Things change. Example the first: I had no intention of reviewing the Extended Edition of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, having bought it myself with every intent of leisurely perusing its contents, finishing when I was finished with it, rather than cramming for a deadline. But I’m quite finished now, and given that many of you still seem to be having some problems finding the discs at retail (and also given that the discs won’t appear at Target until December 1), I thought I’d share my impressions on what you’re missing.
Example the second: the first time I watched the Extended Edition of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, I didn’t much care for it. At least not compared to the theatrical cut. And I’ve been putting some thought into why that may be, given that my thoughts on the thirteen-minute-longer cut of the film have brightened considerably on second viewing.
Why the change in opinion? I think, perhaps, a comparison with the Lord of the Rings Extended Editions is in order. With those films, I felt constantly poked and prodded in the theater by all the missing bits – not missing bits from the book, mind you, but gaping holes in the filmmaking left by the editors’ hands. I’m not a purist. I’m a strong supporter of “adaptation,” where it’s necessary. But I am of a mind that any film – adaptation or not – should be well edited and well transitioned in its own right. To some degree The Fellowship of the Ring and The Return of the King, and to a significant degree The Two Towers, felt choppy in their original releases, and so benefited obviously from the addition of scenes whose absence were felt on the screen whether or not you’d ever cracked the binding on the book.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, by contrast, has often been described even in its theatrical form as bloated and overlong, an opinion I don’t share — but what I will say is that it certainly didn’t seem to be missing anything in terms of narrative flow.
And that, perhaps, is why the Extended Edition threw me off a little on first viewing. Its new scenes felt new, tacked on in places, because I wasn’t aching for their inclusion beforehand.
On my second full viewing nearly a week later, though, one viewing further removed from the theatrical version of An Unexpected Journey that I’ve grown to love over the past year, I’m rather falling in love with this newer, longer cut of the film. Its edits feel right. Its new scenes – for the most part – integrate quite well, and quite a few of them, I think, will end up paying off in the second and third films in the new trilogy.
The latter point, of course, isn’t a reflection on their quality. A necessary scene can still be poorly made and poorly integrated. But with one exception, the new sequences in An Unexpected Journey’s Extended Edition are well made and well integrated. The only scenes that don’t work, in my opinion, are the Goblin King’s extended song-and-dance sequence, which I find delightful in and of itself as a Tolkien fan, but which doesn’t work at all in the context of this film (although your mileage may vary); and then of course there’s the battle of the Stone Giants in the Misty Mountains, which should have been cut from both theatrical and extended editions.
Those two examples aside, I’m quite ready to watch the Extended Edition for a third time in preparation for The Desolation of Smaug, which is odd given that a week ago I was prepared to ignore the longer cut henceforth in favor of the shorter theatrical release. Now that I’ve acclimated to it, I really do feel that the Extended Edition is the better film.
Of course, along with the longer cut of the film comes some nine hours of Appendices, presented much in the style of the Appendices from The Lord of the Rings, and named as such: “The Appendices Part 7” and “The Appendices Part 8.”
I won’t delve too deeply into the contents of all of the extras, except to say that I watched them in completely the wrong order for my tastes. I started with the first disc of Appendices, then consumed the second, and finally enjoyed the collection’s sole audio commentary.
What I loved so much about the Appendices for the Lord of the Rings films is that they put the book in its proper historical context, discussing at length the process of adapting book-to-screen. That element is somewhat missing from An Unexpected Journey, especially on the first four-and-a-half-hour disc of Appendices, which is a nearly chronological exploration of the making of the film. And don’t get me wrong: it’s an amazing one. Thoroughly in-depth. Totally engrossing. Very revealing. And yet, on that first disc of Appendices, I think I heard the name “Tolkien” once and the names “Allen & Unwin” not even once.
The second disc of Appendices does back up and explore the source(s) a little more, and I honestly think I would have enjoyed the amazing movie-making extras on the first disc of extras more had I watched the second first.
What I really wish, though, is that I had listened to Peter Jackson and Philippa Boyens’ commentary track before dipping into either of the Appendices discs. It’s a bit of a shame that we only have one commentary here – in contrast with the four each we received with the Lord of the Ring films – but it’s a wonderful commentary on its own, full of the observations on adaptation that I felt were lacking in the Appendices. Jackson and Boyens even touch on (although they don’t explicitly spell out) the fact that An Unexpected Journey isn’t necessarily an adaptation the book, The Hobbit, here, but rather a dramatization of The Quest of Erebor – the events themselves, not the story of the same name published in Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-earth, which the filmmakers of course lack the rights to explicitly adapt. They even point out as much in the commentary, addressing fact that they could only pull directly from The Hobbit and the appendices of The Lord of the Rings, leaving much of the legendarium untouchable (or only hinted at coyly).
The commentary is packed with the rhyme and reasoning behind virtually all of the changes made in the translation from page to screen, as well as hints at things that will eventually pay off in the second and third films and a bit of discussion about the process of (although not the decision behind) reconfiguring the story for three films instead of the originally intended two. Jackson even drops a bit of trivia about the Morgul-blade that appears in this film, which should have been obvious to the astute observer, but which quite frankly had me squeeing at the screen. There’s even an earthquake at one point. Seriously. All in all, a smashing commentary.
And if you’re coming at this Extended Edition as first and foremost a Tolkien fan, it’s where I recommend that you start, then mosey over to “The Appendices Part 8” before delving into “The Appendices Part 7.” If, on the other hand, you’re primarily concerned with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey as a film in its own right, I think you’ll find my original viewing order a wholly satisfying experience.
As for the technical presentation of the film, it’s practically flawless. As with the theatrical release on Blu-ray, the gorgeous transfer does reveal a bit in the way of rough compositing, but in virtually every other way, it’s nearly perfect. The new sequences merge beautifully with the original footage, so if you’re familiar with the presentation of the original release, expect more of the same here. (Incidentally, unlike some viewers, my experience with both the original release and this new extended release of An Unexpected Journey has been practically judder-free. Some viewers report having to set the output of their Blu-ray players to 60p to enjoy the film. That hasn’t been my experience, although perhaps the fact that I’m watching on a plasma, not an LED/LCD, has something to do with that).
As usual, I couldn’t be bothered to sit through an entire film in 3D, but I did sample a few sequences and found them to be the sort of 3D that I find least objectionable — more depth than “pop,” much more positive parallax than negative. The shots from above the canyon in the approach to Rivendell looks particularly gorgeous in 3D. So if you tend to be very selective in your 3D viewing, I imagine you’ll quite like the effect as employed in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. I’d put it nearly on par with Avatar. If you love, love, love 3D, you may be a little disappointed by the lack of pop, but I think you’ll still enjoy the depth. If, like me, though, you find 3D to be a narrative distraction, there’s nothing here that will change your mind.