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The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey - Washington Film Institute Review

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey - Washington Film Institute Review

First Published on WFI on December 14, 2012

THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY
Director: Peter Jackson 
Starring: Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Elijah Wood, Ian Holm, Cate Blanchett, Andy Serkis, Hugo Weaving, Christopher Lee and Ken Scott 
Writers: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson and Guillermo del Toro 
Based on “The Hobbit, or There and Back Again,” by J.R.R. Tolkien 
Produced by Peter Jackson, Carolynne Cunningham, Zane Weiner and Fran Walsh 
Director of Photography,: Andrew Lesnie 
Production Designer: Dan Hannah 
Armor, Weapons, Creatures and Special Make-Up: Richard Taylor and Weta Workshop 
Visual Effects: Joe Letteri and Weta Digital

By Matt Neufeld

December 14, 2012

Hollywood, in this successful fall and winter of 2012, is enjoying an unusually rewarding and positive season in terms of achieving a continuing level of excellence in quality in regards to visiting familiar territory–quite familiar territory, actually, in terms of basing films around exceedingly well-known, popular, and enduring characters, stories, sources, themes and subject matter. Usually, in any season, the opposite is true—Hollywood’s downfall is its tiring, often-desperate over-reliance on visiting, re-visiting and then re-visiting yet again the overly-familiar to the point of nausea—and resulting in widespread critical and commercial failure after the familiarity tendencies jump not only a shark, but a Sea World-full of sharks. However, again, that’s not the case this season, and the point deserves to be repeated: Hollywood is succeeding in the latter quarter of 2012 by producing films with familiar characters and stories when that very tactic has nearly overstayed and bankrupted its welcome in the recent past.

The sleeper, surprise hit “Looper” re-visited time travel stories—a theme nearly done to death in film and television and books–but the film succeeded on all levels to result in an entertaining, smart, deep and original time travel film. “Skyfall,” of course, is the 23rd film in the Broccoli-family-produced series of James Bond espionage-spy-action-adventure films that stretches back half a century—but its own depth in characterization, skillful blend of drama and action and thrills, and carefully-handled explorations of several adult themes without forgoing the requisite action, adventures, thrills and humor, resulted in simply one of the best Bond films in years and a thoroughly entertaining, fun and thoughtful film. “Les Miserable”—full review coming on Dec. 19—re-visits nothing less than one of the most successful stage musicals and stage plays in the history of theater, and re-visits songs and characters that have literally been viewed and sung and enjoyed around the world by tens of millions of people, but, in this first film version of the stage musical, “Les Miserables” ends up being literally one of the great film musicals, one of the best films of the year, the best film musical since “Chicago” and a thoroughly entertaining, instant classic. Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” re-visited nothing less than Abraham Lincoln—the subject of hundreds of films, television shows and documentaries; the subject of hundreds and hundreds of books; and simply one of the most well-known presidents and political figures in the history of the United States—and Spielberg, cast and crew ended up producing, also, one of the best films of the year, one of the best films on Lincoln, a brilliantly-acted film, and a film about Abraham Lincoln that focused on a little-known political story, on the personal aspects of Lincoln’s wide-ranging personality and political skills, and on Lincoln’s heartwarming, heartfelt and painful family life amid the daily challenges of leading a country, a government—and a family–torn apart by a bloody, seemingly senseless Civil War.

And, now, we have, yes, indeed, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” to be released on Friday, Dec. 14, 2012, the latest adaptation of the works of J.R.R. Tolkien by producer-writer-director Peter Jackson, producer-writer Fran Walsh, and their talented, faithful, hard-working—and brilliant—extensive cast and crew of hundreds and hundreds. What to make, then, of another full-length, live-action, over-two-hours-long, fantasy-action-adventure film that dares to re-visit the fantastical, yet popular, yet enduring, world of Tolkien’s colorful array of hobbits, wizards, elves, dwarves, sorcerers, trolls, goblins, and all manners of strange and wonderful things that go bump in the day and bump in the night? What to make, then, of re-visiting this world after the wildly crazy worldwide critical and commercial success of “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy—“The Fellowship of the Ring” (2001), “The Two Towers” (2002) and “The Return of the King” (2003)??!! Those three films not only made film history on many levels, made literally billions of dollars, but they universally collected rave reviews—quite rare for three fantasy films—from fans, followers, devoted Tolkien fans (a diehard bunch if there ever was one), fantasy fans, science fiction and horror fans, and, yes, many untold legions of non-fantasy-oriented people who normally would never have paid a cent to see a fantasy, sci-fi, horror or narrow-genre type of film. The three “Rings” films were literally a worldwide phenomena—three of the most popular films of all time, three of the best fantasy films of all time, and among the best films, point blank, of the last 15 years.

So who, exactly, in terms of cast and crew, would dare to re-visit this imposing world of everything Tolkien once again? And what, dare we ask the question, would the results be this time around—nine years after the release of the last film in the original trilogy, and, believe it or not, 75 years after the original 1937 release of the source material for the new film, Tolkien’s “The Hobbit, or There and Back Again?”

Fortunately, for all of us, for the devoted fans, for the general non-fantasy populace, for Jackson and Walsh and their co-producers, for New Line Cinema and MGM and Warner Brothers, and for the cast and crew, it is most satisfying and most enjoyable to report honestly that “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” is an excellent film, a success, and an achievement on par with the likes of the first three Tolkien films. “The Hobbit” succeeds on all of the artistic, literary, acting and technical filmic levels that made the original trilogy succeed—and there are many levels. But first and foremost, as with any film, “Hobbit” succeeds in terms of production, direction, writing and acting. The lavish, unsparing, beautifully-designed and breathtaking-to-behold production design, art direction, set design and fantasy-world detail takes the viewer away and easily places he and she into a faraway, fantastical world that is literally unlike our boring real world—you feel, experience, see, and live inside Middle-earth and all its bizarre mini-worlds and regions. An assured and confident direction keeps the film moving, exciting and suspenseful through more than two hours, with just the right mix of expertly-melded exposition, action, adventure and fantasy that includes many harrowing, tension-filled battles and action sequences, along with comic-relief scenes and scenes of deep emotion as characters slowly start to realize they are fighting to literally save their entire world. The writing throughout the film freely embraces, as it should, its source material, thus ensuring that the dialogue is exceptionally intelligent, probing, deep and eloquent, as all of Tolkien’s works were. And the acting—well, there’s acting in Jackson’s films that effortlessly rises above the acting in most fantasy and genre films simply because there exists in these films some of the best actors working on the planet. The actors charge ahead in their difficult, conflicted characters at full-force, at all times, portraying the basic elements of unique characterization, character development, conflicting emotions and equal proponents of wonder, joy, fear, courage, retribution, guts, glory, heartbreak—and exploration and discovery.

That’s what filmmaking is all about, Charlie Brown, as Linus might say, if he were discussing film instead of explaining Christmas.

And those quite basic, elemental foundations of filmmaking are important to note straight off in this particular instance, because, let’s face it, the odds are always somewhat stacked against you when you re-visit such imposing source films and books—and such imposing films and books that were so popular as the “Rings” films and books. Add on the additional burden of nine years away from the Shire and Middle-earth, and questions about who was in and out, and questions about what was in or out, and that ever-demanding fan base, and, well, as a filmmaker, you’re facing some formidable obstacles. So it’s great to see Jackson, Walsh and crew do exactly what they should have done: pay attention to the many details that made the “Rings” films work, stick to those principles, bring in a new story that, yes, is somewhat similar to the original story—but, hey, it’s all the same story, and even Tolkien knew that—and, yes, bring back not only much of the original cast, but most of the original production, artistic and technical crews. And, that, Tolkienistas and everyone else, is where the praise can start for “The Hobbit.”

Besides including themselves—and there were questions a couple of years ago about just whether Jackson would direct again—Jackson and Walsh stuck with what they knew in terms of cast and crew. In a big way. The entire top tier of the production crew is composed of veterans of the “Rings” trilogy, and what a talented crew they are: director of photography Andrew Lesnie, production designer Dan Hannah, musical composer Howard Shore, make-up and hair designer Peter Swords King, make-up, creature, swords and armor master Richard Taylor, and visual effects supervisor Joe Letteri. All of them worked on the “Rings” trilogy, they all won deserved awards—and they’re all back again. That’s just smart, intelligent filmmaking. That not only ensures continued quality, but as Jackson as noted, that contributes to a very real, very productive and very positive family atmosphere on the set. That, in turn, leads to a quality production. It’s the same idea behind the Broccoli family and their familiar cast and crew for the Bond films—when you build a congenial, comfortable and familiar atmosphere on the set, you’re more than likely to end up with a quality film as a result.

But it’s not just the people involved, of course, but what they produce up on the screen. In “The Hobbit,” the production values, as noted, are breathtaking throughout the film. From the homey, comfortable and peaceful home of Bilbo Baggins at the start of the film—you immediately feel like you either want to visit this lovable, green-filled Shire place or even live there—through the dozens of locales and landscapes throughout the film, every scene is lushly, extravagantly photographed, with elaborate lighting and shades of colors that convey different places and different emotions. The Shire is all green and bright, the forests are dark and deep and foreboding, abandoned fortresses are gray and dark and evil, oasis-like elvin valleys are, again, breathtakingly beautiful, full of wispy waterfalls, strange plant life, marble- and granite-like gazebos and palaces, and scary subterranean kingdoms for all those ugly creatures are full of fire, darkness, wobbly wooden footbridges, tall cliffs, and dark, cold stones and walls. You cannot escape the magic and wonder that the hundreds of artists, carpenters, computer technicians, builders and set designers created in varied scenes in “The Hobbit”—every different creature, including, yes, the slithering, slimy, pathetic Gollum, gets their own strange wonderland, or wasteland, as the case may be. The production designers took great care to create many different worlds for many different beings, and all of their work is beautifully displayed, up on the screen. One scene and vista and landscape are as awe-inspiring as the next. The filming took place inNew Zealand, as did the “Rings” films, and at the now-sprawling workshops of Jackson’s Weta Workshop, which oversees artistic endeavors such as the creatures, make-up, costumes, armor, weapons and swords, and Weta Digital, which oversees the expressive, extensive visual effects.

And Howard Shore’s beautiful musical score, which introduced an instantly-memorable “Rings” main theme and subsequent minor themes, is equally memorable again. His soaring, at times classically-based orchestrations, coupled with more homespun, down-home, Old World folk-inspired songs, themes and ditties, provide just the right balance for the film’s balance of action, adventure, suspense and comic relief. Shore knows when to lay it on heavy, and when to keep it light—just as the film does in its storytelling and direction.

Speaking of direction, Jackson returns with “The Hobbit” at the same confident, assured and intelligent level that he achieved with the first three films, but he did have a new injection of outside help this time around. For those who have followed Guillermo del Toro’s work (“Pan’s Labyrinth,” “Hellboy,” “Hellboy: The Golden Army”), you can see the influence of del Toro’s imagination with some of the creatures and tonal elements of “The Hobbit.” Del Toro is fascinated with dark, evil, scary creatures and he loves to present them in clarity, up-front, all over the big screen. So that’s what you get in “The Hobbit”—scores of scary, evil, slobbering, blood- and spit- and vile-spewing vile creatures. They are fascinating, scary, terrifying and train-wreck-fascinating to watch, all at the same time. Goblins, Trolls, Dwarves, Elves, Orcs—whether they’re good or bad, they definitely take you away to another world.

Jackson started off right by gathering his old crew, but he also started off by focusing on a new story, a prequel, yes, that does introduce some new—and highly-likeable and endearing—characters. And, as mentioned, he balances the endearing characters with the evil and scary characters, focuses on a strong prequel story, and manages to include several old, familiar faces from the “Rings” trilogy. It’s like returning to a great party years after the first party ended, but finding everything the same, but a little different, with welcome, surprising little twists.

The Hobbit” takes place 60 years before the action of the “Rings” trilogy, with central character Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman, who fits the character like a hobbit-vest) living a quite comfortable life in the region known as the Shire in the lands known in Tolkien’s world as Middle-earth. Baggins, a laid-back, easy-as-it-goes sort, lives a contented, simple life in the Shire, as all hobbits do—enjoying his home in a hole in the ground, tending his garden, reading his books, and smoking his pipe on a nice chair in front of his nice house. It’s a nice life, but Gandalf the Grey, the great wizard once again so expertly, humanly and humanely portrayed by the great Ian McKellen, pays a visit to Baggins—just like he does years later to Baggins’ nephew Frodo (Elijah Wood, who appears in one, quick early scene). Gandalf has yet another pitch for Baggins’ help in a quest that has greater worldwide consequences than is initially seen by all involved. Gandalf simply asks Baggins to accompany a troop of colorful, lively and likeable dwarves to their lost homeland, and to help them regain the land, castle, kingdom and life they once knew. The dwarves’ land was taken from them by the terrifying dragon Smaug, and Gandalf believes there is a way for the dwarves to regain their land. It’s a noble quest, but Baggins is befuddled as to why he is asked and chosen to accompany 13 seemingly odd and eccentric strangers on this quest. Gandalf sees something in the Baggins hobbits—a perhaps mystical, all-powerful quality—that transcends, overpowers and overcomes even the darkest forces in the world. That is the brilliance of the story—the simple and good overcoming the horrible and bad—and Gandalf understands this power. That is why he enlists the Baggins on these quests.

Of course, the new characters that viewers get to enjoy in “The Hobbit” are these 13 colorful, lively and, at times, goofy dwarves, all with their own distinct looks and personalities. They’re more crude and base and roughshod than hobbits, but they’re all lovable and likeable in their own unique ways. Gandalf gets the dwarves to gather at Bilbo Baggins’ home in the Shire, and from there, they must map out a plan to take back their homeland from the dragon Smaug, which took over the dwarves’ kingdom years before, killing their leaders in the process. The early scenes that introduce the dwarves are lively and funny, and there’s even time for a beautifully-sung, folkish song, sung in the comfort of Baggins home as the dwarves, Bilbo and Gandalf relax by the fire after a feast. It’s a nice scene, and it immediately creates sympathy for the homeless dwarves. Baggins, moved by the dwarves’ plight, and realizing how lucky he is to have a nice home while these desolate creatures have no place to call their home, eventually takes Gandalf’s request and joins the dwarves on their journey.

That journey takes the dwarves, Bilbo and Gandalf through a series of battles in various parts of Middle-earth with those aforementioned array of ugly creatures—trolls who literally want to eat the dwarves; terrifying orcs and beasts who literally want to tear them apart; reluctant elves who would rather not get involved with their battle; a reluctant wizard who argues with Gandalf about not only the dwarves’ quest but the very future of Middle-earth, and, yes, the bizarrely pathetic Gollum, who Bilbo encounters for the first time in a dark cave of rotting bones and carcasses. And it is here, in the cave with Gollum, that Bilbo’s “Hobbit” story connects with the “Rings” story.

Along the way, there are great battles, narrow escapes, colorful characters, those wildly exotic locales, and exposition that widens the story from simply the dwarves’ quest to various events and issues and omens that indicate something stronger, something more threatening, something more evil, is occurring, and it all connects to the dragon Smaug, the dwarves’ quest, and what Gandalf and co-wizards Saruman the White (Christopher Lee) and Radagast the Brown (one of the Dr. Whos, Sylvester McCoy, a Marlin Perkins of the Wizard World) are seeing and feeling in Middle-earth. The dwarves are led by Thorin (the tough, brooding Richard Armitage), a king-like, macho dwarf that is the rightful descendant and leader of the homeland taken away from his people by Smaug. Yes, Armitage’s Thorin will remind you of the “Rings’” Viggo Mortensen and Mortensen’s character Aragorn. That’s because they’re similar souls on similar quests. And where Aragorn dealt with hobbits and elves and others, Armitage deals with a colorful band of dwarves. The circumstances are similar, but they still feel fresh and new.

Although “The Hobbit” has plenty of action and battle and fight scenes, one scene stands out, if only for the collection of actors portraying unique characters in a unique dialogue scene. At a pivotal moment in the group’s quest, Gandalf and Saruman meet at the elves’ beautiful homeland with the Elf Lord Elrond (Hugo Weaving) and the Elf Queen Galadriel (Cate Blanchett, looking beautiful). Each character has their own views, motives and agendas, with Lee’s quietly, darkly scheming Saruman the most diabolical. But while they meet, the viewer can just sit back and enjoy the talents and pleasures of watching four masters at work—McKellen, Lee, Blanchett and Weaving. It would have been worth a day’s drive to have been on the set the days they filmed these scenes, as the back-and-forth between the actors, and the varying expressions they convey as each maps out their own plans, is priceless.

And there, in that scene, and in just about every other scene, lies yet another secret—or not-so-secret—key to the success of “The Hobbit:” Ian McKellen. If anyone completely owns this film, it’s Ian McKellen. His proud, insightful, mysterious, dominating and all-powerful Gandalf, even more so than Bilbo Baggins and even more so than Thorin, the leader of the dwarves, is present, prominent and leading the proceedings in most scenes in the film. “The Hobbit’s” real center, rock and foundation is Gandalf, and Gandalf’s portrayal by Ian McKellen. With just a wink or a nod of that expressive face, with just a sweep of his arms, and with just a few lines of impeccably-spoken, formally-stage-trained, Shakespearean diction, you are always under the sway and control and leadership of Gandalf and McKellen. There really is no “Hobbit” without McKellen, and without McKellen’s Gandalf. In fact, and it’s not a stretch, Ian McKellen should be nominated for best actor, right up there with Daniel Day Lewis’ Lincoln and Hugh Jackman’s Valjean. Some may laugh at that notion, but it’s not a laughable notion at all. McKellen is a great actor, and when you cast great actors in fantasy roles such as Gandalf, sometimes viewers tend to forget just how much that acting makes that character. The same could be said for Patrick Stewart’s similar portrayals of Jean-Luc Picard and Professor X. McKellen wonderfully, proudly and expertly steals the show in “The Hobbit,’ and that’s just one of many unexpected journeys in this fun, entertaining film.

One final note: Some nattering naysayers have been blathering and blithering and ranting and raving on about some technical gobbledegook regarding Jackson’s decision to shoot the film in some type of technique that involves shooting at 48 frames per second. Believe me, this does not ruin the film, does not distract from the film in any way, and does not affect the film in a negative manner. The basic, core elements of film—among them first and foremost, production, direction, writing and acting—are so strong, formidable and excellent in “The Hobbit,” any talk about technical this or that becomes moot. I’m going to wisely bet that most filmgoers don’t even know what the heck 48 frames per second is, and most likely and realistically, they could care less if the film was shot in 48 frames per second, 1,048 frames per second or 1 million gigawatts per second. Who on earth cares? Also, if you asked most people on the planet, likely nine out of ten could not explain what on earth 48 frames per second is, how its’ done, or if they even care one one iota about frames per second in the first place. In regards to “The Hobbit,” it doesn’t matter. And, that little 3-D gimmick doesn’t matter, either—there’s no real reason you have to watch this film in the tired, hackneyed 3-D. 3-D is a lame gimmick whose time has come and gone—if a film is good enough, you just don’t need little technological gimmicks like 48 frames per second or 3D.

In real filmmaking, the core, basic filmic foundations of moviemaking still apply today, as they did 20, 30, 50 or 100 years ago—good, strong, solid production, direction, writing and acting. Fortunately, all are present in excellent form in Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.”

And, if you like this film, two more are coming: “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” and “The Hobbit: There and Back Again,” to be released in 2013 and 2014, respectively.

For this particular fan, I can’t wait to re-visit Middle-earth.

Matt Neufeld is a longtime journalist, actor, and film critic in the Washington and Baltimore areas. He has participated in many local film events and projects in the region, and he has appeared as an actor, supporting actor and extra in more than 45 film projects, at all levels, during the past 20 years. He was previously a daily local news reporter and features writer for The Washington Times and The Frederick News-Post, and he was the media relations publicist for The Washington Performing Arts Society. Matt is currently the News Editor for Carroll Publishing in Bethesda.

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