While inferior to The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit is a welcome return to Middle-Earth.
About a decade ago, we were introduced to the greatness of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Of course J.R.R. Tolkien’s books were around long before the films came into being, but even so Jackson sent shockwaves throughout the entertainment industry when the films smashed box office records and wowed audiences worldwide, garnering countless nominations and awards in the process. To this day The Lord of the Rings remains my favorite film trilogy of all-time. As a fan of the franchise, I was excited for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, a standalone prequel to the highly-successful trilogy. With Peter Jackson back on writing and directing duty, is this the epic return to Middle-Earth that we were hoping for?
A hobbit known as Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) is celebrating his 111th birthday. On this special day, he decides to write a very ambitious book: a memoir of when he embarked on an epic journey with a group of 13 dwarves and the great wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) six decades earlier. His tale begins at a point before his personal involvement in the quest, which takes place years before the start of The Hobbit. In those days, the dwarf kingdom of Erebor – an enormous city built within a mountain – was the most magnificent in all of Middle-Earth.
However, things change when a horrible dragon named Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch) raids the city and the nearby human town of Dale. In his malice and greed, Smaug incinerates legions of dwarves while also robbing the king of his unfathomable treasure of gold. Following the attack, the noble dwarves are rendered homeless, forced to create new lives for themselves. The years pass as thoughts of vengeance flood the grief-stricken dwarves, and one day Gandalf decides to aid them in their quest to take back the beloved land they have lost. Thus, he seeks out young Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), a hobbit he knew would be a perfect fit as a stealthy burglar for the crew due to his size and natural agility. Being one who tends to appreciate peace, quiet and comfortable living, Bilbo is frightened by the proposal and initially refuses. However, after some consideration he decides to join Gandalf and the dwarves on their quest; with that, the fifteen travelers begin the long journey to reclaim Erebor.
Many critics have expressed disappointment towards this first act of the soon-to-be Hobbit trilogy. However, I disagree with that sentiment; I enjoyed The Hobbit, although I must admit that An Unexpected Journey does have its flaws. One reason why The Lord of the Rings is still remarkable to this day is because of how entertaining all three films are despite their length. Even though The Hobbit is a decisively fun film, there are some elements of this theatrical cut that could have been left on the cutting room floor. I can’t explain this in detail without delving into spoiler territory, but let’s just say that it felt like Peter Jackson and his team released the extended edition in theaters. The dialogue is interesting and works in trying to connect The Lord of the Rings to this new trilogy, but at times I felt bored by what was being shown on screen.
Still, I felt that including story elements to connect both series was a wise decision on Peter Jackson’s part, since the novel didn’t have too many connections to the LOTR trilogy originally. Also, the irony of the lore-packed script is that it sometimes doesn’t place enough focus on Bilbo himself, especially considering that the title of the film directly refers to him. I guess that problem can be traced back to the fact that there are 15 characters in the company of travelers as opposed to the Fellowship of the Ring, which was nine strong. This makes it so that the grand majority of dwarves are left one-dimensional, rendering the company rather unmemorable at the film’s end.
The acting in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is quite good. This is a well-assembled cast, though none of the performances are necessarily award-worthy, and the characters are not fleshed out. I can’t really criticize any of the actors for this, for the main problem lies with the fact that the characters don’t get enough screen time, other than Balin and Thorin Oakenshield. The rest of the dwarves’ actors do well with what they’re given in the script, often providing for some excellent comic relief.
It was great to see actors from The Lord of the Rings return to reprise their old roles in this film. I expected Hugo Weaving to be in The Hobbit since his character played a key role in the novel, but here we also get to see the return of Christopher Lee as Saruman, Cate Blanchett as Lady Galadriel, and Elijah Wood as Frodo Baggins. The brief sequence with Frodo felt slightly forced, but it’s great to see all of these actors back in their roles. What’s even more outstanding is the make-up- it’s so good that almost none of these actors look a day older since their last appearance a decade ago- though Cate Blanchett did have some new lines on her face.
Ian McKellen is still great as Gandalf; apart from him, the two standouts in the cast are Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield and Martin Freeman as Bilbo. Freeman is believable to watch as he transitions from a frightened hobbit to a hero. Although Richard Armitage’s portrayal of Thorin Oakenshield can be considered a replacement to Viggo Mortensen’s Aragorn, he makes the character his own and is completely awesome in some of the film’s key action sequences. It was also delightful to see Andy Serkis back as Gollum, a role that essentially launched his career ever since we first saw him shine in The Two Towers. It’s sad to think that The Hobbit is the last time we’ll ever see his character in a film, for the Riddles in the Dark sequence is unarguably the best scene. Serkis is wonderfully sinister but equally childlike as Gollum, while also providing some great comic relief. It was surprising to find that Gollum provides the most gut-wrenching moment in the film – ironic considering the evil nature of his character.
I could never consider a Peter Jackson film a poor visual experience, and of course The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a fantastic film to look at, but I didn’t have quite the same magical experience as I did with The Lord of the Rings. Perhaps this is because CGI was used sparingly in those films, instead opting for real actors to play characters such as orcs along with the luscious landscapes of New Zealand. Although An Unexpected Journey features both of these things, it’s clear that visual effect company Weta Digital’s budget for computer-generated shots was flexed. I also found it odd that a completely new design was used for the film’s orcs than in the previous trilogy – perhaps reinforcing that using real make-up is more believable and authentic. Despite these issues, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a visually stunning film. The cinematography is impressive in that many sweeping shots lend to the massive scale of Middle-Earth’s environments, regardless of whether shots are artificial or based in reality. Action scenes in this film are comprehensible and thrilling, making for some of the most exciting moments in the entirety of the picture.
This review probably sounds much more positive than what you might have read from other critics, and I have a theory as to why this is so: I saw The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in the most traditional way possible- the 2D print in 24 frames per second. For those who have no clue as to what this is, understand that Peter Jackson’s vision for this entire trilogy was to film it not only in 3D, but also at a higher frame rate. Ideally, this will provide for the most crisp picture quality available – in other words, a film shown in 48 frames per second (HFR, or High Frame Rate) will look more “realistic.” However, the consensus from those who have seen this more technologically advanced version is that the visuals distract greatly from the story at hand. Those who are looking for the most cinematic experience with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey should seek out 2D showings.
Howard Shore captures magic again with his delightfully epic soundtrack. The easiest thing I can compare this soundtrack to would be the Star Wars prequels, because in those films John Williams mixed themes from the original trilogy with new compositions. Howard Shore’s score for The Hobbit is one of my favorites of the year, but even then words do not completely do jutice to its majesty.
Flaws aside, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey stands as a fun, escapist fantasy adventure flick that can appeal to all ages. Peter Jackson’s love for this material shines through, and this is a very entertaining first act of what may eventually become a great trilogy of films. If not for its numerous pacing issues and less-than majestic visuals, it would have been one of the better films of the year. Still, you can’t do much better than The Hobbit this Christmas.