Monday, December 17, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

If any film needed no introduction, it's likely this one. Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy is one of the major movie milestones of my generation. I was at the perfect age where my interest in fantasy and film were really starting to develop so I was able to enjoy those movies on multiple levels and haven't stopped enjoying them as I've grown up. It's been almost a full decade since The Return of the King conquered the box office and the Oscars, and after much deliberation and nearly immeasurable amounts of hype, The Hobbit is finally a cinematic reality.

I've been among the millions eagerly anticipating its release, having read the book some time ago and recalling it with fondness. And with that in mind, I knew that The Hobbit trilogy would have quite a tall order to fill in bridging the gap between the titular book and the much grander epic trilogy that came after. The critics haven't been as enamored of An Unexpected Journey as they were with The Lord of the Rings trilogy - but I'll address that a little further in my review.


There's a lot to be said about this film, and I'm tempted to just gush. But in the interest of efficiency we'll do this by the numbers.

First up on the list is casting, in particularly how Peter Jackson has once again fit actors to roles brilliantly. Martin Freeman makes a fantastic Bilbo Baggins, and without just doing an impression of Ian Holm. He's a bit on the timid side, but not annoyingly fragile - and his transformation as a character from apprehensive hobbit to unlikely adventurer is subtle and convincing. Richard Armitage plays Thorin Oakenshield, the leader of the dwarves and the hero figure of the troupe. Each of the dwarves possess unique characteristics and qualities that makes them easier to identify and understand, which is no small trick for a host of 13 warriors. All of the returning cast - Ian McKellen as Gandalf, Hugo Weaving as Elrond, Cate Blanchett as Galadriel, etc. - reprise their roles wonderfully. And it's a treat to see some of these characters before Sauron's rise in the later trilogy steals some of their fervor.

Visually, An Unexpected Journey is as stunning and impressive as any of the Lord of the Rings trilogy; perhaps even more so. The familiar set pieces (Bag End, Rivendell, etc.) are all presented in new ways, at different angles and with emphasis on other aspects of their architecture. This works wonders in keeping the film looking fresh and new rather than simply new scenes filmed in old sets. While the scope of the story is somewhat smaller here, the grandeur of moments like the Stone Giants slugging it out or Smaug's attack on Erebor are all wondrous to behold. And Gollum looks as fantastic as ever. In extreme closeups his skin looked so realistic I wondered if a few shots had been done in camera with makeup; to say nothing of Andy Serkis' superlative performance.

Howard Shore triumphantly returns to score this prequel trilogy, and the result is spot-on perfect. His music is familiar yet fresh; capturing the well established themes from the original trilogy with new orchestration while adding a host of new and intriguing Middle-earth melodies.

The biggest accomplishment of An Unexpected Journey, though, is in its narrative. The Hobbit as a book is problematic on a number of levels when considering a screen adaptation. There are basically 15 "main" characters, there are no female characters to speak of, silly songs abound on every page, a handful of conflicts are resolved in a very anticlimactic fashion; it's a children's story, lacking the emotional depth and intensity of the Lord of the Rings. Jackson has managed to preserve much of the existing narrative from the book while fleshing out a number of details and exploring peripheral lore courtesy of Tolkien's lesser known works. The resulting film is markedly different from The Lord of the Rings, but as the starting point of the bridge between the two works it's exactly what I was hoping for. Say what you will about milking a cash cow with another Tolkien trilogy, but I don't see any other way to really do justice to the man's work.


I personally loved this movie and really didn't find too much to take fault with. When first introduced it sounds like some of the dwarves don't really know what accent they're supposed to be using, but it's only a few lines of dialogue.

The movie is almost 3 hours long. Such a run time is fantastic news to me, but I've heard more than a fair share of people decrying its lack of brevity so perhaps you'll find this a deterrent.

An Unexpected Journey is a little slow in getting started, and there are a few scenes in the first 30 minutes or so that could have benefited from a re-edit. But once the principle action of the film gets underway, I personally lost all track of time and was swept up in the narrative.


The Hobbit is a children's book; The Lord of the Rings is not. Consequently, there are a number of things that will be tonally and thematically different by their very nature. Having read several reviews, I feel that much of the negative criticism leveled against this movie comes from people who were expecting a repeat of The Lord of the Rings and/or hadn't read any of Tolkien's work. So I don't think An Unexpected Journey is getting the credit it deserves. My suspicion is that as the next two films are released, critics and audiences will begin to see a progression throughout that trilogy that will serve to lead into The Lord of the Rings rather than simply recapture their experience.

For me, An Unexpected Journey succeeds on multiple levels and was quite literally exactly what I was expecting. Some of the film's sillier moments and sight gags felt right at home, as this movie is significantly less menacing than the trilogy that preceded it. For example, goblins and trolls speak in English accents and don't appear quite as feral or animalistic as a result. That's not to say the movie is without its fair share of frights, but it is a shade more light-hearted.

In spite of this, the film is still absolutely thrilling and while the action scenes and sword fights are a bit sparse - they're well choreographed, well shot, and downright exciting once they get going. My faith in Peter Jackson's ability to adapt this trilogy has never been stronger, and I can't wait to go back and see how it looks in 48fps.

1 comment:

  1. My thoughts, exactly! Some people might complain about the running time and certain scenes running long or appearing superfluous, but it's everything the fans want it to be. Maybe one of the advantages this trilogy has over LOTR is that Jackson doesn't have to worry himself with winning awards. The whole team has already been recognized so they can just focus on pleasing fans.