It's kind of hard to fathom that it's already been eleven years since director Peter Jackson changed cinema and pop culture forever by bringing his epic trilogy, Lord of the Rings, to the big screen. Upon the completion of the trifecta in 2003, talk of an adaptation of The Hobbit has circled for years. There was some struggling over who owned the rights to the books and then the decision as to who would direct was in question, with the name Guillermo del Toro attached to sit in that respective chair at one point. But, suddenly, the planets aligned and all was made right when the baton was passed back to Lord of the Rings helmer Peter Jackson, who launched into making a two-part telling of the book The Hobbit. But recent debate turned the two-movie epic into yet another trilogy, with the first third of the story releasing in December, 2012. The end result is quite an experience.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is the first chapter in this motion picture version of J.R.R. Tolkien's classic fantasy novel. Jackson has chosen to flesh out the book some to expand the movies, but in doing so, he seems to be setting this trilogy up well to lead in to The Lord of the Rings. But what's interesting is, while this trilogy is a prequel to the movies from a decade ago, An Unexpected Journey opens with an older Bilbo Baggins relating the story of this film to the hero of that trilogy, Frodo--in a way that assumes you already know Bilbo and Frodo without introduction. It appears that it is the same day that it was when Fellowship of the Ring opened, maybe just a few hours earlier than when we first see Frodo reading by a tree. It's the day of Bilbo's party and Bilbo is reluctantly planning for the forthcoming guests. Jackson clearly has utilized make-up and de-aging CG techniques to soften the look of actor Ian Holm, who is supposed to be the same age as he was eleven years ago (The same can be said for when we later see Saruman -- before he turned totally bad in the other films). Jackson has taken great care in continuity and even trying to build back story on to Lord of the Rings. For example, there's a great scene at Rivendell where Galadriel, Elrond, Saruman and Gandalf are sitting around talking together. When we meet Galadriel in Fellowship of the Ring, it's a really surreal encounter (which is improved upon in the extended version), so it's nice to see some of that dialed back here to really start to plant seeds for the later trilogy. It's really making me anxious to see where Jackson takes things next.
Speaking of surreal, it's quite a feeling to be back in the world of Lord of the Rings. The movie opens as if it were naturally part of the other trilogy, and it really feels like we never left the Shire. Jackson's fingerprints are all over each frame of the film, so it really feels like it's rightfully cut from the same cloth. It's examples like this one that proves just how crucial to a movie series it is to keep the same teams working behind the scenes. To wind the clock back 60 years from the start of Fellowship of the Ring's events, British actor Martin Freeman steps in as a young Bilbo Baggins. Holm was old, crotchety and relatively grumpy as Bilbo at the start of Fellowship, so it's a bit bittersweet to see him more warm and fun to watch in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. It's easy to like the halfling, but it's saddening to know the events of this story won't change him for the better. Freeman does the nervous, neurotic character super well (i.e. Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy) and he's perfectly cast here in the lead role. Meanwhile, Gandalf, reprised masterfully by Ian McKellen, is fun to watch once again. He didn't spend a whole lot of time in Lord of the Rings as Gandalf the Grey, so it's great to see the pre-Rings side of him here. The main cast of the film, however, is a new gang of characters in the thirteen dwarves who take to the hills with Gandalf and Bilbo on their adventure. All of them are pretty endearing in their own way, but the huge size of the entourage makes it more of a challenge to develop them all individually. As it is, after seeing the movie, the only dwarf I'm positive I know the name of is Thorin, the would-be king of the dwarves. Other than that, the names are either really over the top and too similar, or just tough to remember. That's not really Jackson's fault, however, because I found that being the problem for me too (keeping track of who is who) when I started reading Tolkien's book.
However, I didn't read the book in its entirety (yet, that is. It's difficult to find time for pleasure reading), so I can't pinpoint exactly what Jackson and his writing team added to Tolkien's story, but they did a fairly good job fleshing things out. If anything, this cut of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey feels already like it's an extended version. But as such, the opening of the film tends to drag on just a tad. I enjoyed it, but it's a slow crawl up the incline of the rollercoaster before the movie takes off. However, it's all important stuff to the plot and the characters, so it's meat that I think is necessary to the film. We tried to get into the midnight IMAX 3D showing of the movie, but it was sold out, so we opted for the 2D showing (as opposed to the non-IMAX 3D showing) based on the widely negative feedback given to Jackson's decision to shoot the movie at twice the frame rate as normal movies (The frame rate is the rate at which single frames of film go by the screen as part of a "motion picture." The standard frame rate of movies you watch is 24 frames per second. Jackson shot The Hobbit at 48fps, which is unheard of. Most people have complained that it makes the movie look painfully fake). I'm happy to say that the 2D presentation of the film at the standard 24fps looks fantastic. I wouldn't want to watch that doubled frame rate and so the standard presentation makes it look and feel like the other Rings films. If you're particular about the look of the movie, I'd recommend the 2D showing.
While The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was overall a triumph, there were a few details that bugged me. Aside from a crawling start, I noticed a distinct difference in the way Jackson chose to shoot the hobbits in this film. In Lord of the Rings, Jackson used camera tricks and midget body doubles to give characters the sense of being smaller than they really are. For The Hobbit, the hobbits seem to be the size of normal people and then just inter cut with those larger human characters (like Gandalf) when necessary. Because the approach is different, Frodo in particular looks lankier and taller than he did at the beginning of Fellowship. Granted, Elijah Wood is eleven years older, being 31 years old here when he was just 20 for the Rings trilogy, but he looks distinctly taller than before. That stubby look of the hobbits seems to be missing especially since dwarves aren't much taller than hobbits, so they end up all looking taller when sharing a scene because it was probably cheaper and easier to accomplish that way. The other problem is some of the CGI. There feels like there's more animated CGI in the film as opposed to the others. There's a race of goblins as well as a trio of trolls who come in contact with our heroes, but they're shown entirely in CG, with mixed results. The Goblin King is one of the worst in the bunch; while his mouth nearly flawlessly matches the dialog he speaks, his huge, dangly chin sack and overall appearance is a mix of gross and goofy. But I think the worst example of CG comes when Radagast the Brown is being pursued by orcs and we see a sleigh being pulled by rabbits glide over the terrain. It painfully looks as if a blank landscape was filmed and the CG elements were just dragged overtop like a hand-drawn animation cell. As such, the sleigh, the rabbits, and the creatures in pursuit barely leave a shadow and don't even disturb the tall grass in the field of some shots. In fact, when some close-up shots show the sleigh carving tracks in the dirt and grass, it makes it all the more obvious when the ground isn't disturbed at all in the long shots. It just seems lazy for those details to have been missed. On the flip side, the animation for Gollum this time around--while pretty dang good the first time too--is absolutely amazing. Gollum is perfect and his scenes with Bilbo totally make the movie. It's also a fantastic treat to see how Bilbo meets Gollum and winds up swiping the One Ring.
The content for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is on par with The Lord of the Rings trilogy. The orcs are as horrific as usual, the goblins and trolls just as hideous, and some of the wolf/dog hybrids are just as terrifying as ever. There are plenty of creatures that could be the source of nightmares for some, too. There are a few battles, and as such, we once again see heads roll. The first semi-gruesome moment comes in the telling of the dwarves' past where an orc holds the decapitated head of a fallen dwarf up for all to see before tossing it to the ground (and we see it roll). Thorin soon lops the hand off of this orc (and we see some blood spurting) and then later we see the orc with a spiked, iron weapon impaled on its arm to be used as a makeshift limb. That in and of itself is pretty gross, too. Later, when the dwarves fight the goblins, we see some quick shots of decapitations and slicing, as well as a goblin after Gandalf has sliced at its head, look around self-consciously before we see, from behind, the head slide off the shoulders. Finally, among other battle violence, we see a large, fat goblin get sliced in the stomach with a sword and we briefly see the first few layers of fat sliced open before the victim covers it with their hand. It's pretty surprisingly graphic, although nothing, I'm sure, compared to most R-rated violence (in other words, and I apologize for how this sounds, we don't see anything spill out of the wound). Overall, if you were fine with the previous trilogy, it looks like The Hobbit won't surprise you much. But, for the few folks like me who were hoping the days of Shelob were the last we'd see of large arachnids in Jackson's hobbit world, it's not looking too good. There's a brief scene where large spiders are seen in silhouette as they attack a man's home (we see them on the windows and part of one as it breaks in). We soon then see them fleeing into the woods. I'm not excited about the possibility of them returning for the subsequent installments.
Overall, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey should be everything Lord of the Rings fans are hoping and expecting from Jackson. It's like visiting old friends and simultaneously making new ones, and it's exciting to see this fantasy world revisited. And you're probably better off watching the movie in 2D to save yourself the potential headache of seeing the movie in an unnatural presentation. In 2001, Fellowship of the Ring had me hooked for the long haul and An Unexpected Journey has successfully done the same!
- John DiBiase (reviewed: 12/14/12)
Blu-Ray Special Features Review
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey releases to homes everywhere via a 3D Blu-Ray/2D Blu-Ray/DVD combo pack, a 2D Blu-Ray/DVD combo pack and 2-disc DVD, as well as through the usual digital download or streaming retailers (which released last week, a week prior to the disc release). The film looks gorgeous in HD, and this is largely due to it having been filmed 100% digitally with RED cameras. It has the same look and feel as the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but the clarity is fantastic. The LOTR movies are available in HD, and look great mind you, but director Peter Jackson took it to another level for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.
In the Blu-Ray combo pack, the special features get their own bonus disc. A quick glance at the special features makes it look pretty skimpy; all you'll find are some trailers, a 6-minute featurette, and Jackson's video blogs. However, the video blogs go much further than most behind-the-scenes featurettes, and they total just over 2 hours of such content!
New Zealand: Home of Middle Earth (6:35) - The lone, new featurette talks about how they rebuilt the Shire (AKA "Hobbiton") in New Zealand for the film and how the previous Shire wasn't built to last, but this one is. In fact, fans can actually visit it! The featurette continues with cast and crew gushing about how beautiful the scenery and locations in New Zealand are. The neatest part is when they overlay the original footage with the finished theatrical footage to show you just how much of the scenery was actually real.
Blog 1: Start of Production, April 14, 2011 (10:32) - The blogs play out like behind-the-scenes featurettes, but they have to be more secretive than most disc documentaries because when they made these, the movie hadn't been seen by the public yet. For the first blog, Peter Jackson gives an intro and shows us the inside of Bilbo's house, as well as the incredible sets for Rivendell and Gollum's cave.
Blog 2: Location Scouting, July 9, 2011 (10:20) - The movie series was split up into three "blocks" of shooting. In Blog 2, we see that Block 1 being finished. It's interesting to see that Jackson had put actor Andy Serkis (Gollum) in charge of the of 2nd unit of filming. Block 1 involved stage filming, and then the rest of this segment is devoted to scouting locations to film in in New Zealand.
Blog 3: Shooting Block One, July 21, 2011 (13:19) - Here we see a candid opener as Jackson gets "lost" at Pinewood Studio (AKA home to the "007 Stage"). While Jackson steps out of the picture for a bit, we hear from the staff and cast about what their favorite moments of shooting have been so far. Before the end, we see a set visit from John Rhys Davies, who played the dwarf Gimli in Lord of the Rings.
Blog 4: Filming In 3D, November 4, 2011 (10:46) - This one is dedicated completely to filming in 3D. It's cool, too, because as they filmed it in 3D, Jackson could watch the monitors with glasses on and see what the audience will see on the big screen. They also talk a bit about using "RED" cameras... and we learn here that Peter wishes he could have done the LOTR trilogy in 3D, and had even taken some 3D pics while on the set. While shooting, we see some footage of a scene in Mirkwood, which isn't even in this particular Hobbit film, so we get a little sneak peek of the future of this new trilogy. At the time of these blogs, the cast and crew "knew" they were only making 2 movies. Lastly, we see some stuff from the art department, including the fact that two of the designers actually created their art in red and blue 3D (and they give us a preview of one of those drawings, so dig out your red and blue 3D glasses!)
Blog 5: Locations Part 1, December 24, 2011 (12:04) is all about the crew moving production out of the studio to on location in New Zealand and what that kind of move entails. They shot in New Zealand for 7 and a half weeks!
Blog 6: Locations Part 2, March 2, 2012 (12:28) - This takes us to more locations and shows them filming a scene where the dwarfs float down a river in barrels, which also is not in this movie!
Blog 7: Stone St. Studios Tour, June 6, 2012 (13:59) is an in-depth look at Stone Street Studios and we get a tour of every department within and what kind of work they're doing on the movie. We even see some footage of filming...and a special guest spot from Mr. Orlando Bloom (Legolas)!
Blog 8: Wrap of Principal Photography, July 24, 2012 (14:42) - This is where Jackson and some of the cast went to San Diego Comic-Con to debut some footage and answer fans' questions. They then show us the footage that Comic-Con got to see, which plays out like its own little featurette!
Blog 9: Post Production Overview, November 24, 2012 (14:08) - It's crunch time as filming is done but now they have to work around the clock to get all of the animation, special effects, sound effects, and Howard Shore's score all completed before the premiere. It's pretty candid at times, too, making light of the stressful process.
Blog 10: Wellington World Premiere, December 14, 2012 (14:42) - Jackson and some of the cast and crew appear at the Wellington World Premiere, with the finishing of the film having lead right up to moments before the premiere! We see the fans in waiting and the celebration on the red carpet! This concludes the blogs, but sadly, there's no talk about the two films being split into three or what the next process is or what the reactions to this film were.
The blogs are fantastic, but because they were made and released to fans before they could even see the movie, they weren't able to show lots of specific details here, and the crew acted very secretive toward it all. Also, if you followed these blogs while Jackson made them and released them, then you've seen everything already and there isn't much new on this disc for you. However, it's likely that you wouldn't have seen these blogs nearly this clear in high definition before!
All that remains are 6 trailers that were made to promote the film (Oddly, it's the first trailer and then a series of variations on the third trailer... but no second trailer?) and 3 game trailers for 3 different Lord of the Rings/Hobbit themed video games.
- John DiBiase, (reviewed: 3/17/13)
Parental Guide: Brief Summary of Content
Alcohol/Drugs: We see characters drinking ale with their meal and Gandalf having wine; There's a comment made about Radagast the Brown going crazy from eating mushrooms; Characters smoke pipeweed and, at one point, Gandalf encourages Radagast the Brown to try some to calm himself.
Blood/Gore: An orc holds up the decapitated head of a dwarf before throwing it to the ground; We see some blood on characters' faces in battle; Thorin lops off the hand of an orc and we briefly see some blood spurt from the arm; We see some goblin heads get sliced off; A large, fat goblin gets sliced in the stomach with a sword and we briefly see the first few layers of fat sliced open before the victim covers it with their hand; A character is beaten up and left for dead and we see their face have many bloody scratches and cuts on it; The aforementioned orc that is missing its hand is seen again with an iron claw hand rod impaling its forearm to serve as a tool to replace its hand; Bilbo stabs a dog-like beast, killing it, and we see a somewhat bloody wound on it as he tries to pull his sword out of it.
Violence: Lots of fantasy action violence: The prologue features lots of battle footage, and many subsequent fighting scenes involve swords stabbing and penetrating goblins and orcs. On several occasions, we see orcs and goblins even being decapitated; In a flashback, an orc holds up the head of a fallen dwarf. He then throws it to the ground and we see it roll. Thorin then attacks the orc and slices off its arm; We see a dead goblin and Gollum carries it off, talking about how he intends to eat it. We see a distant shot of it being smashed with a rock in the head by Gollum; Gollum talks of wanting to kill Bilbo and keeps threatening him; Two large rock giants fight, causing lots of rocks to fall and crumble around the dwarves; A person considers killing another person but decides not to and leaps over them, kicking them in the head in the process; We see many, many frightenting creatures, including wolf-like dogs that attack and chase people; We see some goblin heads get sliced off; A large, fat goblin get sliced in the stomach with a sword and we briefly see the first few layers of fat sliced open before the victim covers it with their hand and is then sliced again and killed. It then falls off the platform it's on; A character charges another character but is bested by and nearly left for dead. A wolf-like creature grabs that character and lets them go before another character stands over it with the intentions to behead them-- but is saved by another character; We see characters throwing flaming pinecones to start a big fire; and other fantasy violence.
** Disclaimer: All reviews are based solely on the opinions of the reviewer. Most reviews are rated on how the reviewer enjoyed the film overall, not on content. However, if the content really affects the reviewer's opinion of the film, it will definitely affect the reviewer's rating.