I saw the movie as Peter Jackson intended it, which is to say IMAX 3D, at 48 fps. Which I would have been fine with if not for the fact that the owner of the cinema saw the need to give us a lengthy speech before the movie about how awesome that technology is and how privileged we were to be able to witness it. With that and the commercials and trailers we had to be subjected to as well, the movie started nearly an hour later than the intended time of 12:12.
Usually I can’t stand 3D because it gives me headaches and nausea, but miraculously enough that did not happen, maybe because of the IMAX or the high frame count. I did have to get used to those, though, and it was great as long as the actors were on screen. However, as soon as it switched to CGI, for me it started to look too much like a video game.
Anyway, on to the movie itself! Needless to say, I loved it and I will try to see it again as soon as I possibly can. Being back in Middle Earth after nearly 10 years of no new footage felt like coming home, especially since the movie starts with a lot of familiar faces and sights. I thought it was particularly clever the way the frame story is happening just minutes before story of The Fellowship Of The Ring starts. It’s such a neat way of drawing the audience and especially the dedicated fans into this new story, as well as tying it in to the previous movies.
I’ll be honest and say that I was worried about the prospect of stretching such a relatively short book over three movies, but now that I’ve seen the first one it does make more sense to me. I realised that a lot does happen in The Hobbit, as opposed to The Lord Of The Rings in which there are entire chapters dedicated to people doing nothing but talking to each other or looking at scenery. As it is, I was surprised at how much of the book was in this first movie already, and how much we still have to get through as well in the movies to come: Beorn, Mirkwood, Lake Town, the Desolation, the whole business with the Back Door, the conversations with the Dragon, the actual battling of the Dragon, the killing of the Dragon, and then we still have Thorin’s madness and the Battle of the Five Armies to get through (which Tolkien handled in all of one page... I have a feeling Jackson won’t do that). And that’s not counting the extra stuff from the Appendices that they’re planning to add! I’m sure that will pad out the movies quite sufficiently.
That is not to say An Unexpected Journey didn’t drag a bit in places. Some of the fight and/or chase scenes went on a bit too long, and I could have done without Radagast all together. I like him, but in the way that I like Tom Bombadil. He’s silly and doesn’t add anything to the story.
On to the characters! Martin Freeman... he IS Bilbo. Absolutely perfect, I loved him from the moment of that first “Good Morning!” to Gandalf. I was worried he might be too different from Ian Holm, or on the other side of the spectrum, trying to imitate him too much. But he was just right. His facial expressions and physical acting embodied Bilbo perfectly, and his motivations were completely clear to anyone who looks at him at any moment during the movie. I especially loved the iconic moment of him deciding to spare Gollum’s life. “The pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many” indeed.
Richard Armitage had the massive task of making the character of Thorin Oakenshield a likeable one for the audience. And I must say, he pulled it off superbly! In the book, Thorin is aloof, grumpy, pompous, and has a massive superiority complex. Not exactly a great deal to work with on one of the major heroes of the story, and I don’t think a lot of the readers felt much when he died in the book. However, the actor and the writers make Thorin’s motivations perfectly clear, give him a heart and a purpose. What an achievement this is, and a credit to both his acting and the writing of the character. It doesn’t exactly hurt either that he’s massively hot with his broody face and sad expressive eyes. Like a really sexy basset hound. :)
Those two actors were the highlight of the film for me, as far as the new blood goes. The other dwarves still suffered to some extent from the size of their troupe; less than half of them has anything distinctive to do or any opportunity to set themselves apart from the rest. Balin, of course, gets the best deal, since he is Thorin’s chief counsellor and Bilbo’s closest friend among the dwarves, and he is another tie-in to events in LOTR. Fili and Kili, also, get more interactions, more fighting, more lines, and more close-ups than any of the other Dwarves. Probably mostly because they’re young and super-hot, and the only Dwarves besides Thorin to die at the end. The audience should be made sympathetic towards them, and I can tell you it’s definitely working on me. I am already in love with them, and dreading the moment when they have to die.
The other Dwarves remain, sadly, a bit of a featureless mass of bearded faces for me. Most of them I don’t even know which name belongs to which one. Bombur’s only distinctive feature is that he’s fat (which is much the same in the book, only he has more lines in that), Ori’s that he’s young, Dwalin’s his tattooed head, Gloín that he’s Gimli’s Dad. Some other ones I either remember the actor’s name (Jimmy Nesbitt’s the one in the silly hat!), or some feature (one of them only speaks Dwarvish, don’t ask me which one). Don’t ask me to name them in a line-up, though. At least not until I’ve seen the movie about five more times.
The returning actors... where to begin? There’s so many of them! Well, Sir Ian McKellen, of course, gives another superb performance as Gandalf, slightly younger and less weighed down by his fears and worries for all of Middle-Earth. I liked his interactions with Thorin and Bilbo, and the way he gets to kick ass during key moments in the movie. The same goes for Hugo Weaving, who’s not in the movie as much as I expected but at least managed to get himself into some armour and on a horse instead of brooding in robes. Cate Blanchett doesn’t appear to have aged a day and is still really good at making aimlessly wandering about in slow motion look purposeful somehow (also I loved Galadriel and Gandalf passing psychic notes to each other behind Saruman’s back), even if her only real role in the story is to make it less of a sausage fest. Christopher Lee gets an even rougher deal where most of his lines are just background noise. But who cares, I’m just happy he’s still alive to be in it!
Andy Serkis is on top form again as Gollum, and manages to make his one sequence in the movie at once the funniest and the creepiest with his perfect balance of crazy and malice. The Riddles in the Dark scene was the absolute highlight for me (even if they didn’t include all the riddles).
The make-up and/or CGI department did a brilliant job on Ian Holm, managing to conceal his age and ill health to the point where he’s almost exactly the same Bilbo as the one we meet in FOTR. We’ll forgive him for not being as bouncy as he was, since he’s still maintained that lovely, charming nature he brought to the role. My beloved Elijah, bless his little heart, doesn’t quite pull it off to convince me that he’s the same Frodo as in the beginning of FOTR, but then there is a massive difference between 18 and 28. Ironing out wrinkles is, I’m guessing, easier than adding the lost baby fat to someone’s cheeks. It’s even worse for poor dear Figwit, since Bret’s changed so much in the past years he might as well be a different actor altogether.
Speaking of the CGI: that’s where I have the most issues with this movie. In my opinion, they have gone a step too far with making all the creatures full mocap CG. I realise that the massive prosthetics were a trial for the poor actors in LOTR, but the fact that there was an actual person doing a physical performance added a lot of character to the Orcs and Goblins, which I think is lost with the full CG treatment in this new movie. The main Orc Azog and the Goblin King don’t even “feel” like people, more like computer game “end bosses”. I never once had that feeling with Lúrtz or Gothmog or Grishnâkh. Also it doesn’t help that with the 48fps, the difference between what’s CG and what’s real is thrown in very sharp relief, so that the effect shots are like separate computer game sequences within a live action movie. The same goes for the cities and buildings. Yes, those miniatures were a bitch to make and probably cost a fortune, but they felt REAL, not like something out of a science fiction movie.
I don’t know, maybe I’m just getting old, but apart from my above issues I also loved the nostalgia of the thing more than anything. I loved seeing Hobbiton again (I was there!) and the Bag End and Rivendell sets. I adored all the little touches Howard Shore put into the soundtrack for us music nerds to find: the Hobbit theme when Bilbo decides to continue on his adventure, the Gollum/Sméagol theme in the riddle scene, the full battle choir when Thorin faces Azog (the same lyrics and everything!). And speaking of music: the songs! I was quite worried about those, as bursting into song in the middle of a scene can make everything go pear-shaped, but they actually really added to the atmosphere. I had goosebumps during Thorin’s song, very powerful.
All in all, I felt sorry when it ended. After the halfway mark I spent most of the time worrying it was going to end very abruptly, but the ending was as natural as they could make it. I suspected they weren’t going to actually show us the Dragon yet, but the sneak peek we got looked intriguing indeed. Oooh, I can’t wait for more! Is it next year yet?
So yes, I loved it. It’s not LOTR, of course, but I never expected it to be. What it is, is a wonderful return trip to Middle Earth along with some very dear old friends and some delightful new ones. I suspect I will be going there and back again for a long time to come.