I don’t frequent midnight premiers; in fact the Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was only my second time ever attending one. Of course, it is impossible to go into a movie based on a source text with which you are familiar in a completely objective manner, especially when someone who has already ventured into the cinematographic realm of Middle Earth directs the movie. I went in expecting greatness; the possibility that this movie could be anything other than epic did not for an instant cross my mind. I was a tad bit under-whelmed by the crowd outside the theater. I went in expecting droves of Istari-bearded individuals toting staffs and long stem pipes. To be sure there were a few, but for the most part I thought the crowd was dismal for a midnight premier, especially of the movie adaption of such a beloved and iconic book.
I hadn’t read the book the Hobbit since I was nine, and so a few of the details were a bit fuzzy in my mind. The opening sequences were beautifully rendered, the Dwarf realm under the mountain was jaw-droppingly gorgeous, and felt very reminiscent of the halls of Moria from the first Lord of the Rings film, had the darkened halls been shown in their full glory. The first forty-five minutes of the film, although it differed in some regards to the book, felt very Tolkien-esque, conveyed a distinctly Middle Earthian feel to it, and were spectacular. The unexpected party sequence at Bag End was delightful, and excited substantial amounts of anticipation for the rest of the movie.
However, this is where problems began to enter into the movie for me. The first problem, Radaghast the Brown. This character is mentioned in the book, but only in passing. I had no problem with the initial inclusion of the character, until he began to play out his role on screen. The nods to naturism were nice, but the sleigh drawn by rabbits? First of all, no rabbits can draw sleighs, and I don’t think there were any people in the theater who would have missed the unabashed allusion to Father Christmas. I was not amused; it wasn’t Tolkien. Not only was it not Tolkien, it was also so fantastic and outside the realm of plausibility that it was laughable, and not in a good way.
This continued to be a theme throughout the movie, and I began to understand the film as a Jekyll and Hyde type operation. When Jackson stuck to Tolkien, it was brilliant, but when it deviated into purely Jackson narrative, laced with over the top special effects, and skull numbing frame rates, the film plunged into a Hyde-like menace. I found myself holding my breath through these sequences, not from any sense of suspense or some kind of emotional attachment to what was taking place on screen, but merely holding out for the movie to get back to Tolkien. Jackson had no doubt attempted to distinguish this film from his previous trilogy as a standalone work, but in many ways, his digital rendering of the characters and locales made this film feel more like watching a restaging of the movie 300 in a Harry Potter world. Frankly, it felt wrong.
The special effects were stunning; I had never seen a movie with that level of effects. I had no problem with the use of effects, what I had a problem with was instead of relying on well crafted worlds and human-acting talent, this movie relied heavily on CGI crafted locales, characters, and ultimately, created a very video game feel, versus something believable, something in which the viewer would be invested. At first, I was slightly angered at what I felt was the cardinal sin in moviemaking: the overreliance on technology in the place of real, on screen talent. No doubt the people who worked on effects for this movie are highly talented people, but CGI characters, particularly villains, with no soul in them, end up feeling boring. An anecdote of this is the pale orc.
First off, he looked nothing like any orc we had seen before, which in a world with the scope of Middle Earth, is unforgiveable. One thing that made the Lord of the Rings such a triumph to watch is that each character had a sense that he had a life beyond the screen, and we were invited along to see only a small part of it. This new villain had no sense of that. He felt inserted into the already established narrative, as indeed he was. There was nothing in my mind while he was on screen except hoping he would go away, and not bother me any more.
I tried to root for this movie throughout my time watching it, and I really did try as much as I could to give it as much objectivity as was possible to lend. Overall, I would say that the movie was not un-enjoyable and by no means insufferable. It just wasn’t the film I was expecting. Perhaps An Unexpected Journey was a fitting moniker