Tuesday, November 12, 2013

REVIEW: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey - Extended Edition

(Note: For this review I have watched the film only once (I never saw the standard cut), and have not viewed any extras or commentaries. There WILL be spoilers ahead, but I will try to keep them vague.)

The Hobbit is, without a doubt, one of the most famous, popular, influential and loved fantasy novels of all time. Almost every reader of modern fantasy has read it, and many love it, and rightfully so. Whilst it isn't problem-free when held up to modern sensibilities, it still remains a cherished book that graces many people's shelves. Coming almost a decade after Peter Jackson's (mostly) excellent The Lord of the Rings adaptation, The Hobbit seems a strange move. Shouldn't it have been done first?, many asked. Why two - and then three - movies, considering it's so short? How can a 2-300 page book aimed at younger readers end up as almost twelve hours of film, the same length of time as Tolkien's longer, deeper, more adult work? Well, apparently it's quite easily done.

Released in cinemas in late-2012, with the extended edition (~13mins of new/extended footage) hitting early-November 2013, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey - Extended Edition is a near-three hour journey through Middle-Earth. Unlike The Lord of the Rings, however, it takes a more jovial tone and isn't afraid to literally sing and dance its way through the story. Within ten minutes of the film, you're swept up into an epic story reaching across years of Middle-Earth's history, amazing set pieces and vistas with the view panning across them, revelling in little details. Whatever you may think of the film, the world design is nothing short of spectacular.

I do have problems with this film, though. Heck, I wouldn't be me if I didn't. The Lord of the Rings was prone to waffle and dull scenes with actors standing around looking dazed (I'm sorry, Liv Tyler. I loved you as Arwen but dear gods she was dull), and at times it seemed like it was cutting corners to get to the next big set piece. The Hobbit doesn't quite do that, because many of the scenes are 'the next big set piece'. And many are gloriously done, and a joy to watch - so much so that I found myself wishing I had a HD screen and a Blu-Ray player to better enjoy the stunning vistas.

The special effects are still too wooden and fake at times. It's hard to describe but many times it was clear that you were watching some CGI because movements weren't quite right, or it defied any real sense. I'm put in mind, in particular, of an action scene towards the end of the movie in the Goblin King's lair, where the dwarves and Gandalf escaped in an... unconventional way, and that part of the scene looked wrong. Sticking with the visuals theme, I'm still not entirely sure I'm okay with the design of the dwarves, nor even some of the acting, but they didn't break the film for me. I thought, over all, Dwalin, Balin and Thorin were the better dwarves, Glóin and Óin being two others I like in theory, but seemingly not having huge roles. The others I could largely do without, mostly because they either have a look that doesn't quite fit or they just feel wrong.

The Dwarves: Click to Enlarge
The tone of the film also seemed to be at odds with itself, especially when compared to the earlier The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Whereas the earlier films were mostly sober and serious, The Hobbit seems to try to blend that with exaggeration and humour, and it doesn't particularly work. The dwarves mostly look utterly ridiculous, some barely even wearing beards, others with over-the-top hairstyles. It feels, at times, like an over-ambitious parody than genuine design, and it's a shame. They don't feel like they quite fit in the film for the most part. This is then added to with the Goblin King's... well, it can only be described as a Disney moment (and it was so incredibly out of place), and the scene with the three trolls, and I just wasn't sure what they were trying to do with the film. At times it threatened to be a self-aware parody which tapped on the thin glass of the fourth wall, and at times came exceptionally close to breaking it, and not in a good way.

I think there's some good things to take from this film, though. We have expansion of some roles, some bits of history and behind-the-scenes moments that were added to great effect, deepening the story and addressing issues that existed beforehand. It was also quite good to see a certain fan-favourite cameo return, and in a blink-or-you'll-miss-it moment there's even some female dwarves.The attention to detail is generally excellent, and it creates a believable, beautiful world.

Returning to compose is Howard Shore, once again doing an excellent job. Some motifs from The Lord of the Rings (particularly The Shire pieces) resurface, and this time the dominate theme is the melody to The Misty Mountains, the song sung by the dwarves (which took the internet by storm when it was released ahead of the film). It's an epic soundtrack that compliments the film perfectly, and one I'll certainly enjoy listening to.

To conclude, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey - Extended Edition is a conflicted and confusing film, unsure whether it wants to build on the sober trilogy it precedes, or whether it wants to be a brighter, funnier, happier story. These two threads intertwine and conflict, resulting in a film that feels inconsistent and unsure. Yet for its issues, it is an enjoyable film, although likely won't be as popular and defining as Jackson's earlier Lord of the Rings trilogy. Whilst the split to three films may concern some people, based on the first movie alone I feel it is a wise choice, and one that should pay dividends. I'm definitely looking forward to next month's The Desolation of Smaug, and next year's There And Back Again.

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