There’s a scene in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in which our heroes are swarmed by a goblin horde and carried away to face uncertain judgment.
That’s also what happened to Peter Jackson last night at one of the first major awards screenings of the film, with Academy voters, guild members, and press clawing and clamoring for his attention during a pre-movie reception at the Landmark Theater in west Los Angeles.
Soon afterward, the same group would be passing sentence on the film – both in reviews and the awards race.
We’ll have to wait until ballots are cast to know for sure how awards voters feel about the movie, which opens Dec. 14.
But the review embargo lifted at 12 midnight Eastern Time last night, and for a while the Twitter feeds of film writers exploded into a variation of:
Their verdict? Jackson’s return to Middle-earth seems to be suffering from a case of the Braves – named after the similar woe that befell Pixar’s animated feature earlier this year: grumbling from critics that it is merely very good.
“An Unexpected Journey becomes a comfortable little adventure – and an even better one if you can convince yourself to stop comparing it to Lord of the Rings,” writes Cinemablend’s Katey Rich. Hitfix’s Drew McWeeney concludes with: “For now, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a good start, but with the expectations resting on the film, is good going to be good enough?”
Critics also weighed in on Jackson’s decision to experiment with presenting the film in 48 frames per second, which doubles the number of images that make up each second of the film. Their near-unanimous reaction to that could be summed up in a line from the earlier Lord of the Rings films: YOU … SHALL … NOT … PASS!
Moviegoers can still choose to see it in the more traditional format. (EW spoke at length with Jackson about the 48-frames controversy here: ‘Hobbit’: Peter Jackson responds to complaints about experimental footage)
The filmmaker’s homeland was perhaps the most generous to The Hobbit. “As lengthy as this first installment is, it’s a cracking start,” writes The New Zealand Herald’s Russell Ballie. “It’s also a film which feels looser, funnier, and often outright scarier than Jackson’s last venture into this territory.”
James Rocchi, writing for BoxOffice.com, was among the most brutal: “It’s the problem of prequels. Like what George Lucas bore when he returned to Star Wars for The Phantom Menace, the audience, the expectations, and filmmaking itself have matured but the storytelling is more juvenile.”
In a chat with Prize Fighter at last night’s reception, Jackson acknowledged the tone of The Hobbit trilogy is more squarely aimed at kids – and he’s aware that this movie may have its strongest Oscar chances in the below-the-line categories such as visual effects, makeup, costume design, music, sound, and cinematography.
Each of his previous visits to J. R. R. Tolkien’s fantasy world received Oscar nominations for Best Picture, but he is tempering expectations for An Unexpected Journey.
He also talks about what remains in the film from Guillermo del Toro’s time as director, and whether Andy Serkis will ever get awards recognition for Gollum.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: In 2004, you swept the Academy Awards, with Return of the King winning each of the 11 categories in which it was nominated. So, this time… Oscar expectations – friend or foe?
PETER JACKSON: Well it depends. I think we’ve got great possibilities in the below the line categories. Above the line, I don’t think so much. I wish it was a year where we could celebrate Ian McKellen as supporting actor, or Martin Freeman – or Andy Serkis, for that matter – as a supporting actor. The acting awards seem to elude us, at least for these types of films. I don’t know why.
The riddle sequence with Serkis as Gollum is one of the highlights of The Hobbit. But voters – particularly actors – are reluctant to recognize this kind of work. What is it going to take?
It’s just going to take an understanding – an understanding that it is a pure acting craft. There’s a suspicion that somewhere between Andy and the finished result other people are involved. Obviously there is a visual effects component; there is a CGI creature, and compositing and lighting and various things. But motion capture now is so well developed that every muscle in Andy’s face is replicated on Gollum’s face. And everything Andy does is accurately translated to Gollum. It is the closest thing to digital make-up.
And other actors with more traditional roles have assistance from others – stunt-doubles, body doubles, sometimes dance stand-ins …
That’s very true. And Andy doesn’t have a stunt-double! Andy does it all himself.
You’re in a much trickier place with The Hobbit than you were at the start of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Fans want more of the same, but they also demand something different. How do you balance that?
Tolkien’s novel gave us that. It’s returning to Middle-earth with a brand new story, and largely new principal characters – certainly apart from Gandalf, who does return. It is a different tone. I mean, Tolkien wrote The Hobbit 20 years before The Lord of the Rings. It’s the origin of a lot of the events that culminate in The Lord of the Rings. But it’s much more of a children’s, whimsical fairy tale.
This movie has a whole mob of crazy, wild, temperamental dwarf warriors, but they’re still far better behaved than the Feebles.
Right. [Laughs.] Yes they are, indeed! The comedy was one of the joys of this movie. It allowed us to let our hair down a little bit. The Lord of the Rings was very apocalyptic, end-of-world heavy, which was appropriate to the book Tolkien wrote. But we wanted this to be appropriate too. The Hobbit is almost written like as though a chapter would be the nice size for a parent to read to children at night before bed. It’s very episodic, by chapter. We wanted the movie to reflect a little of that.
For a long time during pre-production, Guillermo del Toro was planning to direct. Do any of his contributions remain in the film?
There’s always going to be some of his DNA. We revised the script a lot when I came on, and we revised the designs a lot. But he worked on it for a good year, year-and-a-half. I’m certain there are fruits of his labor woven all through it.
The scene with battling rock-giants pulling themselves out of a mountainside seems particularly del Toro-esque.
Oh yeah. [Laughs.] That was in there during his time for sure!
Last question: This was a very long shoot – what was your best day?
[Takes breath, smiles.] The best day on set was the last day – making it through!
EW also has six new clips from The Hobbit:
NEXT PAGE:Bilbo signs on to the journey …