Judge Clark Douglas wishes you a good morning.
Our review of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Blu-ray), published March 18th, 2013, is also available.
From the smallest beginnings come the greatest legends.
"I'm looking for someone to share in an adventure."
Facts of the Case
Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy) is a good-natured hobbit who enjoys his peaceful, simple existence. Alas, his tidy world is thrown into chaos when the great wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellan, X-Men) invites him to come on a grand adventure. In no time at all, Bilbo finds himself joining forces with a rowdy band of dwarves led by the serious-minded Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage, Robin Hood). Their mission: to reclaim the dwarves' homeland from a terrible dragon. Before they get there, however, there will be plenty of dangerous encounters with orcs, trolls and goblins…not to mention lots of food and singing.
Considering that the Lord of the Rings trilogy is easily one of the great artistic achievements of the 21st century to date (not to mention a huge box office success), anticipation for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey could not have been higher. Though the first installment of Jackson's second Middle Earth trilogy was indeed successful financially, the critical reaction was somewhat tepid and audiences found themselves deeply divided. At this point, whether or not An Unexpected Journey is a good film is as immediately divisive a subject as any hot-topic political item.
I'm a fan, though it's easy to understand why many are not. The film seems torn between recapturing the cheerful, playful tone of J.R.R. Tolkien's novel and the more foreboding vibe of the LOTR flicks, which creates some notable tonal issues. Jackson's decision to divide his adaptation of the relatively short book into three parts certainly makes the film feel more padded than any of the LOTR movies (which were of course based on three substantial novels), as Jackson comes close to putting every single sentence of the novel onscreen and then adds his own new material on top of it. Despite this, the dwarves (charming as they are) don't feel as well-developed as the Fellowship did at the end of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. Some of the CGI is awfully spotty, even in contrast to a trilogy of movies that was completed a decade earlier. Yes, there's plenty to complain about.
And yet, I fall in love with An Unexpected Journey just a little bit more each time I see it. It's such a pleasure to be back in Jackson's Middle Earth again, and the central characters are so ridiculously spot-on. Martin Freeman is a sublime Bilbo Baggins, perfectly capturing the character's amusing fretfulness while still managing to give him a good deal of soul. Ian McKellan reprises his great work as Gandalf, playing an even larger part in the proceedings than he did in the earlier flicks. Andy Serkis continues to astound as Gollum, nearly walking away with the movie during the brilliant "Riddles in the Dark" sequence (pretty much the only portion of the film that has garnered universal praise). Richard Armitage does solid work as Thorin, creating a character who initially appears to be a one-dimensional sulk but quickly becomes something more.
"Yes, sure, the acting's fine," you may say, "but what about the bloated story?" That's a fair question. The story is undoubtedly padded (moreso than ever in this extended edition), but the world Jackson has built is so inviting that I honestly don't really mind. An Unexpected Journey is the ultimate big-budget hangout movie; encouraging you to sit back and chill in Middle Earth for a while. It's established early on that we're witnessing a story being told by an older Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm, Alien), and it makes sense that he would be as concerned with the details of a rambunctious dwarf supper or the history of the animal-loving Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy, Doctor Who) as he is with perilous encounters and battles. Like the hobbits themselves, the movie is gentler, more rambling and more playful than the grim LOTR flicks, and that's appropriate.
If you're also a viewer who simply enjoys luxuriating in Middle Earth, the extended edition of the film is certainly well worth your time. However, if you felt the theatrical edition of the movie was entirely too long to begin with, the new scenes are probably just going to exacerbate the problem. The additions here aren't quite as revelatory as the additions made to the extended editions of LOTR, but they do make the tale feel even more relaxed and novelistic. The opening sequence now offers even more historical detail, really immersing the viewer in the world of the past before bringing them back to the present. The stay in Rivendell has been extended quite a bit, giving the viewer more time to enjoy the dissonance caused by a group of enthusiastic dwarves causing chaos in the impossibly orderly world of the elves. There are a couple of additional musical sequences, too, the most notable being an ominous tune performed by the vile goblin king (he proudly notes that it's an original composition). The new stuff doesn't really make the film significantly better, but I found it enjoyable.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Blu-ray) Extended Edition looks and sounds stunning. While it could be argued that the jaw-dropping detail hurts some of the practical effects just a bit, for the most part it's a great pleasure to behold. Jackson once again uses the lush New Zealand scenery very effectively, creating a world that feels distinctive and lived-in. So much care is evident in every aspect of the production design, and seeing the film in hi-def only accentuates that. The DTS HD 7.1 Master Audio track is similarly superb, proving very nuanced during the quieter moments and delivering a huge aural kick during the battle scenes. Howard Shore's score (which is less diverse but just as effective as his LOTR material) sounds particularly rich; filling your home theatre room with muscular brass and plaintive strings.
What really makes this set worth the price of admission isn't the new material added to the film, but the new supplements it offers. The LOTR extended editions delivered some of the most exhaustive behind-the-scenes documentaries in existence, truly examining every aspect of the filmmaking process. This collection continues that trend, spreading over nine hours of bonus documentaries across two additional Blu-ray disc. Let's take a look.
New Zealand: Home to Middle Earth (6 minutes): A short, sweet little piece that plays more like an informercial for New Zealand than a proper featurette (in fact, it concludes with an invitation to visit the country's official website), but it's pleasant enough.
Introduction by Peter Jackson (2 minutes): The director compares his appendices to Tolkien's, explaining that they're designed to provide a deeper understanding of the movies.
The Journey Back to Middle Earth (48 minutes): A look at Guillermo Del Toro's initial involvement in the process, MGM's financial problems, Jackson's decision to direct the film himself after Del Toro's departure, a very entertaining look at the "dwarf boot camp" the actors attended and a special ceremony that kicked off the first day of shooting.
Riddles in the Dark—Gollum's Cave (17 minutes): A look at the creation of the film's best sequence, which was treated as something of a self-contained chamber piece. Always a great pleasure to see Andy Serkis doing his brilliant motion-capture work.
An Unexpected Party—Bag End (25 minutes): This section covers the
filming of the dinner party scene, the difficulty of creating differences in
scale between the characters, Ian McKellan's struggle to deal with some of the
technical challenges of the shoot and
Roast Mutton—Trollshore Forest (17 minutes): The pre-production work on this sequence largely had to be re-done from scratch for artistic reasons, and this piece sees the crew scrambling to make the necessary changes. We also see the motion-capture work done for the trolls (played by three of the actors playing the dwarves).
Bastion of the Greenwood—Rhosgobel (11 minutes): An examination of Sylvester McCoy's work as Radagast, the crew's skepticism about the idea of creating giant rabbits and Tim Wong's work as Radagast's stunt double.
A Short Rest—Rivendell and London (29 minutes): The filmmakers welcome back series veterans Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett, Bret McKenzie, Ian Holm and Christopher Lee, Peter Jackson talks a bit about his particular shooting style, Martin Freeman departs for a while to shoot Sherlock, and we see the process of shooting Christopher Lee separately in London while everyone else is in New Zealand.
Over Hill…-- The Misty Mountains (14 minutes): The actors discuss the physical challenges of shooting this scene and share a handful of amusing anecdotes. Plus, we witness the creation of one of the film's biggest and trickiest practical effects.
…Under Hill—Goblin Town (19 minutes): The prosthetics and animatronics created for this sequence are discussed, as is the difficulty of performing under hot lights and many pounds of latex. We also hear actor Barrie Humphries provide his take on the goblin king, see Peter Jackson mischievously encourage one of the goblins to start humping the leg of one of the dwarves and hear about the decision to replace some of the on-set goblins with digital ones.
Out of the Frying Pan…-- The Forest Ledge (16 minutes): Fake burning pine cones are created, Ian McKellan gets testy with Andy Serkis, Richard Armitage recounts a tough day of shooting and digital eagles are discussed.
Return to Hobbiton (18 minutes): Peter Jackson drives the Chitty Chitty Bang Bang car to work, the crew discusses working with children, an actor who briefly appeared in the original trilogy returns, location shooting finally begins, a variety of hobbit extras are cast, Elijah Wood (who is so enthusiastic about this series that he pops up quite a bit over the course of the supplements) films his cameo and Martin Freeman shares a touching anecdote.
The Epic of Scene 88—Strath Taieri (8 minutes): The saga of a scene that involved seemingly endless running for the entire cast and crew.
The Battle of Moria (11 minutes): A look at the creation of the massive prologue sequence (which wound up taking a good deal longer than anticipated).
Edge of the Wilderness—Pick-ups and The Carrock: (23 minutes): A very interesting look at the pick-up process and a few of the film's late script adjustments. We also witness Peter Jackson filming his cameo and observe the heartwarming conclusion of principal photography.
Home is Behind, The World Ahead (12 minutes): Our chronological examination of the filmmaking process concludes with a look at the wrap party, crafting the brief digital shot of Smaug that appears at the conclusion of the film and (best of all) a few valuable bits of behind-the-scenes footage from the next film.
The Company of Thorin (62 minutes): Pretty much everything included in the appendices is terrific, but this hour-long section is essential viewing. I learned far more about the dwarves and their individual characterizations from this piece than I did from the film itself, as each of the thirteen actors discuss the approach they took to their respective characters. Fascinating.
Mr. Baggins—The 14th Member (16 minutes): An examination of Martin Freeman's casting and his work as the title characters.
Durin's Folk—Creating the Dwarves (57 minutes): Those who are into the more technical aspects of filmmaking will love this section, which takes a look at the early conceptual drawings of the dwarves and how their appearance evolved over the course of pre-production. We also get a look at the prosthetic and costume design done on each character.
The People and Denizens of Middle Earth (58 minutes): Along the same lines as the previous piece, but focusing on the work done on a variety of the smaller supporting characters: the trolls, Radagast, the goblins and Azog the Defiler.
Realms of the Third Age: From Bag End to Goblin Town (59 minutes): A detailed look at the design of each of the film's major locations—Hobbiton, Rhosgobel, Rivendell, The Misty Mountain and Goblin Town. An exceptionally low-key and charming hour of viewing.
The Songs of the Hobbit (33 minutes): An examination of each of the songs used in the film. It's great stuff, but I'll admit to being disappointed that Howard Shore's score is never really discussed and the composer himself is never interviewed. Perhaps he'll get his turn in the spotlight in the next film's supplemental package.
Informative, funny, moving and consistently involving, the appendices crated for this film are absolutely up to high standard set by the earlier installments. A truly stunning 9+ hour journey.
The Extended Edition of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey isn't going to change anyone's mind on the film, but those who appreciated its virtues to begin with will likely treasure the opportunity to spend just a bit more time in Middle Earth. The flick looks and sounds excellent, and you'll be hard-pressed to find a more impressive supplemental package anywhere.
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Studio: Warner Bros.
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