By Douglas Pratt Pratt@moviecitynews.com
DVD Geek: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
The Age of Great Video Disc Supplements is coming to an end. As consumers turn to video downloading, there will be less motivation for the home video companies to sell anything off line at all, and collector’s editions of movies will become as quaint as 16mm films. The vanities of filmmakers and the enthusiasms of genre fans will keep the format alive for a while, and promotional featurettes will continue to have a healthy livelihood on the Internet—their inclusions now on DVDs and Blu-rays have become something of an afterthought—but the ‘total package,’ where the film itself and all of the supplements supporting it follow a specific theme and thereby enhance the impact of the film’s entertainment, is already becoming a lost art, kept alive by an ever diminishing group of craftsmen.
And so, there is even greater reason than indulging oneself in the fantasy adventure to obtain the Warner Home Video Extended Edition Blu-ray release of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit An Unexpected Journey. Not only is the film longer than the 2012 theatrical release, and not only does Jackson supply a commentary track, but there are 9 hours of production documentaries, all focused on the process of discovery that accompanied the making of the film. A film, by the way, that Jackson never expected to make. Although quite a bit of Jackson’s team was involved, since he was serving as screenwriter and producer, Guillermo del Toro was to be the director of the two-part motion picture adaptation of the J.R.R. Tolkien classic. It was only when one of the companies with an ownership share in the project, MGM, encountered unexpected financial difficulties, that a delay of undetermined length eventually motivated del Toro to move on to other projects, and left Jackson as the only logical leader to take the reins when the delays were finally resolved. He then had unexpected medical problems that caused more delays, but enabled the vegetation in the ‘Hobbiton’ set to overgrow naturally and give the location a perfect lived-in look, and also enabled other technicians to solve problems and improve their artistry.
The story of how two movies became three is likely being saved for the supplements in one of the later installments of the film. The Extended Edition runs 182 minutes, 13 minutes longer than the theatrical release. The ‘Scene Selections’ option indicates which chapters contain new or extended material. What has been added is mostly footage that is not relevant specifically to the narrative in An Unexpected Journey, but will embellish not only the play of the trilogy as a whole, but also its links to Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies. In any case, these touches never seem to slow the film down or feel out of place, and they continually enhance the movie’s sense of wonder. There is also a choice comedic sequence, showing the dwarves skinny-dipping in a sacred Elvin fountain.
What will probably be deemed the weakest of the six films, The Hobbit An Unexpected Journey has some minor shortcomings that will not seem as critical once its companion films strengthen its introductory concepts. One of the greatest aspects of Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies was the astounding sweep and gripping nature of its action scenes. They were stupendous, as great as anything ever created for the cinema, and nothing in An Unexpected Journey comes close. There are many smaller moments that are joyful, and several scenes that are legitimately thrilling, but the movie is missing the tentpole moments that made the other three films so exceptional. The decision to shoot the movie in 3D means that the action scenes have been staged to take best advantage of the 3D effects. The grandest sequence—the chase in the goblin cavern—is a delight of dimensional effects, and even in 2D playback, its scope is impressive, but the personalities of the heroes and the villains are lost in the clutter of action. In choosing to stage the segment for its dimensional impact, Jackson lets go of what made the action scenes in all three of the Lord of the Rings films so involving, the constant monitoring of the specific experiences of each of the heroes within the pandemonium of the fights and battles. They are all just drab little objects, leaping from crumbling pathways and avoiding onslaughts of goblins, as such objects have done in so many other films.
Another chase sequence is outright misconceived, and Jackson seems to know it even though he gives it his best spin in the supplements. The heroes are on a vast, open field, strewn with rocks, and are being hunted down by villainous creatures and dog monsters. One of their number (using a delightfully conceived rabbit-drawn sled) takes off to distract the villains, so the heroes can slip away, with the idea being that he runs around so much in circles that he leads the bad guys right back to the heroes, and only their discovery at the last minute of a subterranean exit saves them. It is a weak and not very exciting idea to begin with, but it makes even less sense as it is staged and edited, again with too many distance shots that show the characters bobbing about but not really going anywhere.
The greatest challenge to the film was one that Jackson fully anticipated from the beginning, and whether or not he truly solved it will only be evident when all three films can be viewed. The hero, a ‘hobbit,’ played by the potentially wonderful but somewhat restrained Martin Freeman (the character was played by the elderly Ian Holm in the Lord of the Rings movies, who appears at the beginning of The Hobbit to set things up, while the actual story precedes by decades the story told in Rings), is coerced by a wizard, played by Ian McKellen (one of several actors whose character’s aging anomalies allows him to appear in all of the films), to accompany a group of a dozen or so dwarves on a quest to retrieve the dwarves’ birthright. The single dwarf character, played by John Rhys-Davies in the Lord of the Rings movies, stood out to great effect among the many taller characters in those films, but hobbits are about the same height as dwarves and so, as they gather, there is less that is unique about them in The Hobbit, and almost nothing, other than McKellen, to remind viewers of their diminutive stature. In one of the supplements, the many challenges of creating the individual dwarf characters are extensively addressed. With the exception of two or three, there is not much for their characters to do individually, and they don’t stand out in the way that the various characters in Lord of the Rings were readily differentiated.
Like the release of the theatrical version, Extended Edition is letterboxed with an aspect ratio of about 2.35:1. The image transfer is excellent and even the most extensive computer animation sequences have textures and tones that are indiscernible from the ‘real’ components on the screen. The 7.1 DTS sound is greatly involving, with abundant energy and creative detail. There are French and Portuguese audio tracks in 5.1 Dolby Digital, and English, French, Spanish and Portuguese subtitles.
The film appears on one platter, accompanied by the same 7-minute travel promotional piece about the New Zealand locations that was included with the theatrical release. Jackson and co-screenwriter/producer Philippa Boyens supply the commentary track (there is only one commentary, unlike the four that appeared on each extended Rings film), an excellent and thorough narration of why different choices were made, what the reasons were for embellishing or altering the story in the novel, how the various technical problems were addressed (because of the 3D effects, they could not simply place McKellen closer to the camera as they did in the Lord of the Rings films to convey his difference in size from the others), who the various contributors were in front of and behind the camera (or both, in the case of Andy Serkis, who became the primary second unit director after finishing the scenes where he reprises his schizophrenic character), and the legacy that is being created. “When you’re doing films like this, you’re partly making the movie to be standalone, obviously, as an experience. You watch the films in the cinemas and you have to feel like you’re satisfied with the movie, but always, in the back of our minds, it is one of not even three, but it’s one of six films that we want, long after the theatrical life of these films is over, for decades, hopefully for a hundred years or more, that they’re going to be available as six movies to look at, and that is ultimately what we’re trying to create here.” Boyens points out that when all six movies are combined, Holm’s flashback scene in Lord of the Rings where he finds ‘The Ring’ does not have to be replaced with Freeman’s scenes in The Hobbit. “Textually, you could get away with it, because it’s his memory of finding it, and his story of how he found it, how it came to him, ‘evolved,’ shall we say, in the telling.”
“Hopefully,” interjects Jackson (at a later recording, from the sound of it), “We’ll get to package The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings together, in like an ‘ultimate’ set, and who knows what extra things we’ll be able to squeeze into that.” So maybe we’ll get to see Tom Bombadil yet.
The second and third BD platters included in the set are listed as The Appendices Part 7 and The Appendices Part 8, carrying forward the assumption that all six movies go together, even though this one would be the first and not the fourth if you were watching them in narrative instead of production order. For production order, however, this film is indeed the fourth, an exponential decade in technological advancement over its predecessors, bringing forth both new problems to be solved and new solutions to be applied. Part 7, which runs 273 minutes, is a fully engrossing, chronological narrative of the film’s production, which includes interviews with del Toro and explains how the many delays the film encountered served to its advantage, even when Jackson became extremely ill (as we pointed out in our review of the Internet promotional segments included with the theatrical release, Jackson started putting back the weight over the course of the production that he had lost while making King Kong), or when Freeman had to take a hiatus to shoot the wonderful Sherlock Season Two. The program works its way through the various stages of the production, highlighting the film’s advance from one location or soundstage set to the next as the pieces are gradually gathered and combined, with appropriate digressions to the other work that is going on simultaneously, such as the elaborate stunts and throwaway inserts that Serkis is shooting. There is real drama—McKellan, who had to work in another room because of the effects requirements, could not see the actors he was responding to and had a temporary breakdown—but even when the events are simply filmmaking as usual, the lengthy program has been constructed in such a way that it is always interesting and entertaining, showing how the cast and crew bonded as the shooting advanced and they all became more confident in what they wanted to accomplish.
At first, Part 8, which runs 285 minutes, seems like it is just made up of outtakes from Part 7, but gradually, you come to realize that is retelling the story of the production again, from an entirely different perspective, focusing initially on the characters, and then moving to the settings, before wrapping things up with a segment on the music. Having the context of the film, the commentary and Part 7 to support it, Part 8, because it is so much about the individual artists and what they are contributing, not only enriches the supplement with its human perspective, it also enriches the film itself, by bringing a greater appreciation to its every component. As Jackson himself explains at one point, The Hobbit was seen by Tolkien as a children’s story—the ‘Goblins’ of The Hobbit became the much scarier ‘Orcs’ of The Lord of the Rings (Jackson sees them as different breeds of the same species)—and so the film is intentionally more playful and frivolous than The Lord of the Rings. Some viewers may feel that Jackson pushed that frivolity too far, but he claims that the trilogy will become more serious as it advances, and it is a claim most viewers will readily accept as they look beyond the film’s conclusion, expecting that however the adventure will be resolved, it is the journey itself that will be the reward.