Based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s acclaimed prequel to The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (the first of three films based on the book) chronicles the early years of Bilbo Baggins (previously played by Ian Holmes, now given a likable turn by Martin Freeman). This film shows Bilbo’s fateful meeting with Gandalf (a wittily mischievous return by Ian McKellen), which leads to an unexpected party of 13 dwarves at Bilbo’s house. These dwarves are looking for a fast and small burglar, and Gandalf has given them the impression that Bilbo would be the perfect candidate. While wholly adventure-wary, Bilbo joins the dwarves and Gandalf on their quest to the Lonely Mountain to take back the dwarf’s birthright from the devilish dragon, Smaug. Along the way, the troupe runs into hungry cave trolls, massive rock beings, goblins, a new wizard, a Necromancer and a deep cave within the goblin caverns where Gollum and his precious ring lie in wait.
One of the reasons An Unexpected Journey works is that it knows its source material inside out. Director Peter Jackson balances the grand spectacle moments of battle with the trademark witty humor of the book. The characters and most of the scenes played out in exactly the way I envisioned them.
From the delightfully nostalgic opening that starts right before the first scene of The Fellowship of the Ring to the equally hilarious and terrifying riddle game between Bilbo and Gollum, there are so many great scenes that hit precisely the right chords and enthrall. Jackson has always had an eye for jaw-dropping visual feats. As a fan of the book, everything I could have wanted at this point in the story, I got. It also retains that sense of humor I liked so much from the book. After the slow first third of the movie (which is, admittance, an exact adaptation from the book), the film kicks into gear with its almost episodic adventures on what happens to our gallant explorers as soon as they leave the Shire.
The actors and characters were spot on. The dwarves, while few stand out amid the pack outside of Thoren and Balin, are full of mettle and humor. Galdalf is just as fantastic as he was in the previous trilogy, and Martin Freeman (who plays the role of Watson so well in Sherlock) nails the awkward likability of Bilbo. The returning cast is a joy to see again, from the small cameos to the shining showstoppers, and the new arrivals prove themselves as being worthy of being in a Peter Jackson epic. The best performance of the film belongs to Andy Serkis, whose return as Gollum is both welcoming and riveting. His scene with Bilbo is fantastic. I can’t think of a scene that worked so perfectly on every level.
Howard Shore’s new score is absolutely phenomenal, and I would say ties with Martin Freeman’s performance and the Bilbo/Gollum scene as being the best aspect of the film. With the the brooding Dwarvish ballad (which quickly becomes the musical theme of the film, used in several variations), Shore proves again to be just as influential on our feelings for a film as John Williams for Jaws and Star Wars. He hasn’t lost his touch since 2003, that I can promise you.
Unfortunately, An Unexpected Journey falls to the very same traps that many big blockbuster films do: primarily an overzealous director who doesn’t want to cut scenes. Here, we have far too many of the type of extra moments that Jackson previously cut from the theatrical release and saved for his extended edition DVD box sets. From the “That’s What Bilbo Baggins Hates” song to the weird scene with Radagast the Brown, we just have far too many moments that feel static. I won’t say I was bored, but I just felt like this film could have easily been 30 minutes shorter without losing any of the essential plot. I say this more as an observation than a complaint. It just feels like Jackson was less focused this time around, and he allowed his visual sensibilities to take priority over condensing. It feels excessive in its unnecessary padding.
Despite the massive length of each The Lord of the Rings film, I found them surprisingly lean and goal-oriented within each and every scene. They never lost focus on what they were trying to achieve, and every scene played an integral part. But by extending The Hobbit (the shortest of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth novels) into three films, Jackson is pushed to include less-than-stellar filler moments that neither move the plot along nor make the characters more endearing. They never annoyed me. They never made me dislike an otherwise great scene. But it’s an observation worth noting.
So how does this compare to The Lord of the Rings trilogy? I’d say they’re very different from one another. Where The Lord of the Rings was a majestic fantasy epic, The Hobbit was always more a whimsical, humorous adventure – and I do think The Hobbit is succeeding in being just that. This was a lot of fun. The familiar staples from the books (the unexpected party, Gollum’s riddles, the trolls, the goblins, the tree climb, and so on) are all kept intact in a wowing fashion, the additions (the Necromancer, the VIP roundtable, and the rock battle) are intriguing, and the overall aura of adventure adapts the best parts of the book in a relaxed and cool way. This is a fantastic adaptation so far in terms of the best parts of the book being kept intact.
On a minor note, I saw the film in HFR (High Frame Rate) 3D and I’m still unsure if I feel it added or depleted from the experience. The hyper realism provides a different experience, assuredly, and I’d like to see the film in 2D before I say either way, but as it stands now, I didn’t mind. It didn’t distract me from the story and there were plenty of moments I actually liked how the frame rate worked. The only moments where I was discombobulated a bit was when Jackson used super-fast cuts or a swiveling cam. Again, nothing major.
So the film as a whole. Impressive? Yes. Satisfying? Sure. Could have been better? Unfortunately, yes. The extra-padding pacing becomes cumbersome and the result was definitely a slower-paced film that could have been tighter. There’s plenty of stuff to enjoy, but loose fat and lazy dressing never looks good. Not even if your tailor is Peter Jackson. But regardless, I can still say I really enjoyed this movie. When it worked, it blew my mind. And even when it didn’t work, it never disappointed me. I walked out of the theater pretty satisfied.
I have a feeling The Hobbit trilogy will mirror my thoughts on The Lord of the Rings trilogy – the first film provides a decent albeit rocky start, but it’s just a glimmer of the greatness we have in store in the next two installments. For what it was, I actually enjoyed An Unexpected Journey more than The Fellowship of the Ring. The first film’s burden is to establish all the rules and general characters and ideas we’re going to be delving into later on. It’s only within the next two films where we see the juicy elements of the characters and the plots kick in and pay off. There’s a lot of potential within The Hobbit and I think we’re going to have another groundbreaking trilogy on our hands come December 2014.
In Theaters: December 14, 2012
Runtime: 2 hr 50 min
Rating: PG-13 for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence, and frightening images.
Director: Peter Jackson
Cast: Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Cate Blanchett, Orlando Bloom, Ian Holm, Christopher Lee, Hugo Weaving, Elijah Wood, Andy Serkis, Richard Armitage, Jed Brophy, Adam Brown, John Callen, Stephen Fry, Ryan Gage, Mark Hadlow, Peter Hambleton, Stephen Hunter, William Kircher, Sylvester McCoy, Bret McKenzie, Graham McTavish, Mike Mizrahi, James Nesbitt, Dean O’Gorman, Lee Pace, Mikael Persbrandt, Conan Stevens, Ken Stott, Jeffrey Thomas, Aidan Turner
Genre: Action/Adventure, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Adaptation
Distributor: New Line Cinema, MGM, Warner Bros. Pictures
Official Site: http://www.thehobbit.com/