My introduction to Lord of the Rings was a multi-step process. I remember reading The Hobbit in school way back in grade 5, and we also watched the animated movie from 1977. I remembered nothing of the book for years, and only remembered that the animated movie had a couple of songs, a scene with giant rock monsters, some sort of special arrow that killed a dragon and a big battle at the end that killed some of the dwarves.
When the Lord of the Rings movies were releasing back in the early 2000’s, I ignored them at first. At the time, I was still big into Star Wars, and watched few movies besides that, James Bond, and dumb comedies. I wrongfully thought they’d be boring. Needless to say, my tastes have broadened so much since then.
I first saw The Fellowship Of The Ring when a good friend of mine received the extended edition for his birthday, and we watched it together (the two of us, plus his older sister and my brothers.) I was hooked. I bought my own copy of the movie the next day, pre-ordered the VHS release for The Two Towers, and ended up seeing Return of the King twice in theaters. I also started reading the books, getting back into reading after a couple of years of not reading enough. I started with The Two Towers, because I hadn’t seen the movie yet, and was about half-way through when I picked up my Two Towers tape. I next read Return of the King, and then went back to reading Fellowship of the Ring. Come to think of it, I’d like to re-read those books sometime soon.
Anyway, the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy needs no introduction. Return of the King in particular was the second billion dollar movie in history, and is in a 3-way tie for the most Academy Award wins in history (at 11). A number of moments from the movie are still used as memes to this day. Director Peter Jackson wanted to develop the Hobbit movies, but legal troubles, contract difficulties and a troubled relationship with the Tolkien Estate led to a number of delays. We’ll get into the trilogy’s problematic development in the next two posts, because there’s a lot to get into. For now, let’s talk about the first movie from Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy to kick off my Lord of the Rings movie month.
The Hobbit started off as a children’s book written by J.R.R. Tolkien, released back in 1937. At first it was a one-off book written in episodic format, but it was so successful that his publisher requested a sequel. That sequel turned into the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Later editions of The Hobbit made minor yet significant changes to accommodate the upcoming Lord of the Rings trilogy. Not only has The Hobbit never been out of print since its first release, which is remarkable in its own right, but it’s inspired a number of stage adaptations, radio dramas, board games, video games, and a number of movies. Many of these adaptations have themselves received critical recognition. I’ve already mentioned the 1977 animated movie, but there’s also an entertaining Russian musical that’s somewhere between stage performance and film.
Another adaptation I’m fond of is the graphic novel adaptation, illustrated by David Wenzel. It directly adapts the original book into a graphic novel, completed with brilliantly done painted images, all of the dialogue being intact, and a great sense of pace. I would highly recommend it.
Peter Jackson’s first entry into the Hobbit series covers roughly the first half of the book, ending with Bilbo Baggins and company escaping the Goblin caves and being rescued by eagles. Released in December of 2012, the movie earned just over $1 billion on a budget somewhere between $200 and $315 million. The numbers on the budget still aren’t entirely clear. It’s the first wide-release movie to use a frame rate of 48 per second, instead of the traditional 24, although most theaters showed the movie at 24 frames anyway.
Despite the movie’s success, it wasn’t as well received as the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Whereas all three Lord of the Rings movies were critically praised almost universally, reviews for An Unexpected Journey were mostly positive, but a bit mixed. It holds a 64% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with an average score of 6.5/10. The Rolling Stone review was mostly positive about the movie itself, but commented that the film’s use of 48 frames per second made the movie look “so hyper-real that you can see everything that’s fake about it.” They also complained about the movie’s 169 minute length, saying that the first 45 minutes felt way too slow. They did comment that the movie improves greatly once it picks up the pace.
That pretty much sums up the most common critic reaction.
All three Lord of the Rings movies won the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects and at least one sound award, and deservedly so. Although An Unexpected Journey received a nomination in Visual Effects, it didn’t win. It did however earn the honorary Scientific and Engineering Award.
As for the movie itself, I generally like it, but I’ve got complaints. Yes, the movie does feel too long for its own good. The overall stretched feeling begins with the very first scene – an overly long flash forward to just before the first Lord of the Rings movie begins. It shows an older Bilbo Baggins beginning to write his book about his adventure, with a number of interruptions like people knocking on the door, Frodo nailing the “no visitors” sign on his fence, a bit more writing, and finally Bilbo sitting on his front porch. The scene could have been less than a third of the length and still given us everything it had to offer. The introduction with the 12 dwarves also feels too long for its own good, complete with slapstick comedy that isn’t always funny.
Even after they leave the Shire, the movie still feels overly long at times. There’s a completely unnecessary and mildly annoying scene involving Radagast, a fellow wizard of Gandalf who may be a bit insane. That said, once the company gets to the troll cave, the pace starts to pick up. And as much as this movie is overly long, it is generally well done. The troll scene is amusing, without losing the tension. There’s a fantastic dramatic moment in Bilbo’s home where the dwarves are signing about their homeland, one that clearly starts to win Bilbo over.
A lot of the character work is brilliantly done as well. Martin Freeman is fantastic as Bilbo. You completely buy his growth from a timid hobbit to a brave fighter, willing to risk his life to save the dwarves. He’s also got brilliant comedic timing. Ian McKellen’s Gandalf feels exactly the same as in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and that’s perfect. Richard Aritage expertly portrays Thorin, the Dwarf prince living in exile, with a good mix of a cold, calculating demeanor and a touch of kindness.Ken Stott as Balin rounds out the major characters in the first movie as the wise man of the dwarf company, and one who quickly becomes a friend to Bilbo. There are too many more cast members to discuss for the sake of this blog post’s length, but all of the dwarf actors do a good job.
Gollum’s scene is also brilliantly done, with Andy Serkins returning to the role.
As for the action, the Lord of the Rings movies are known for their epic set pieces, brilliant choreography, and a balanced sense of danger and fun. Sure, some of Legolas’s moves in Return of the King are a bit silly, but they’re not so over the top that you don’t believe they’re possible within Jackson’s Middle Earth. Well, The Hobbit gets the epic set pieces part right. On the downside, a lot of the action feels cartoonish. There’s the goblin cave sequence where the dwarves fight their way through an army of goblins a bit too easily. It’s entertaining, sure, but when they can ride a giant wooden platform down a giant cave at a 45 degree angle, crash at the bottom of this cave, and walk away without any scratches, it’s hard to take anything seriously.
I get that The Hobbit is a children’s book, but the movie is rated PG-13. It’s clearly geared towards the same audiences as Lord of the Rings. Please pick a tone. And this is a problem that continues for the rest of the Hobbit trilogy.
Another major complaint I’ve got about this trilogy as a whole is that it never explains the eagles. I can forgive the Lord of the Rings trilogy for this, because there’s so much else going on. But when you’re stretching a single book into a trilogy, there is no excuse for not explaining the eagles. In all of these movies, the eagles just show up at convenient points in time to rescue the characters or help in battle. They don’t say anything. Nobody explains their allegiance or why they’re helping out. They just do. In the books, not only can the Eagles speak, but they’ve got a lot of respect for Gandalf, and not only because he once rescued the current “Lord of the Eagles.” They’re described as noble and brave, but not without fear. They’ve got a rich history within Middle Earth mythology. Sure, their characteristics feel right in the movies, but they never talk, they’re never named (several eagles in Lord of the Rings have names), and their rich history isn’t even hinted at. It’s a complete waste of potential.
I like The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, and I like what it’s going for, but it does feel too long for its own good. Some of the additions feel like they’re pointless, while it still skips over explaining the Eagles. I’ll get more into that when we get to Battle of the Five Armies, but the entire trilogy feels overly long. It feels like it should have been two movies instead of three, which was the original plan. Would I recommend this to those who enjoy Lord of the Rings? Sure, just don’t expect to enjoy it as much.
Next up is The Desolation of Smaug, which most people tend to agree is the best chapter in The Hobbit Trilogy. Then it’s The Battle of the Five Armies, which I’ve only sat through once. There’s a reason for that. I’m very much looking forward to getting to the Lord of the Rings trilogy though. I re-watch it every few years, so I might as well write blog posts about it this time round.