The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey – What’s not to love after all? (film review)

“In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit.

Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole,

filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell,

nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat:

it was a Hobbit Hole, and that means comfort.”

— The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien

So, I open 2013 not with one of the many art films (what IS an art film anyway??) I thoroughly enjoyed in my little holiday period, but with the world-wide blockbuster that is storming everything and everyone despite it’s being The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. I’m not sure why I’ll start my critical theory / analysis / two-cents on this particular film, other than to say I loved it and I will do my very level best to justify that over the next few paragraphs.

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Yes yes yes – there are all the problems!  I’m not immune to them.  I can see that there are even fewer women in this film than there were in the first three – an effete (hot) elf does not a woman make;  Galadriel was added in to this version because Peter Jackson felt it was such a sausage-fest. And of course she’s INTUITIVE! That great mysterious female power. There is a lovely piece on this in Time written by Ruth Davis Konigsberg which points out Tolkien goes as far as to raise an army of orc males out of the earth’s soil, just to make sure there are no women present. She is smart enough to keep it light, but we do need the prod of her insight none the less.

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Then there is the far more serious problem of New Zealand being taken over by fetish and kitch. Apparently TLOTR had a large bunch of folk across the world “discover” New Zealand, and take such a shine to the place they packed rucksacks and headed down there. The Hobbit has only exacerbated that “problem” and the bookings to New Zealand rose by 30% last month. Given The Hobbit launched itself into the top of the box office chart – and has held that position in the US even against the opening of Django Unchained  – it’s no real surprise. However it poses a problem for the thinking New Zealander, best summed up in the Air New Zealand Safety flight video below – that I am sure you have all seen many times. Perhaps New Zealand s intellectuals can ask for some advice from the thinkers of Salzburg  a city that gathers tourists for The Sound of Music over the birthplace of Mozart.

However…

I ask the simple question – When it comes to these films, what’s not to love?

In many ways this is the film we had to have. Once TLOTR was out there and had the impact it did, there was never a chance The Hobbit wouldn’t be made. The reason I say that is the pressure culturally would be too much to bare. Studios want it, because of the money.  Tolkien fetishists want it because of the accuracy and the attention to detail. The public want it so we don’t have to read the books. For the most part, it was a film that was never going to not be made. (pardon my assault on grammar there) If you, as many critics have, ask why this film had to be made, I think the answer lies in one of those mirror moments. We asked for this film.

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Something else to note, Peter Jackson was never going to make The Hobbit. He felt that he’d kinda done it all in TLOTR and he felt The Hobbit needed fresh perspective. It wasn’t until he realised The Hobbit was such a different sort of book that he decided the continuity of director wouldn’t be problem. This is an important piece of information in overcoming some of the criticisms The Hobbit is gaining. It’s inevitable that we compare it to TLOTR.  However The Hobbit is a lighter book.  It’s funnier and in many ways warmer. It’s not as regal as TLOTR, and therefore doesn’t impart that inspirational message in the same way.  Men are not born and made on every page.  It doesn’t carry the multiple sub-plots and various threads.  Peter Jackson has added a great deal through appendices from TLOTR and notes made around and about The Hobbit or its time period (the Galadriel  inclusion is a good example) but it does show up as a different experience to TLOTR while keeping enough of what we loved to keep us loving.

THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY

“The Hobbit has a breathless pace because Tolkien was writing it as a story for his children and for the children of the world,” Jackson notes. “It’s a ripping yarn that moves from event to event, and really doesn’t stop. It’s a little more humorous than The Lord of the Rings, the characters are a little more colourful  but it nonetheless has elements of greed and madness, of an innocent who is changed forever, and of the gathering forces that will lead directly into the events in The Lord of the Rings. This is where it all starts.”

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All the stuff we loved from TLOTR is still present in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.  The amazing cast (Martin Freeman was well worth all the fuss and bother it took to get him) the costuming, the hours spent in Dwarf camp, the invocation of culture represented in minor seemingly insignificant detail and the rich beauty of the New Zealand landscape gussied up to be a fertile middle-earth. Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh are so good at giving absolutely everything to their project.  It evokes the positive side of existentialism for me. There is something deeply satisfying about watching the product of such strong human endeavour. I don’t mean that to sound worshipful, but surely part of the pleasure of these films is Tolkien’s complete immersion in Middle-earth and Jackson’s subsequent passion to follow in his footsteps. It reminds me of Sartre’s quote “We must act out passion before we can feel it.”  There is so much ennui in the human creature – more than ever it seems (though I doubt that). There is so much to criticise, so much banality. Here is a group of people doing something really well – even if it is unnecessary in every way. The nature of cinema, more than any other art form, is that of deep engagement. It is the “sub-space” we allow ourselves to fall into that opens us up to this engagement.  That trust is not always rewarded.  However with The Hobbit: An unexpected journey, the passion brought to the project by each and every participant rewards us for our faith. A faith placed solely in what is possible through human endeavour.

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