Destroy All Monsters: An Underappreciated Hobbit
I'm weirdly invested in the idea that The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is the most underappreciated movie of last year. That's absurd, of course; there are hundreds of much better movies that received much worse reviews, or much less attention, than a multi-hundred-million-dollar fantasy blockbuster from Warner Brothers that made a billion bucks worldwide and garnered a tepid, but hardly vicious, Tomato score.
In the pantheon of movies where the empirical narrative has overtaken what actually happened at the time, though (see also: Superman Returns), The Hobbit (Part 1) is one of those movies that is largely looked upon as a disappointment. By any yardstick, I guess it was; but then, for The Hobbit to fail to do anything other than set the entire moviegoing universe on fire at a level exceeding the mythic reaction to its forebear, The Lord of the Rings, would have seen The Hobbit marked as a letdown. This was impossible on a number of levels - not only did The Hobbit have no ability to open up the audience's eyes to the modern possibilities of fantasy cinema the way The Fellowship of the Ring did, but it also had to busy itself with what seems, on the surface, to be a tangential story unequal to the apocalyptic scope of The Lord of the Rings.
This latter element is actually what let me begin to access what is interesting and rich about The Hobbit, as a connecting project by the people who made Rings. Gandalf himself, of course, lays out the précis in the first act of An Unexpected Journey: "Every good story deserves embellishment." That's all The Hobbit is, and perhaps embellishment is seen as trivial and luxuriant by some. Everything about The Hobbit is a luxury (from a storytelling standpoint, and a shareholder standpoint too); it absolutely is a "cash-grab," if that's what you want to call it. So are all the other movies released last year, and this year, and every other year; but no, if you want to quibble about it, there isn't any real reason that this trilogy "needs" to exist.
As often becomes the case with such things, that's what makes it great.
The thunder of distraction that accompanied An Unexpected Journey's release - HFR this; MGM that, "why is this a trilogy?" whine whine whine - was far too loud for the movie's plaintive voice to shout over. The voice of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, and by extension Peter Jackson's whole Hobbit trilogy, is so... well... the word I would use is "sweet." The film is sweetly innocent in its creative ambitions, even while it is nakedly commercial in its financial ones. The new trilogy takes as its starting point the rather lovely, bordering on naïve, idea that the world in which The Lord of the Rings took place was beloved by many people, and that those people would enjoy a return holiday, touching some familiar bases, revealing some others, and augmenting pieces of the panorama that were previously muddy. The Hobbit believes that darning The Lord of the Rings' threadbare socks might make for a more comfortable pair. (Quite a hobbit-y notion, really.)
The movie's sweetness is in line with the personality of its principal species, those titular hobbits. What I admire about Martin Freeman's performance (and the conception of the character, c/o the dynamic writing tetra-pack of Jackson, Walsh, Boyens and Del Toro) is how far removed it is from all of our previous hobbits from the other trilogy. We are not given a retread of Elijah Wood's crack-addict-in-the-making, or Billy Boyd and Dominic Monaghan's slim essays on good English boys going off to war.
Instead, with Freeman's Bilbo, we essentially have the hobbit as midlife crisis sufferer, heeding the call to adventure within moments of having rejected it, because although he can scarcely articulate what or why, something is sure as hell wrong with his life - and Middle-Earth doesn't have a lot of red sports cars for him to shore up his manhood. Manhood is, of course, a theme throughout, from the schoolboy-warrior antics of Kili and Fili (the Dreamy Dwarves, as the Internet quickly branded them) to Thorin and Bilbo's film-long argument about whether or not the hobbit has any place joining the company of dwarves. In the final contest on the latter score, set against the burning branches of a single pine tree perched impossibly on the edge of a very tall cliff, Thorin yanks out a belter of a sword, but Bilbo proves the old adage true: Sting might be a short, stubby thing, but it's all in how you use it.
In terms of trees perched impossibly on the edge of very tall cliffs, here is another area where The Hobbit excels. One of the concerns with adapting the slim prequel to the gargantuan Lord of the Rings was simply the regressive sense of scale. The Hobbit is small; The Lord of the Rings is large. This would have been perfectly fine if the films had been released in book order (Jackson tried to tackle The Hobbit back in the initial go-round on King Kong, back in the '90s, before moving on to Rings), but for movie marketplace realities, the backwards release order required a Hobbit that somehow matched or exceeded the splendour of its predecessor/sequel.
An Unexpected Journey slyly weaves its way around this problem by way of its framing narrative, which - while still having The Hobbit trilogy take place, notably, prior to The Fellowship of the Ring's principal events, as prequels should - also positions the entire story as a fabulous tale being told by that fabulous fabulist, Ian Holm's elder Bilbo. This allows The Hobbit to come at the story from a more elliptical, Paul Bunyan standpoint, so that when berserk things happen that would seem out of place in Rings' war-hardened cosmology (like rock giants, or a singing Goblin King, or the zipline monkey), we can direct them back to Bilbo's natural sense of embellishment. (Embellishment, again, being the running point of the whole thing.) None of this removes the solidity of The Hobbit's sense of worldbuilding, of course (Bilbo is, after all, professing to be telling Frodo "what really happened"), but it smoothes the transition from Rings' weather-beaten celluloid, and all its aesthetic artifacts, to The Hobbit's digital cyclorama.
In the category of digital wonderlands, I must presume any disappointment on the part of The Hobbit's audience is simple battle fatigue. Yes, The Lord of the Rings set the standard for modern visual worldbuilding at the movies (for all intents and purposes, though hardly alone); and yes, that's a trick that can only happen once, with everything after it seeming less dazzling as a result, Hobbit included. But boy, as visual effects spectacles go, An Unexpected Journey is a treat. Its narrative prologue, which suffers by comparison to that other narrative prologue in terms of storytelling importance and sheer "wow" factor, is nonetheless a fairly gobsmacking 7-minute piece of cinema, diving into a fresh corner of Middle-Earth that is vividly real and touchingly familiar all at the same time.
That The Hobbit's prologue was also, unfortunately, our standing introduction to high frame rate photography is perhaps An Unexpected Journey's largest conceptual mistake, future-proofing the movie at the expense of taking the much-needed opportunity to educate the audience's eye on how HFR can be made to work. Avatar had the sense to ease us into its presentation of 3-D through a series of what are essentially demo shots (a curved eyeball; a floating water droplet; a hella-long corridor down the center of Jake's ship). The Hobbit makes no such effort, and if HFR failed dismally in the popular imagination as a result, it's pretty much entirely Peter Jackson's fault.
(The good news, if far too late, is that HFR isn't the mess it was dismissed as. The brain seems to learn how to view the HFR images once one's neural pathways have the opportunity to "bake" the new way of seeing, over the course of a night's sleep. I saw An Unexpected Journey in HFR a few times, the last of them at the Embassy Theatre in Wellington, New Zealand. That's not a humblebrag; it's an outright brag. And to further brag: while I didn't care for the HFR format the first time I saw it, by the time I was watching it in Wellington, the HFR looked totally normal to me. I'll happily see The Desolation of Smaug at 48fps.)
The intent behind HFR is noble at least; it's an effort to move the film's worldbuilding to the next level of chock-a-block visual reality, even if this inaugural entry was not, tacitly, a success in that regard. I would argue that worldbuilding is the final major intent of The Hobbit trilogy, and this intent justifies the rather mindbending decision to stretch a 300-page novel into a screentime that will equal, when all is said and done, the adaptation of the previous, 1000-page novel.
The Hobbit, the novel, was simply written at a different pace than its sequel, whose pace remains the subject of some serious derision by those who attempt to hack their way through Tolkien's lugubrious Fellowship of the Ring. (If you make it to the Fords of Bruinen, you're probably fine - but it's a death march getting there). Jackson & Co. would have had to flesh things out anyway, but in directing the re-allotment of the story beats, they put the emphasis in the right place to better feed The Hobbit into the Middle-Earth cosmology as a whole. It's easy to miss, over the course of The Hobbit novel or Christopher Tolkien's embellishments upon his father's work (Unfinished Tales, particularly), the nut of the idea that brings Jackson's Hobbit trilogy to life, but it's in the movie in full splendour: Gandalf as meddler, hopefully for good, in the fate of the world.
It's never directly addressed in the original text (and only peripherally in Unfinished), but Gandalf's far sight has him putting Thorin's Company together, down to the last man (/hobbit), in another iteration of his "falling of small stones that starts an avalanche" analogy. He wants to redirect the river of future events away from Sauron's eventual recapture of Middle-Earth, and The Hobbit trilogy has the sense to dredge the wizards back to the fore (neither Saruman nor Radagast appear in the novel, but are essential to the film, even while the two blue wizards are cagily dismissed offscreen) to better enrich their purpose in the overall narrative. And yes, I am seriously pro-Radagast. If Sylvester McCoy's performance is wrong, I don't want to be right.
An Unexpected Journey's principal of embellishment perhaps supplies nothing of narrative necessity to the world of The Lord of the Rings, but it provides so many treasures and wonders of non-necessity that it makes The Hobbit trilogy, in effect, the ultimate fan film. I enjoy it more every time I see it, which is why the cool response of so many fans to its initial entry is so baffling to me, and why I remain fairly certain that when all is said and done, Jackson's going to win us over all over again.
Destroy All Monsters is a weekly column on Hollywood and pop culture.