The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey review

On Saturday, 15 December 2012, Janice and I met Beruk A., Thomas K.Y. & Kai-Yin H., Ken G., Josh C. & Sara F., and Robin H. at the AMC Loews Boston Common to see The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. We all enjoyed Peter Jackson’s latest adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic fantasy novels.

Boston showing of The Hobbit
The gang for An Unexpected Journey

I’ll try to avoid plot/script “spoilers,” but if you haven’t yet read the original book, do so! An Unexpected Journey follows eponymous Hobbit Bilbo Baggins as he evolves from a retiring country gentleman in the Shire to become an adventurer alongside 12 Dwarves and the wizard Gandalf. On the way to the Lonely Mountain, they encounter warg-riding Goblins, Elves, Trolls, and more, all harkening back to the Norse tales that Tolkien studied and loved.

Director Jackson and company fold in plot threads from the appendices of The Lord of the Ringsexpanding many scenes and characters. Since Jackson filmed more than four hours’ worth of footage for each installment of the previous trilogy, it should come as no surprise that he expanded on The Hobbit. I have fond memories of a marathon screening of the first trilogy’s extended editions in New York City with cast members present, so I am perhaps the target audience.

Dinner for 14
That’s what Bilbo Baggins hates!

The tone of the prequel is close to that of “LotR,” but with a bit more humor, as in the book, and slightly less violence — but maybe still too much for young children. I was pleased to hear much of Tolkien’s language in An Unexpected Journey, including a few songs and poems (some of us still remember the Rankin-Bass animated attempt). As a longtime Tolkien fan, this helped balance out the newer additions to the story.

One of the strongest components of An Unexpected Journey was the cast. It was nice to see familiar faces again, including Ian Holm as the older Bilbo and Elijah Wood as young Frodo in a framing scene. Of course, it’s now difficult to imagine mischievous Gandalf without picturing Ian McKellen, and Hugo Weaving and Cate Blanchett are back as regal Elves Elrond and Galadriel, respectively.

Fans of British genre television and movies should recognize many of the actors, at least by name. Martin Freeman is ever the befuddled Englishman, whether it’s in The Office, Shaun of the Dead, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Sherlockand now as young Bilbo in The Hobbit. But as Gandalf notes, he’s more clever, hardy, and ethical than meets the eye.

Martin Freeman as young Bilbo Baggins
Bilbo Baggins, the bravest little Hobbit of them all

Even with a three-hour runtime, we get to know only a few of the Dwarves in The Hobbit, but Robin Hood‘s Richard Armitage stands out as honorable Thorin Oakenshield, and Being Human‘s hunky Aidan Turner as young Dwarf Kili might be a rival for the affections of fans of Orlando Bloom’s Legolas. Jekyll‘s James Nesbitt has some sympathetic moments as Bofur, and Ken Stott is sagacious as older Dwarf Balin.

Dozen Dwarves
Far over the Misty Mountains cold….

Doctor Who‘s Sylvester McCoy is the twitter-pated (literally) wizard Radagast the Brown. Those playing the villains are just as experienced. Andy Serkis, now also second-unit director for The Hobbit, is a delight as the nasty Gollum. Comedian Barry Humphries, best known as Dame Edna, is unrecognizable as the Great Goblin, while Spartacus‘ Manu Bennet is fearsome as Orc leader Azog.

It was also nice to see familiar Middle Earth locations, such as Bilbo’s comfy estate of Bag End in Hobbiton and Elrond’s Last Homely House in Rivendell. Jackson also shows us Dwarf cities in their full glory and violent decline, a Goblin town beneath the Misty Mountains, and the depths of Mirkwood. All of the architecture, costumes, and props are again excellent.

Many critics have taken issue with the movie’s length and editing, and I agree that they could have been tighter. Still, trimming a few sequences of Bilbo and company hiking or computer-enhanced battle scenes wouldn’t make An Unexpected Journey much shorter, and I’m glad that so many character moments and scenes from the book made it into the film. The flow of the story from scene to scene could have been smoother — reminding me of both tabletop and computer role-playing games — and I hope it will improve in later chapters of this new trilogy.

Unlike practical visual effects and makeup, the storm giants and the aforementioned Azog and Goblin king do look computer-generated, unlike the expressive but still realistic Gollum or Trolls. I think that comparisons to Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, even if they’re accurate, reflect “nerd rage” more than a fair critique. I didn’t see the movie in 3-D, IMAX, or high frame rate formats, so I’ll leave that to other reviewers to describe. Howard Shore’s latest soundtrack was also good, and it alluded to the soaring themes of Lord of the Rings.

Overall, I’d give The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, which is rated PG-13 for violence, an 8 out of 10, four out of five stars, or a B+/A-. For me, that’s about on par with The Two Towers, if not as satisfying as The Fellowship of the Ring or Return of the King. Compared with most other fantasy films, I’d still recommend the The Hobbit and remind moviegoers that it has been a generation since we’ve had so many to choose from.

Most of the trailers we saw before The Hobbit were for science fiction flicks rather than fantasies. Both Tom Cruise’s Oblivion and Will Smith’s After Earth post-apocalyptic visions had cool hardware but seemingly predictable plots. Romantic zombie comedy (when did you think you’d see those together?) Warm Bodies looked mildly amusing.

I’m most looking forward to kaiju vs. giant robots in Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim and to Star Trek: Into Darkness, even if I have reservations about how the latter again relies on a villain-driven story involving mass destruction and threats to the starship Enterprise. Man of Steel looked rather dark for a Superman film. Still, genre film fans have a lot to look forward to in 2013!

After the movie, we went to the Rock Bottom Brewery for a late lunch. On Sunday, Janice and I attended “A Celtic Christmas Sojourn” at the Cutler Majestic Theatre in Boston. I hope that all your holidays are happy!

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The Dark Knight Rises, a belated review

On Sunday, 22 July 2012, I met Beruk A. and James B. at the AMC Loews Boston Common for a matinee of The Dark Knight Rises. Sadly, the superhero sequel was overshadowed by the tragic shootings in Colorado.

We enjoyed the film, which neatly wrapped up director Christopher Nolan and lead actor Christian Bale’s take on Batman. I liked The Dark Knight Rises a little more than The Amazing Spider-Man, if not as much as the four-color The Avengers.

Wallpaper 6
Nolan and Bale’s Batman comes to a conclusion

Cast: Bale is a decent Bruce Wayne, a tortured soul masquerading as a billionaire playboy. He’s not as fun as Adam West (who once called me “chum”), as slick as Val Kilmer or George Clooney, or as initially odd a choice as Michael Keaton was for the costumed vigilante.

Bale is again ably supported by older character actors in The Dark Knight Rises. Michael Caine is Wayne’s cockney and concerned butler Alfred, Morgan Freeman adds mischievous gravitas as technologist Lucius Fox, and chameleon Gary Oldman is the embattled Commissioner James Gordon.

Newcomers to this cinematic version of Gotham City include Marion Cotillard as mysterious executive Miranda Tate, Tom Hardy as brutal assassin Bane, and Joseph Gordon-Leavitt as idealistic police officer John Blake. Blake becomes the audience surrogate in hoping for things to improve, even as the police as a whole are outmaneuvered.

They all did well in their roles — even if Hardy was sometimes hard to understand through his face mask — but Anne Hathaway deserves special mention for her performance as Selina Kyle/Catwoman.

I had some doubts about the young actress, but Hathaway was properly slinky and cunning as the (never-named) cat burglar and con artist. She was believable in navigating Gotham’s seamy underbelly and its glittering galas, and she brought much-needed femininity and light to Nolan’s grim and gritty universe.

Plot: Batman Begins showed how an orphan could become an anonymous champion of justice, and The Dark Knight depicted Batman fighting grotesque villains (Aaron Eckhart’s Two-Face and the late Heath Ledger’s unparalleled Joker). The Dark Knight Rises expands on both those themes and is Wagnerian in showing Batman fighting Bane and a conspiracy for the very survival of Gotham City.

Nolan tries to make the plot a complicated puzzle, but even the trailers for the movie telegraphed some of the resolution. Anyone who has read the comic book storylines of Batman: Year One, The Killing Joke, Son of the Demon, Cataclysm, No Man’s Land, and Nightfall knows what to expect.

I appreciate Nolan and Bale’s somewhat more realistic approach to Batman’s world and motivations, but the pendulum has swung very far from the cheerful camp of West’s 1960s superhero. Even the direct-to-video adaptations of DC Comics are moving to Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, another obvious inspiration.

Rich felt that Nolan’s Batman isn’t as majestic or as much of a loner as he prefers, but I agree that the amount of time that passes for the desperate citizens of Gotham (and the audience) is on the long side.

I thought that The Dark Knight Rises‘ political subtext was muddled. Following Joseph Campbell’s hero pattern, the aristocratic hero must wander, reject his father figure, be humbled, triumph over his dark reflection, and then walk away or die. Other than a bus full of orphans, we see very few of the 12 million ordinary citizens whom Batman is supposedly fighting to protect.

On the other hand, there’s a populist “99%” strain to Bane’s Robespierre-style demagoguery — even if he’s just a tool of the League of Shadows. The military and police are shown as impotent, implicitly endorsing vigilantism. Granted, dressing up as a bat to fight crime doesn’t always make sense, but why bring up those points if you’re not going to fully show both sides?

Visual effects: From the opening scene of a daring aerial hijacking, The Dark Knight Rises‘ set-piece scenes were clearly inspired by the James Bond movies, which Nolan also paid tribute to in Inception. The battles of The Avengers were more cosmic and colorful, but Batman’s gadgetry and vehicles are still impressive.

Like some comic book writers and fans, Nolan’s Dark Knight is more of an urban warrior than a stealthy detective or martial artist. Perhaps this leaves room for the next set of filmmakers to interpret and develop different aspects of Batman. Even though I miss the Batman: the Animated Series of the 1990s and even the recent campy Batman and the Brave and the Bold, I look forward to the upcoming animated Beware the Batman on TV.

Soundtrack: Hans Zimmer’s score is appropriately operatic, if not especially memorable. Unlike the Marvel Universe, whose movies include relatively recent popular music, it seems fitting that DC’s iconic heroes such as Batman stick with classical.

Spoilers and ratings: Note that some of the articles I’ve linked to contain “spoilers” about the plot, but I’ll try to avoid giving anything away directly here. I can see a few ways for how Nolan’s version could have continued, but I’m also content with his conclusion to Bruce Wayne’s story.

Since Batman is the single most profitable superhero film franchise, there’s little doubt that Warner Brothers/DC Comics will reboot the movies as soon as possible, not unlike various Marvel remakes. I do wonder if they’ll be able to maintain the quality amid stylistic and cast changes. I’m cautiously optimistic about the Superman reboot Man of Steel, as well as early plans for a Justice League film (for which I’ll have to write up my own ideas). I just hope they’re fun and well-done.

I’d give The Dark Knight Rises, which was rated PG-13 for violence, three out of five stars, a B+, or a 7.5 out of 10. The only upcoming movie that’s getting buzz and I’m excited about is Peter Jackson’s planned trilogy adapting J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. In the meantime, keep tuning in, same Bat time, same Bat channel!

P.S.: Here are my Batfilm ratings:

  • 1943: Batman serials — yet to watch
  • 1965: Batman ***/B+
  • 1989: Batman **/B
  • 1992: Batman Returns **/B-
  • 1993: Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (animated) ****/A
  • 1995: Batman Forever ***/B+
  • 1997: Batman & Robin */C
  • 1998: Batman & Mr. Freeze: SubZero (animated) ***/B+
  • 2000: Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker (animated) **/B-
  • 2003: Batman: Mystery of the Batwoman (animated) ***/B+
  • 2005: The Batman vs. Dracula (animated) **/B, Batman Begins ***/A-
  • 2008: Justice League: the New Frontier (animated) ***/B+, The Dark Knight ***/B+
  • 2009: Batman: Gotham Knight ****/A-, Superman/Batman: Public Enemies **/B (animated)
  • 2010: Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths ***/B+, Batman: Under the Red Hood ***/B+, Superman/Batman: Apocalypse **/B (animated)
  • 2011: Batman: Year One (animated) ***/B+
  • 2012: Justice League: Doom (animated) **/B, The Dark Knight Rises ***/B+, The Dark Knight Returns (animated) coming soon