The Breakdown: Are The Hobbit movies really that bad? An Unexpected Journey

 Take a good look at this picture. You won't see half of these dwarves ever again.

Take a good look at this picture. You won't see half of these dwarves ever again.

Part 1 – An Unexpected Journey

The chorus of disenfranchised voices grows. Everywhere I turn on the internet I seem to always cross paths with people that harbor voluminous amounts of ill will towards Peter Jackson’s second Lord of Rings franchise trilogy, The Hobbit. They’re not isolated pockets of resistance either, much like the perceived ‘selling out’ of Star Wars (a laughable concept given Lucas’ penchant for tatty merchandise), The Hobbit was almost immediately branded as a Hollywood cash-in and even became politicized when Jackson and co. opted to include the previously unheard of female elven character Tauriel.

I’ve never really understood the hate myself; I remember walking out of the cinema after every LOTR and Hobbit experience feeling slightly energized and with a deeper appreciation for Tolkien’s work. Of course this is sentiment that itself would probably manage to raise an eyebrow or four among die hard Middle Earther’s, a group that perpetually have Jackson in their sights playing the role of anti-christ figure.

Take him to the Wicker Man.

Part of me still believes that the hatred for the trilogy stems from the simple fact that in the 2010’s we’ve truly forgotten what a bad movie looks like. You can find my previous article on this suggestion here.

When I rolled up my sleeves to breakdown An Unexpected Journey, initially I thought it was going to be a far more difficult analysis than my previous Star Wars prequel trilogy breakdowns. You can find them here: The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. Unlike the prequels, I never felt like The Hobbit movies lacked any sense of big budget movie quality. In fact, being a fan of the original LOTR movie trilogy I immediately felt at home as soon as the original film score began and the distinctly unique font on the title cards flashed across the screen.

So what am I hoping to get out of breaking down a trilogy that I liked on my first viewing? I guess my aim is to see the film from a different perspective and to take off the rose tinted lenses that LOTR had bestowed upon me in the mid naughties. For me, I always looked at The Hobbit trilogy as a truly homely experience. It’s like reliving a positive childhood memory and having the foresight of an adult brain to understand its complexities more. I never second guessed the nature of what Jackson was trying to achieve or even the way he toyed with the narrative to fill in gaps.

I’d read the book, sure, but The Hobbit lacks the deeper complexity of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy of novels. If there was ever a universe or back story to go with the events of the novel they were rarely explained. This is because The Hobbit was Tolkien’s proto-universe that was constantly evolving as the narrative progressed, eventually reaching its final evolutionary stage in 1977 when his son Christopher collated his father’s various stories into the biblical epic ‘The Silmarillion’.

All of this needs to be taken into account when reviewing The Hobbit trilogy – it’s easy to dismiss The Hobbit’s playfulness without understanding that its simplistic nature is drawn directly from the source material.

So let’s breakdown The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and see if we can gain perspective on its good and bad, Yin and Yang reviews.

Hollywood vs faithfulness to the text

This was always going to be a problem for Jackson. With a final budget that exceeded half a billion dollars, the trilogy had to find a way to appeal to the blockbuster nature of Hollywood and at the same time remain loyal to a text that was only 279 pages long.

The result was a movie that seemed a little disjointed in places. While ‘An Unexpected Journey’ (AUJ) begins with a retelling of previous events (something that parallels the first 5 minutes of the original LOTR trilogy), it quickly cuts to Bilbo and Gandalf’s first meeting and some bizarre dialogue about being a ‘good morning’.

“Do you wish me a good morning, or mean that it is a good morning whether I want it or not; or that you feel good this morning; or that it is a morning to be good on?”

It’s an exchange that sums up Jackson and his team’s main issue in retelling Tolkien’s original story – for the uninitiated that have never read the source material, some of it is going to sound very very VERY silly.

It’s impossible to watch the scene and not feel a little awkward, especially since the last time we caught up with our good pal Gandalf he was swinging a blood soaked sword around the city of Minas Tirith, gutting Orcs and Uruk-hai while pretty much being a general bad ass. The reborn Wizard that faced down death and literally travelled to hell and back gloriously returns to our screens once more and begins berating us with ridiculous slapstick dialogue that would make Abbott and Costello groan with frustration and scream, “GET ON WITH IT!”

Of course it’s a bigger issue than just “Good morning” – The Hobbit trilogy, especially AUJ, attempts several times to bring elements of the book directly into the movieverse somewhat unsuccessfully. The songs for instance, a staple of both The Hobbit novel and the LOTR book trilogy, make an appearance in a less than glorious fashion. After the Dwarves show up on Bilbo’s doorstep and eat him out of house and home, they begin what can only be described as a ‘Loompa-esque’ attempt to do their best impression of playing us out of the scene in song. I was half expecting several of them to roll Violet Beauregarde past the camera as they take her off for juicing in Wonka’s factory. While faithful to the original text, we’d just spent upwards of 9 hours (perhaps more depending on the versions you watched) watching LOTR movies, movies that spent considerable time and expense removing the corniness out of the fantasy genre for mainstream audiences. It feels like all that work was suddenly undone.

But at least the ‘washing up dishes’ song was a suitable soundtrack to a backdrop of people, you know, actually washing up dishes. It was the sombre and depressing song that came afterwards as the Dwarves sat around the fireplace that was the most disjointed of them all. One would expect that for several minutes as the Dwarves sang of their homeland and the pitfalls that beset them we would at least visually see cutaways to downtrodden yet resilient Dwarf faces scattered around Middle Earth making the most out of their hardships.

Nope. Instead we spent what felt like 4 hours looking at sweeping shots of people sitting around a fireplace looking grim. What was meant to be an emotional moment that symbolized the downfall of the greatest and most powerful kingdom in all of Middle Earth became anything but. Look! There’s the fat one and the strange one with the anime haircut (I don’t remember all their names, I’ll get to that later), look how funny they look in this weirdly out of place moment!

It was more like a televised funeral for a clown, attended only by other clowns in full makeup. You can show me footage of a clown crying from here until the cows come home but as soon as I see six people in floppy shoes and huge red noses awkwardly shuffling a coffin down a church and into the back of a tiny clown car, even the lord god almighty himself won’t be able to stop me from giggling.

“This is a tragedy you soulless jerkoff!”

*Makes honky noise*

Lastly we come to the riddle scene. It seems childish but again it’s faithful to the text. Although it must be said that it works well in helping the audience come to grips with Gollum’s fiendish nature. This was the world of Gollum’s isolation, it was the environment that turned Smeagol into an unfeeling heartless monster. The meeting of Bilbo and Gollum is an important moment in the LOTR universe and its gravity shouldn’t be forgotten, however for a director that aimed to bring an air of realism to the Lord of the Rings cineverse, Jackson recreating the scene faithfully might be a little jarring for moviegoers.

It’s like hitting a bump on a vinyl record – one minute you’re listening to Humpty Hump do the Humpty Dance while you’re idly thumbing through the pages of The Source magazine, next minute you squint your eyes and turn to look at the turntable because the brief few minutes of enjoyment you derive from zoning out to music are shattered by something that seems out of place.

In all I think a lot of the negative reaction to the Hobbit trilogy, especially the first movie, comes from an audience trying to process absurd and fourth wall breaking moments like these in a big budget Hollywood production. Peter Jackson and his effects team spent considerable time and energy differentiating LOTR from the traditional perception of the fantasy genre, to good effect; at the time the LOTR trilogy of movies were the closest rival to Star Wars for building a universe that has become a template for other movies in similar genres to follow.

Imagine building something like that and playing with its format, regardless of faithfulness to the source material. You can show me an original script from the ’77 Star Wars that features a moment where Leia turns to camera and sings a song about being a “lonely princess” all you like, but if a similar scene appears in Episode X, XI or XII you can bet fans would turn on Disney quicker than 4chan being disgusted by a female Jedi.

Lest we forget the Star Wars Holiday Special?

The Dwarves

I’ve read the book. I know their names. I think. However there’s something off about how the Dwarves are introduced in this movie.

I mean, who is the one that looks like a cosplay pirate and speaks like an angry version of Borat?

hobbit_01_Screen01.jpg

Take a good look at him in the first 30 minutes of AUJ, because you won’t see that fucking guy ever again. I don’t remember his name and neither will you, but that’s not your fault. You’re not terrible at paying attention and you’re not a horrible LOTR fan, it’s actually because the characters are never given a decent introduction. Every memorable Dwarf is given an equally memorable introduction at Bilbo’s door, while the remaining chorus line of instantly forgettable characters are all lumped together and introduced like comic relief background players in a Home Alone movie.

One of them has a haircut that looks like a stingray had sex with a passing clump of drifting hay. The resulting offspring seemingly then swam ashore, found a dwarf with the most ridiculous looking eyebrows it could find and climbed on his head. Here he is. Who is this guy? Go on, take a guess. I’ll wait. He looks like a quirky scientist from any number of semi-popular, post apocalyptic animes.

hobbit_01_Screen02.jpg

That in itself is one of the main problems with our lineup of supposed main characters – if the writers of the movie don’t care about most of them, why should we care?

From the establishing scene onwards they become nothing but comic relief, leaving important dialogue and death defying stunts to actors with higher equity.

From what I recall, spoilers, several of them die in the third and final movie. We’re never shown their bodies (I think), we’re just told that at some point during the final bloodthirsty battle they died in combat. I remember turning to someone at that moment and saying to them, “Who were they again?”

Who were they again.

 Words that will routinely summarize your entire Hobbit viewing experience.

The disappearing Gandalf

Tied into the Hollywood vs faithfulness to the text discussion outlined above, Jackson and his writing team had to find a suitable explanation as to why Gandalf keeps disappearing. The original novel is littered with moments were Gandalf leaves the party only to reappear to save the day in moments of crisis.

It must have been difficult to fill in those gaps; hence the audience is treated to a side story that draws most of its inspiration from Tolkien’s notes from his Lord of the Rings book trilogy. Radagast, Dol Guldur, the Necromancer, the White Council convening at Rivendell – all of these are side notes from the histories of Tolkien’s later work, laid out expertly and reconfigured to form a backstory for the evolving events in Middle Earth that will lead us to the War of the Ring.

This is probably the defining element of the Hollywood vs Faithfulness argument and stands as a reminder that sometimes playing with the original source material yields better results. Without the context that ties The Hobbit into the events of LOTR, The Hobbit simply becomes a story about a bored Hobbit that goes off to steal treasure, all while a wizard disappears from time to time only to reappear tapping his nose and winking to the camera when asked the question, “Where the fuck did you get to?”

I see a lot of negative response to Gandalf’s side story in The Hobbit trilogy, especially with Radagast, but the story serves as more than just a way for writers to flesh out a tiny narrative and turn it into a trilogy of movies.

It adds context to, well, everything. It gives the audience a proper villain. Most importantly, it makes the actions of the main characters seem like they matter in the world of Middle Earth. The Lord of the Rings, at its core, is about the forces of good attempting to triumph over the overwhelming face of evil. Without aligning themselves against Sauron, our heroes lack a moral compass and The Hobbit is reduced to a story about treasure hunters.

Martin Freeman

He’s rad. Nuff said really.

Just like his character in The Office, he plays the role of the straight man while everything around him dissolves into disarray and silliness. I genuinely feel like he’s one of the strongest parts of this movie.

The Breakdown

Here are some random thoughts while watching The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

-  In the beginning, Bilbo opens a book to find a drawn picture of himself as a young man. Sure, this establishes a way for us to travel back into the past when the story begins, but who drew the picture? Is that ever explained? I can’t remember.

-  While on the subject of the movie’s prologue, Bilbo begins writing in a book. We know that the book Bilbo was working on was “There and back again”, his retelling of the events of The Hobbit. This was established in the original LOTR trilogy. However the voiceover, presumably Bilbo’s internal monologue as he writes, is in fact seemingly a letter to Frodo. Why would Bilbo begin his book with a discussion to Frodo?

-  There’s something about how clean the film grade of these movies look in comparison to other Hollywood productions. The Hobbit movies remind me more of a big budget telemovie more than a Hollywood blockbuster. I’m reminded of watching television in the 80’s and 90’s when you could instantly spot the difference between NTSC and PAL. Yes, PAL was much better quality, but it also meant that you knew that it was either Australian or English. Watching things in PAL always reminded me of terrible Australian sitcoms like “Hey Dad!” or “Acropolis Now”. This isn’t helped by the fact that Peter Jackson only had two settings on his camera: up close and very far away. Everything is filmed up close, except computer generated scenes which all take place as long shots.

-  “Nasty, dirty, wet hole”. Genuine lol.

-  After the prologue about Smaug, we’re now back into the present (just prior to LOTR: The Fellowship of the ring), confirming that Bilbo was working on his book and NOT on a letter to Frodo. Or was it? We know Bilbo left Frodo a note when he disappeared, but that’s clearly not what he was writing into when the voiceover began.

-  As discussed previously, the “Good morning” dialogue is a little disjointing, but the line “You know my name you’ve just forgotten that I belong to it” is the line that kills me every time. This is fucking Gandalf the grey. This dialogue makes him sound like prior to this moment his contribution to Middle Earth was nothing more than a firework salesman. He’s a fucking Maiar, an ancient and holy spirit that once helped shape the entire world.

-  The beginning of the movie sets up that the dwarves are noble and sophisticated, however when Dwalin arrives at Bilbo’s house he immediately starts eating food like a barbarian. During dinner the dwarves start a food fight and one of them walks over the table standing on everyone’s meals. At another point they break out into an argument for no reason, seemingly just so Thorin can leap up onto his feet and shoosh them all, establishing his authority over the others.

-  After dinner they break out into song. The song has Bilbo’s name in the lyrics. When did they write that? How did they all know the words? That’s some Who’s Line is it anyway type shit.

-  The battle to reclaim Moria by the Dwarves is absolutely exceptional. It’s probably my favourite moment in all six movies. Genuinely captivating. It does well in perpetuating the myth and legend around Thorin and reconfirms why he’s an important part of the movie.

-  Although, they keep setting Thorin up to be the hunky leading man. Most times however he just seems like a mildly irritated fruiterer.

-  Weta has done some great effects in their time, however some of the computer generated effects in this movie look pretty dodgy.  When Radagast leads the Wargs off with his sleigh of rabbits (it’s difficult not to laugh at the corniness of this) we’re treated to a green screen sequence that looks akin to Superman flying in Richard Donner’s ’78 Superman movie. Also, what was the Dwarves plan at this point? To just run across the open landscape and pray no one sees them? They were in the woods. Why leave the woods to hide in the fucking open?

-  On the topic of combat, the hand to hand combat sequences in this movie are top notch. The battle with the Goblins in the mountain is fantastic.

-  Movies still haven’t got the look of real fake rocks right yet. I say real fake rocks because there are plenty of moments in these movies were the characters are on sets that take place on or in mountains. CGI rocks are all well and good, but it appears that no amount of money can make plastic rocks look real. There’s a moment when the dwarves emerge from a mountain path and look out over Rivendell – the rocks look so hokey.

-  Brett from Flight of the Concords makes another appearance. He’s a staple in LOTR movies.

-  Ok, so the dwarf that’s deaf stuffed his ear horn with cloth to drown out the horrible Elf music. Sigh. Sure, bit of a visual gag. Fine. BUT HE’S DEAF. IF HE DIDN’T WANT TO HEAR THE MUSIC, TAKE THE FUCKING THING OUT OF YOUR EARS IN THE FIRST PLACE. PROBLEM SOLVED. CRISIS OVER.

-  There’s a moment when The White Council talks about Radagast’s odd ways. “He lives a solitary life”. He fucks animals doesn’t he? I’m willing to bet money on it. Dirty little hedgehog fucker.

-  Everyone in Middle Earth seems to know Thorin. Is there a Middle Earth internet we don’t know about? How is this possible?

Final thoughts

So what’s the verdict? Is AUJ really as terrible as everyone makes it out to be or is it a case of people picking apart a perfectly good movie because of pre-existing biases?

Unlike my breakdown of the Star Wars prequels it’s not so open and shut. There is definitely a case to be made that falling back on some of the cornier elements of the original source material has had a negative effect on the audience’s ability to take the trilogy seriously. However that being said, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey has within it the same bulletproof DNA that made the first LOTR movie so genuinely enjoyable.

AUJ is about adventure, it’s about discovering the unknown. Like LOTR: TFOTR (acronyms, assemble!) we’re not yet burdened with the weight of unnecessary feelings or interpersonal relationships. The audience just ping-pong’s back and forth between really interesting action sequences and establishing back story.

At the moment there are very little feelings involved; our wily band of lovable rogues and unkempt rapscallions are on a mission to steal treasure and kill a dragon. It takes very little to buy into this idea and requires no emotional investment beyond sitting in a seat and simply enjoying a movie.

Add to this the dramatic improvement in action sequences and hand to hand combat styles from LOTR to now and in my honest opinion AUJ elevates itself beyond most of the movies in the LOTR movie universe.

While it stumbles here and there, I often look at this movie and think how excellent LOTR: TFOTR would be if it were made today. AUJ is a great stepping stone that the rest of The Hobbit trilogy and perhaps even more Tolkien inspired movies can leap from.

Songs and all.