to be its greatest strength: its boldly unconventional, tonal disparity, which counterpoints a silly dinner song with a caravan of dwarves with the dark, brooding song that comes out of Thorin Oakenshield’s (Richard Armitage) eventual presence. All of which comes directly out of Tolkien’s text, mind you – this bizarrely captivating back-and-forth is entirely in keeping with the spirit of the author’s vision; possibly even more so than RINGS was. And so Jackson walks the tightrope, giving us stirring monologues one instant and ridiculously silly (but spiritually appropriate) rabbit sleighs the next moment. It’s an interesting, certainly controversial choice, but Jackson ought to be commended for figuring out how nail the tone somewhere between the two versions.

But that’s far from where Jackson’s controversial decisions end: there is no more polarizing discussion than that of the three-movie debacle. Though the results of which have yet to be made apparent (and will not be until THERE AND BACK AGAIN is released in July of 2014), there does not seem to be an issue as of yet; in a film made up almost entirely of climaxes (as befits the adventurous style of the source material), it isn’t particularly difficult for the films to be retinkered into creating semi-satisfying arcs, as is seen here in the Thorin / Bilbo arc. Though, again, it is worth noting that the serialization of the films makes this point slightly moot. Indeed, there are plot points in this film that have quite obviously had their resolutions shifted into the second film, such as the existence of the spiders. What we get instead, therefore, is the seeding of future plot elements that have little bearing on the present story (much as in television), further solidifying the film’s serialized format.

The greatest question, however, seems to be why there will be three films at all. Why make three films out of a 300-page story? There are many reasons. The first and most obvious is the book’s narrative style and brisk pace, wherein key story beats take place over a single chapter, or sometimes even a few pages. Just as Jackson turned the ten pages of Helm’s Deep into an hour-long battle in THE TWO TOWERS, the events that take place over two or three pages in “The Hobbit” could (and will) fill entire movies. The political ramifications of certain plot points are spelled out and left dangling, as befits a children’s novel, but will create substantial amount of material in their cinematic counterparts. This can be seen even in AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY, where the entire last hour of the film takes place over three chapters – only a couple dozen pages. And if you thought that the Goblin’s kingdom and “Riddles in the Dark” sequence was boring, then this franchise is simply not made for you.

There is also the addition of all of the supplemental material that was intended for the revised edition, as mentioned previously. This material could fill a book almost the same length as “The Hobbit”, and fills in gaps in the narrative that were intentionally left as question marks in the novel’s original run. All of this material combined together, means that there is plenty of material for a trilogy. Whether Jackson pulls it off is another question altogether.

But THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY is a fine beginning. Opening the film just before the beginning of FELLOWSHIP, audiences are treated to the return of two major characters from the original trilogy: Ian Holm as the older Bilbo Baggins, and Elijah Wood as his nephew Frodo. This sequence, much as was done earlier this season in LIFE OF PI, introduces Bilbo as the unreliable narrator of the story we are about to witness, automatically giving Jackson and co. leeway to play up the “storytelling” aspect and tone of the film, ensuring that any discrepancies between it and the former trilogy are made instantly irrelevant. As Gandalf (played once again by the incomparable Sir Ian McKellen) tells Bilbo later on in the story: “All good stories deserve embellishment”. And embellish they do.

After launching us into the now-trademark opening prologue – wherein an historical event that bears relevance on the current story is depicted in all its glory – JOURNEY soon finds us drawn back 60 years, to where a young Bilbo (Martin Freeman) is being recruited for an adventure by Gandalf and thirteen dwarves. Freeman was born to play this role, and his mannerisms are so impeccably nuanced that it’s impossible to imagine Bilbo as anybody else.

But the true triumph of this film is the dwarves. Handling fifteen main characters on screen at once is daunting, to say the least, but Jackson somehows manages to pull it off. Each and every dwarf (Nori, Ori, Dori, Balin, Dwalin, Bifur, Bofur, Bombur, Fili, Kili, Oin, Gloin and Thorin Oakenshield) is unique and memorable, and the mere fact that over half of them significantly transcend the one-dimensional characteristics of the book in the first chapter of this series alone is something worth acknowledging. Though the uninitiated may find themselves floundering amongst the characters, I can’t imagine a finer introduction to the group.

And so the quest begins. Jackson deftly sets up the dwarves journey to reclaim their homeland and defeat the dragon Smaug who stole it from them, and Bilbo unexpectedly finds himself whisked along on an adventure all his own. Though the film falls into the unmistakeable pitfalls of adventure stories of this kind (get into a mess, miraculously make your way out again, repeat) and Jackson tends to go bonkers on the number of action sequences he throws at us, the adventure is fulfilling and never for a second boring. Moments that have become immortalized in the literary world spring beautifully to life in front of our eyes, embellished with just the right degree of whimsy.

For whimsical is probably the best word to described this film. Much as in the original novel (and unlike “Rings”), this is a lighthearted, good-natured but surprising story, and its themes still resonate as powerfully as they did 75 years ago. Bilbo’s quest to not just prove himself (to himself as much as to others) but to understand the importance of saving a friends’ home at the expense of leaving your own is moving and universal.

But the real success is in the development of Thorin, who is played perfectly by Armitage. In a string of flashbacks, we learn of the downfall of his people and his family, and the impossible burden that has fallen on him to protect and provide for his people. Legacy is a brutally important element of THE HOBBIT: Bilbo’s unfortunate withdrawal into his family’s legacy of peace and plenty juxtaposes well against Thorin’s desperate attempts to reclaim his father and grandfather’s. The sequence depicting the struggle between his kin and their enemy, the Orcs, tells the audience all they need to know about this would-be King, in spite of his gruffness. And though in the book Azog (the “Pale Orc”) is killed in the battle and Thorin instead inherits the vengeance of Azog’s son, the bitterness here between the two is enough antagonism that it works equally well.

Of course, in the years since Serkis and Jackson pioneered performance-capture the medium has grown exponentially, and it’s put to great effect here. Both the sequence with the trolls and the legendary “Riddles in the Dark” scene are sights to behold, and Gollum in particular looks better than ever. Serkis does an incredible job of recapturing the character and all of his nuances, even ten years on. The goblins also look surprisingly fantastic, as there was significant doubt over whether the filmmaker should have gone all CGI for them. But they and their entire lair looks amazing, and the nice touch of Barry Humphries as the Great Goblin is a bit of spot-on casting; he nails the tone of the character perfectly, adding just the right amount of Tolkien whimsy to his croaking song and dance.

But the most important character is that of New Zealand, which was nearly abandoned by the studio as a location for economic and legal reasons. Fans the world over can all breathe a sigh of relief, however, as the stunning vistas inherent to the country are on full display, and are unlike anything you’ve ever witnessed before in 3D HFR. The soul of Middle-earth is undoubtedly the countryside of New Zealand, and Jackson and his team somehow manage to find the perfect locations every single time.

THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY is a welcome addition to Jackson’s Middle-earth canon, and though it may not quite reach the heights of his previous offerings, it spells promise for the rest of the trilogy. Its implications for the future of the industry are yet to be seen, but nobody can judge Jackson for trying to push things forward (again), and the discussions about the serialization of the film and the formatting revolution that the series suggests are all topics worth discussing. And though the film has the necessary flaws inherent to adapting the source material, it gives fans everything they wanted – even if it’s not quite in the way that they expected it. Most importantly, it’s a fun time at the movies, and does a wonderful job of revisiting old faces and places.

Plus, it’s just great to have more of these movies, isn’t it?

8.5/10

d.a. garabedian