The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey Review
“How do you pick up the threads of an old life? How do you go on when in your heart you begin to understand… there is no going back? There are some things that time cannot mend.” – Frodo, The Return of the King.
As the days came closer and closer to the release of The Hobbit and I sat down to watch the trilogy for the 4,607th time this was the only thing I could possibly think about. This quote so closely resembled how I felt about a new adventure to Middle-Earth and what it would mean to not just myself but the millions of fans around the world.
The Lord of the Rings trilogy was a triumph of movie-making and genre defining momentum that shattered the mold for what a fantasy movie could be by racking up 30 Oscar nominations and 17 trophies. It was a once in a lifetime experience that was one of the rare “perfect storm” Hollywood stories that happen so few and far between, making them iconic and immortal pieces of cinema history. This was a franchise that was doomed from the beginning with a bitter dispute over the film rights, a shrinking budget and an order from executives to trim the trilogy down to two movies. Peter Jackson wielded his Tolkien knowledge in every way possible, bringing aboard a 1-2 punch of greatness that helped adapt the monstrous novel in Fran Walsh and Phillipa Boyens, getting the perfect cast for the roles, hiring two of the greatest Tolkien artists known to man for art direction and choosing to shoot in one of the last untouched places on Earth, New Zealand. The rest was filmmaking history.
When news of The Hobbit broke it seemed like we were gearing up for another “Lord of the Rings” when in reality that couldn’t be further from the truth. Aside from a film trilogy never experiencing heights like that again you had to take into account the differences between the book’s source material. The Lord of the Rings was a richly thematic take on Good vs. Evil and the ultimate sacrifice triumphing over the darkest and most terrible odds. It was darker, more brooding and chock full of symbolism that drew parallels to modern day society, war and racial tension. The Hobbit was more or less a children’s story that focused on humorous fantasy and whimsical adventures rather than a reliance on archetypes and great evil. For this reason and many others Peter Jackson had his work cut out for him in the largest way possible and the fact that he managed to at times come close to what the original trilogy brought us is worthy of a standing ovation from me.
The Hobbit is set 60 years before The Lord of the Ring and with many of the returning players back for Round Two you can see where that quote in the beginning of this review comes into play. Elijah Wood and Ian Holm reprise their roles as Frodo and Bilbo and open the movie to an interaction that begins moments before Gandalf arrives at the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring. It was wonderful to see them again but they looked like they were playing an older version of their characters rather than the actual characters themselves. It was a nice touch to link the original trilogy to the new one but to be completely honest I didn’t think the film needed it and it was more of a distraction to me than anything else (though I’m sure that will vary with most fans). Once the film opens we’re treated to a prologue that was non-existent from the books but a warranted decision to cover the background and central objective of why the dwarves are homeless and planning this trek.. The imagery here is beautiful and the destruction of both Dale and the Erebor is exhilarating as we’re teased with teasing images of the fleeting Smaug the dragon.
As the story moves along we’re introduced to our central characters of Gandalf the Grey, Bilbo Baggins and the 13 dwarves that will lead him on this adventure to reclaim their homeland. What else can possibly be said about Sir Ian McKellen in the role of Gandalf other than the fact that he’s captured “perfection”? After two movies as the more serious Gandalf the White he returns to his more playful and spiritual role that nabbed him a Best Supporting Actor nomination at the 2001 Academy Awards, and it’s an absolute treat for the fans. Martin Freeman slips into the world of Middle-Earth so seamlessly that I could’ve sworn I was watching someone who was a part of the original movies. His subtle pausing and brilliant mannerisms added so much life to a moment of screen-time that could’ve easily been there to move a scene along to the next one. His presence alone fills the entirety of what you’re watching and you can’t take your eyes off of him. All of this is great to the audience because this is where the trilogies start to differ from one another in the sense that this is a personal journey for Bilbo and the movie plays to that, especially in its opening. A lot of people have said that he immediately switches from a disgruntled and reluctant hobbit to an adventurer, flying out the door in the blink of an eye with no purpose or reasoning and I couldn’t argue more with that. The entire set-up here was to draw the audience towards the image of a person who grew up with a thirst for life and adventure only to lose that feeling as he grew older. Bilbo felt what so many of us feel as we mature and step into adolescence and this proposal was his opportunity to get his life back and relive those experiences. It wasn’t so much a “sudden change of the mind” as it was the feeling of adventure building up and finally pouring out in the form of accepting the invitation.
This opening sequence is where a lot of the reviews I’ve read pointed out that the pacing is slow with certain scenes that drag on a bit too long and ultimately lead to nowhere which I hardly found was the case. When you have 13 dwarves to introduce to the audience and limited time to differentiate them from one another you run into a wall of stagnation. I felt like Jackson and his team did their best with this problem and were able to flesh out a good portion of the dwarves for the audience without going overboard. We really only focus on 8 of the 13 and with 2 movies left to bring out the others I thought this did a great service to the movie and the audience. Out of those 13 the star of the show is the leader Thorin Oakensheild who’s played magnificently by the underrated Richard Armitage. He grabs his “breakout” role here and knocks it out of the park with a tough and brooding leader that has a tragic side to him that can be seen in his eyes through subtle moments of sadness. His character is quite possibly the most interesting in the franchise and all signs point to him taking on an even larger role in the second installment.
Once the band hits the road the adventure picks up and we’re hit by a non-stop barrage of epic fight scenes, chases, sweeping images of the New Zealand landscape and my absolute favorite sequence in the film, “Riddles in the Dark”. For fans that haven’t read the book I won’t spoil the entirety of it for you but it’s where Bilbo and Gollum meet face to face and the one ring is finally brought out in the open. Andy Serkis reprises his role as Gollum here and absolutely steals the show with pitch perfect energy and line delivery that had the sold-out audience I saw it with rolling with laughter. There’s just something so undeniably captivating about Gollum in the sense that as twisted and tortured as he is he’s also a tragic and sad figure. In the world of The Lord of the Rings where there are so many black and white characters that fit into the “Good and Evil” categories it’s nice to see someone fall into that grey area like Gollum. The chemistry in this scene between Serkis and Freeman is delightfully entertaining and it really helps make it one of the signature moments in the franchise.
As for the negatives of the movie there were unfortunately some things that I felt could have been handled better or not at all. One of those things was Radagast the Brown who is more of a treat for fans of the novel (I did enjoy seeing him) but his scenes could’ve almost been cut entirely from the movie and it wouldn’t have made much of a difference. Radagast is a much different character than we’re used to seeing in Middle-Earth and fits the slightly lighter tone of this movie pretty perfectly. The only downside to his inclusion was that it took time away from our central characters when we had so many dwarves that had zero lines. His appearance almost reminded me of what Tom Bombadil would’ve been like in The Fellowship of the Ring, and for those of you who don’t know he’s someone whose entire sequence was cut from the screenplay due to it not fitting into what the filmmakers wanted to accomplish (and that was met with anger from the fanbase). It seemed obvious to me with the news of Peter Jackson turning The Hobbit into a trilogy that he wasn’t going to leave anything out of the books like he did with the original franchise. This makes the movie feel a little bloated in areas and at times it could take the viewer away from the direct grandeur of the story. However since I’m so used to the Extended Editions of The Lord of the Rings and those are the only versions of the movies I watch anymore I’ve grown accustomed to Jackson’s pacing. This didn’t bother me at all and I was almost shocked at the overwhelming negative reaction to the slower and gradual build up of the movie. Having just say through the extended edition trilogy marathon a week prior to this movie’s release I can say that it was directly in line with all the others. There were some sequences that felt as if they were solely there to give us more screen time with the whole of Middle-Earth, which could turn off the casual fan but excite the die-hards like myself.
Another thing I wasn’t quite fond of was the over-usage of CGI in some portions of the character design, specifically the Goblin King and Azog the Orc. Both of those creatures would’ve benefited from a more toned down approach like the three trolls in the beginning of the movie in my opinion but instead came off as “cartoonish” and out of place. Azog in particular stood out from the rest of the orcs that were covered in makeup (for the most part) and I really would’ve wished they spent more time with that department for this movie. I even noticed some of the random orcs and goblins being portrayed by CGI rendered designs rather than actors in makeup and I couldn’t figure out why they would do that, especially when it sticks out like a sore thumb. I understand that technology is moving further in the direction of computer graphics but the only character that really needed it was Gollum and they perfected him so well that he more or less looked like a flesh and bones creature. There were also some moments scattered throughout the movie that were obvious green screen and studio lighting and it did tend to stand out a lot more in this trilogy than it did in the older ones. Gone are the days of using miniatures for backdrops which was one of the things that made The Lord of the Rings so damn near perfect to me. That team had the longest shoot out of any other member of the crew and their hard work paid dividends throughout the trilogy. Most of the effects in this movie however were top-notch and helped really sell the idea that we were in Middle-Earth but those were the ones that felt the weakest.
One of the best parts of this movie was the incredible soundtrack from Howard Shore who returns to the franchise and brings back the iconic themes from the original trilogy. He was able to add new touches as well but we’re more or less treated to a welcomed replaying of the original score. His main addition to the movie was the “Misty Mountains” theme that played thunderously when the dwarves sprang into action and was possibly my favorite track of them all.
When it comes to backdrops what else can be said about the majestic landscapes of New Zealand other then the fact that this place is now a permanent Middle-Earth? Jackson brings us even more of those sweeping aerial shots that really highlight the beauty and massive scope of that environment. Some of my favorite shots from The Lord of the Rings are the shots of our heroes trekking through untouched terrain and we’re given plenty of that in The Hobbit which helps to sell the adventurous aspect of the entire journey.
At the end of the day The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey doesn’t reach the levels of greatness that I hoped it would but that doesn’t stop it from being another fantastic journey into Middle-Earth. Even though the movie has its minor faults they are few and far between and never once take away from the core of the movie as the performances and centralized story keep you glued to your seat. Count me as one of the few who enjoyed the pacing of the movie as it took it’s time to introduce us to a massive group of characters before the adventure began. I’d have to say that an emotional connection to the characters was definitely there throughout the film which made the epic conclusion even more satisfying to me. Peter Jackson didn’t just bring me back to Middle-Earth for the sake of going back, he brought me back to tell a story and create a new franchise that stands on its own two feet, away from the original trilogy and into its own magical place of belonging that I greatly missed throughout the last 10 years of my adolescence. Just like Bilbo.