An Unexpected Journey
My recollection when I decided to sit down and rewatch this trilogy was that the first Hobbit movie was by far the best, and I think it’s very possible that recollection was correct. Nevertheless, having only seen it once (in theaters, on Christmas Day), I allowed the intervening years to dull my memories as to exactly how effective this first film was, my memory of its flaws (many of which it shares with the trilogy as a whole) influencing my overall opinion to a much more pronounced degree than its strengths.
When I’ve talked about The Hobbit trilogy before, I’ve talked about how the tone clashes with the tone of the book it’s based on and instead resembles to a much greater degree Peter Jackson’s absolutely flawless adaptations of the much different Lord of the Rings trilogy. It’s an easy, and maybe even popular, observation that seems to be a core plank in everyone’s explanation of why this trilogy just doesn’t work for them. But here’s a counterpoint I hadn’t considered: so fucking what?
Seriously, what does this observation really tell us about whether or not the movies are a success on their own terms? It’s not as if fidelity to the source material is a big part of what everyone loves about the Lord of the Rings movies. The only honest summary of how the vast majority of people reacted to them if we loved them and are more than passingly familiar with the books is “wow, Peter Jackson changed literally everything; thank the gods.” And while it would not be the biggest priority to me were I in his place (I also wouldn’t have won 11 fucking Oscars if I were in his place), it isn’t exactly unforgivable that Jackson would want his Hobbit movies to feel like they’re cut from the same cloth as his Lord of the Rings films. They are prequels, after all.
Before I swing all the way into full-on Jackson apologia (as much as I’d like to), let’s pump the brakes for a moment and talk about some of the very real flaws that are readily apparent even in this, the first and probably best entry into the trilogy. Because while a lot of people complain that this is too similar to Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies, it falls short of the rather impossible mark those set in a few very important ways.
Most frustratingly for me, because I am someone who finds myself most easily connecting to character-driven films, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey really fails to establish its dwarven protagonists as especially strong, individual characters. What’s really interesting to me is if you watch all of the behind the scenes stuff (which I did), Jackson and company were very adamant that this was a crucial hurdle they absolutely needed to clear. They devoted quite a lot of time and energy to making all thirteen of the dwarves visually distinguishable from each other, and they wanted each dwarf to have their own distinct, memorable personality. And I’m sorry, but they just don’t. Or rather, the film doesn’t give them nearly enough space towards the beginning to actually show enough of their personality and character to be memorable to the audience as the film (and trilogy) goes on.
Which is honestly just pretty damn weird considering that we’re stretching a relatively short (especially compared to Lord of the Rings) novel into an epic trilogy with runtimes in the 2 and a half to 3 hour range. How on earth was there not time after Bilbo impulsively and belatedly decided to join Thorin’s company after all and the first few hurdles they had to clear to just… spend some time getting the audience acquainted with each character? There are a few little character moments peppered throughout the film, sure, but I honestly couldn’t match half of the dwarves’ names to their faces after the film was over. And, I’m sorry, but that’s just a pretty staggering failure to establish the characters in your film. If I devoted a lot of time and attention to it throughout the course of the film, yeah, I’m sure that wouldn’t be the case. But just… knowing the damn names of your characters shouldn’t be work. It should be intuitive and easy for the audience in a film like this. There are a lot of times when I think we should be more okay with the audience having to do some work to engage with the film they’re watching, but this is one case where I frankly think the movie really should do this work for you.
Don’t get me wrong here. Gandalf is still Gandalf, Thorin is easy to pick out (if he weren’t, we’d honestly be talking about a one star movie at this point), and there are some that are easy to remember (Kili is the unsettlingly hot but pretty daft one), but it’s just distracting how hard it is to keep track of everyone else. Though, if you want to talk about character stuff, wow I really forgot just how fucking great Bilbo is in this movie, but put a pin in that for now because I’ll come back to it when we’re talking about the things this film does well. It just deserves mention here before I entirely move on. I’m also not saying that a Hobbit adaptation was ever going to be able to give you a cast of characters as cinematically legible as Aragorn, Boromir, Gandalf, Gimli, Legolas, and the four Hobbits, and that isn’t a fair standard to hold it to, but I just think it could’ve done more to learn from its older siblings’ success.
It’s also worth noting that the action in Lord of the Rings was (usually) a great deal more kinetic, and I really don’t want to become an Old [Enby] Yells at Cloud meme here, but the much greater reliance on CGI here isn’t just a scapegoat the way it can sometimes be. The Lord of the Rings trilogy was so great at mixing elements so even the bits that leaned heavily on CGI felt authentic, but often that’s just not the case here. The most pronounced example of this in the first film is the escape from Goblintown. And especially the bit where part of the bridge collapses and everyone falls what looks like hundreds or thousands of feet. There is just zero feeling of peril here. Consider, by way of contrast, the Fellowship descending the crumbling stairs to the Bridge of Khazad-dûm. Yes, there are some wide shots that are almost entirely digital (though, more of them are actually miniatures than you might think), but you also get these tight shots of real actors occupying real space and reacting, and it just feels so much less disconnected.
Actually, I glossed over this a little just now, but I would not be remotely surprised to find that a lack of physical filming involving miniatures is responsible for a lot of why these movies “feel” so much different from the previous trilogy. Everyone in the behind the scenes materials makes such a big deal about how, even when they use miniatures, they’re digitally scanning the whole thing into “3D space” (blarg), and this allows Jackson to do pretty much whatever he wants with the camera. And that does lead to some pretty fucking cool shots that are just impossible otherwise, but it seems like we’ve rather hastily abandoned the sort of surprisingly grounded realism that the visuals in Lord of the Rings were able to consistently provide. I know it’s way, way too easy to blame CGI for everything, and I don’t want to be one of those people who does it out of reflex, but the contrast here is just so stark. The Lord of the Rings trilogy, made on a fraction of the budget, achieved a nearly perfect balance of digital and practical. Maybe that was due to a combination of circumstances that just isn’t ever going to happen again, but it’s a bit disheartening that the guy who made that happen didn’t even try to chase it again.
But, you know, don’t let my disappointment that Jackson didn’t try to chase perfection again distract from the fact that at least he still built some pretty fucking awesome sets and I know that doesn’t sound like that big of a deal, but there are times when it really shows. Bag End is just a joy to see on screen again, Rivendell smacks you in the face with its beautiful majesty, these places almost feel like characters because of the amount of love that went into allowing us to return there.
Anyway, let’s talk about 3D. This is where you might as well just go ahead and get your Old [Enby] Yells at Cloud takes ready, because I make no bones about the fact that I fucking hate 3D. I already addressed this a little in my preliminary thoughts about revisting the series, but these feelings are even more acute after actually sitting down and watching the fist film. Even if I weren’t someone who rolls my eyes pretty hard at 3D in general, sacrificing something like having Ian fucking McKellen in the same room as the people he’s acting with just so you can project your film in true 3D is so indicative of just tragically misguided priorities I don’t even know where to start. Yeah, the Lord of the Rings films sometimes used scale doubles, but at least then you were still actually in a place acting with someone and not just seeing nothing but green around you. And they also used forced perspective, a strategy that is made completely unavailable to the Hobbit films because the priority was being able to project them in 3D and rake in those sweet, sweet dollars. Just to complete the curmudgeonly portion of my review, I should also add that I really don’t love that these films were shot digitally rather than being shot on film, but you know, small potatoes at this point. And I get the flexibility that shooting digitally gives you, and it’s hardly the most impactful example of this, but it just feels like a lot of choices in how to make these films had more to do with convenience than they did with what would produce the best-looking, most engaging film.
So, yeah, so far this doesn’t sound very different than my earlier take on the film aside from being… longer, I guess? (Appropriate, since this is my first time watching the Extended Editions of these films.) The thing is, there are a lot of reasons why I’m giving these films another go (besides, just, “Directed by Peter Jackson”), and more to the point there are a lot of very obvious reasons why I remembered the first film being my favorite. Superficially, it shares a lot in common with Fellowship of the Ring. It manages to hit a lot of the same beats, and it’s just absolutely front-loaded with a lot of the book’s best scenes. The unexpected party, the trolls, the goblins (though I didn’t completely love this part as much as I would’ve liked to), Bilbo and Gollum’s riddles in the dark.
There was a lot going on here that just made this Lord of the Rings fan[enby] grin. Gandalf apologizing for not really being dressed for dinner and Elrond cattily teasing the robed wizard by pointing out that he never really is is gay culture. Gandalf’s telepathic conversations with a conspiratorial Galadriel while Saruman is just droning on self-importantly were a thing of beauty.
One addition that I cannot entirely trust my own objectivity about is Azog the Defiler, aka that really hot albino orc that makes me feel weak-kneed. I didn’t enjoy the Goblintown stuff nearly as much as I expected to (they got overwhelmed and kidnapped by a mosh pit of fucking goblins, but I didn’t feel jealous of them!), so it was up to Azog and his orcs to deliver the yummy antagonists, and… honestly, they totally delivered, so I can’t really complain.
Howard Shore had a bit more help with the music than usual, because the tune for The Misty Mountains was worked out on set before he started scoring the movie so Richard Armitage and others could sing it. The way Shore took that theme and made it the recurring heroic theme of the Company, weaving it throughout the film, was a wonderful choice. (And one indicative of a tremendous artist sublimating his own ego to what’s best for the film.) There were also some just fantastic choices around reprising musical themes from the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The fateful moment when Bilbo decides to spare Gollum’s life uses the score from when Gandalf relates Bilbo’s choice to Frodo 60 years later in The Fellowship of the Ring. When Bilbo sees Rivendell for the first time and is taken aback by its majesty, a lot of the heavy lifting comes from a triumphant reprise of the familiar Rivendell theme.
One thing I can’t account for is how I didn’t even really notice how perfect Martin Freeman is as Bilbo the first time I saw this. He makes so many great choices that bring so much character to his performance, and just… no matter how iconic the halflings are in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, I think he might be the most immediately believable Hobbit we’ve seen in either trilogy. But where he really shines is in the pathos of the character. His “aha!” moment of realizing that the dwarves don’t have a home, and that he wants to do whatever he can to help them regain theirs. His moment of bravery in jumping into the fray to help Thorin. All of it culminating when Thorin grabs him for what would’ve been the most emotional hug I’ve seen all week were it not for Kenny Omega and Kota Ibushi. (Sorry, that was a Japanese wrestling reference.)
Armitage impresses as Thorin as well. Despite the character looking nothing like what I pictured all those years ago, and despite nagging details like his beard not being nearly long enough, it’s actually impossible for me to imagine anyone else playing him now. And his dynamic with Freeman is just spectacular. Maybe the film failed to establish the characters of the other dwarves as thoroughly as it should have, but the characterization of Bilbo and Thorin is so damn strong it almost makes up for it.
The Desolation of Smaug
… well, fuck.
I’m trying to think of when the last time I was this wrong about a movie was. I’m also just trying to sort out why I was as wrong in the specific ways I was. There are some very specific things I remember thinking the first time I watched this–like, “the barrel scene was ridiculous and completely unengaging”–that just… aren’t the case. And I very distinctly remember thinking that the conversation between Bilbo and Smaug felt like it dragged on for hours when I was on the edge of my seat the whole time this time. Was I just in a really, really shitty mood the last time I watched it?
I do have one pretty significant gripe with this, and it’s Tauriel. Well, not really Tauriel herself. You can have a non-canonical she-elf warrior that kicks all of the ass, I’m actually very onboard with that. I’m just not sure why you had to throw her into a totally nonsensical romance with Kili, the randomly sexy dwarf. Just let her do her thing, man. And let her motivation be “I’d kind of like for these dwarf assholes to not die and for a Second Darkness to not cover the land” not “my inexplicable future dwarf boyfriend is in trouble!”
But that’s… really it? I loved Mirkwood. I must’ve had a really awful viewing experience last time, because I don’t remember being nearly as viscerally bothered by the giant spiders. While we’re on that subject, though, can we give the whole webbing and manhandling abilities to a less gross monster than giant spiders? Pretty please? Because that stuff really works for me, but spiders seriously creep me out. (Then again, I guess that combination of conflicting feelings just makes them even more compelling. Drat.)
Alright, before I go back to not being a horrible person, I should add that there’s a series of low-angle shots of a triumphant, arrogantly-smirking Azog the Defiler that just… really worked for me. Uh. Because of the cinematography. Yeah, that’s it. The cinematography.
I’m still really not sure that these movies had to be expanded into a trilogy, but my skepticism is eroded somewhat because this is the film I remember taking the brunt of the “damage” from that, and that would make sense because it’s cobbled together from what was originally part one’s ending and part two’s beginning, but it really doesn’t feel like that at all. Mirkwood is its whole own thing, and the first encounter with Smaug really does deserve all the time it was given. Although, I will say his menacing conversation with Bilbo was a lot more effective for me than the ensuing action scene.
As for Smaug himself, man oh man oh man. He did not disappoint. I’m not even usually a huge Cumberbatch fan, but I have to admit this was a pretty great voice performance and all of the subtle animalistic sounds they mixed in really helped. What really did the trick, though, were a few key shots like Bilbo realizing just how huge the dragon was when his head was on one side of a building and his tail was all the way on the other side. Or when he finally stood up to his full height and Bilbo just cowered and tried not to lose it.
The Battle of the Five Armies
It’s really only in the context of being open-minded and seriously committing to reevaluating these films that I was able to enjoy this one quite so much. From the beginning with An Unexpected Journey, I conceded that if you’re looking for fidelity to the book, you’re going to be nothing but frustrated with these movies. And while you could argue The Battle of the Five Armies is the film where you least need to worry about that since Bilbo was knocked out for the entire battle, even that’s pretty thoroughly fucked in this movie because he’s only knocked out for a very short period of the battle and also everything that happens after the battle (notably the site of Thorin’s death) is changed for dramatic reasons. I actually fully support that particular change because it feels like exactly what that scene needed in the context of this movie and this trilogy, but again, if you want slavish devotion to the source material I can’t imagine any other reaction but throwing up your hands in the air in frustration and shouting, “Oh, come on! You had basically one thing in this movie not to change and you changed it!”
Smaug’s destruction of Lake-town and eventual death at the hands of Bard serves as this movie’s cold open. I’m not even trying to be glib, the title card actually comes up right after this scene. It kind of makes sense, though, because after seeing Smaug killed you could easily imagine thinking, “Well, that’s a relief.” Seeing “The Battle of the Five Armies” right afterwards probably helps stave that off.
I actually really loved seeing Gandalf, Galadriel, Sauruman, and Elrond in action. It felt like we were seeing something really momentous in the history of Middle Earth. The first time I watched this I remembering making frowny faces and thinking this created some sort of continuity problems, but I really don’t think it does. The only person Gandalf talks to about Sauron towards the beginning of Fellowship is Saruman, and there’s nothing to suggest Saruman is surprised that Sauron is back or that Gandalf is surprised he isn’t surprised. Moreover, the thing in Fellowship that really shocks Gandalf is figuring out that Frodo’s (or Bilbo’s) ring is the One Ring. And that actually really tracks with the way they leave things at Dol Guldur, that without the One Ring, Sauron will never again gain dominion over Middle Earth.
Also, like, even if there were continuity issues, who cares? Because any self-respecting film fan is watching these after Lord of the Rings, not before. In this house we follow production/release order, not “chronological” order. (Because that’s how films actually react to each other. The first three films can’t react to films that didn’t exist yet, and the prequels are full of reactions to the first three.) Or, you know, just watch the Lord of the Rings trilogy by itself. Because I’ll be honest, even though I’m sitting here defending these movies, I’m much more likely to watch Lord of the Rings over and over than I am to watch the Hobbit trilogy. Just saying.
From this point on the rest of the movie is basically just a brief escalation towards battle and then… that battle. And it’s so easy to imagine this becoming completely onerous if it weren’t for the fact that so many character moments are used to make that battle legible to the audience.
The relationship this film handles the best is Bilbo and Thorin, and that’s probably for the best because Martin Freeman continues to be the goddamn MVP of these movies. Like, how did I not notice how infuriatingly perfect of a Bilbo he is the first time I watched these movies. I kind of want Peter Jackson to go back and digitally add him to all the Lord of the Rings movies, George Lucas style. (No I fucking don’t, don’t touch those movies, they’re perfect. I’m intentionally being hyperbolic.) It’s just goddamn impossible for me to imagine anyone else playing Bilbo now.
If we’re handing out acting MVPs, though, a very strong first runner up has to go to Evangeline Lilly for actually making me care about her underwritten character and her ridiculous romance with Kili. Like, this movie absolutely does not earn the reaction she has to his death nor does it earn the fact that her performance is so convincing that I actually teared up a little over a relationship I had absolutely no reason to care about. Damn, she’s good.
Actually, no, first runner up is a tie because Ian McKellen does Ian McKellen things. I especially love the scene in the aftermath of the battle where Gandalf sits down next to Bilbo and they don’t say a word. Apparently there were actually lines written for this scene originally but either Martin or Ian, I forget who, decided they wanted to try one take in silence and Jackson loved it because of course he did because it’s perfect. It’s one of the finest bits of acting in either trilogy. Yeah, I said it.
There’s a ton of cool orcs in this, by the way, and you know that works for me. There’s one orc that has a skull logo over his crotch, and I kind of want to know what his deal is. I’m also obviously a pretty big fan of any scene where there’s just a huge number of orcs being all stompy and intimidating. And we get a few of those, because Peter Jackson knows what I like.
My only real complaint about this is that the ending feels a little weak. Not Bilbo parting with the dwarves and eventually Gandalf, but when it pulls out of all of that and shows us the first few seconds of Fellowship of the Ring. I know it’s going to sound a little nitpicky and fussy, but I have real, substantial reasons for disliking this choice. It was only there to provide a cute little wraparound narrative that started in the beginning of An Unexpected Journey, but we really didn’t need that. This was this Bilbo’s journey. And Martin Freeman did such an impossibly good job of bringing that journey to life, these movies really should’ve began and ended with his Bilbo, nostalgia be damned.
Even when I had a much less favorable view of these films, the Star Wars prequels comparison always felt a little ridiculous to me. It feels even more ridiculous now. I want to be clear: there is definitely a perceptible drop in quality from the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but there was always going to be. But I feel like the first time I watched these movies, all I was reacting to was the perceptible difference between these films and their genuinely perfect predecessors. And that’s not a fair standard to hold any movie to. The Lord of the Rings trilogy is truly special. All three movies are almost certainly among my top 10 favorite films of all time. Very few movies can be that! And that’s completely okay! So these just have to settle for being well above-average for studio blockbusters, and a welcome return to a world that I really never want to stop living in.