Movie Review: The Hobbit – An Unexpected Journey
Rising like the sleeping dragon Smaug, Peter Jackson successfully brings us back to the realm of J.R.R. Tolkien for another round of exhilarating adventure in Middle-earth.
(Writer’s Note: The Hobbit – An Unexpected Journey currently screens in a variety of cinematic flavors (2D – 3D – 3D/HFR, IMAX, etc). For review purposes focusing on story and treatment, this review is based on a 2D – digitally projected (non-HFR format) screening.)
Much like the infamous Smaug the Dragon, the fandom of JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (and likewise, those of Peter Jackson’s previous, and fantastic, trilogy of films based on the books) have laid dormant in the realm of Geekdom and Middle-nerdia for an odd decade or so. There was little to comfort them in their sleep, with only but dreams and murmurs of casting, directing, and more and more rumors by the day that would one day reawaken the giant beast back into the Tolkien realm once more, back into the Shire and hobbit holes for the grand quest of Bilbo Baggins to begin in The Hobbit.
And now, at long last, that day has come, and the beast has been awakened. As such, Peter Jackson takes us back into Tolkien’s world through The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey…and at the same time, re-instills us with the same sort of wonder and magic that made us fall in love with Middle-earth on the first trip around.
This time, Jackson takes us to the prequel-realm and, thankfully, avoids (most of) the pitfalls that have befallen many other well-known and beloved franchises by digging back into their roots (I’m looking at you, Star Wars). And while The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (the first in a planned “new” trilogy in the Middle-earth series) never strays into some of the hokeyness and shodden-eyed scripting that befell the Star Wars prequel series (No Jar Jar or talks about “sand” here!), An Unexpected Journey is certainly a different take on Middle-earth than our last encounter in following the quest of Frodo and company to destroy the One Ring. While much more light-hearted and comical than the previous films, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is nevertheless still a worthwhile romp through familiar grounds, especially those as mystical as Middle-earth’s.
Taking us back well over half a century prior to the quest of Frodo and Sam, An Unexpected Journey brings us to the time of young Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), in a warm, peaceful, and light-hearted return to the Shire, looking as beautiful and homely as ever. However, things of course can only grow darker from there: we’re soon reintroduced to the mysterious Gandalf the Grey (Sir Ian McKellan), and likewise made privy to his plight and mission of helping to reclaim the lost Dwarven kingdom of Erebor, nestled deep within the Lonely Mountain. Taken from them by the deadly Smaug the Dragon, Gandalf, assisted with the grandson of the previous Dwarven king, Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Arbitrage) and his magnificent band of Dwarves (bearing resemble to, but unfortunately not being of the “Snow White” variety…), persuade Bilbo to join them on their quest to reclaim the lost kingdom, and so begins, as Bilbo so accurately puts it, their new chance to be “going on an adventure.”
From a visual standpoint, The Hobbit proves once again that the return trip to Middle-earth is as equally engaging as it was in our first introduction to it over a decade previously: the cinematography and art-direction continues to be a thing of magnificent beauty, both highlighting the divine and other-worldly New Zealand landscapes and appropriately bringing the same sense of scale and “EPIC!” to the journey. And of course, it’s hard not to feel the fire burning in your heart once the iconic score and blasting trumpets of Howard Shore’s score kicks in to bring the emotional heft as Bilbo, Gandalf, Thorin, and company march ever so closer to the Lonely Mountain. From a visual and auditory experience of sight and sound, The Hobbit, and Jackson’s Middle-earth films by legacy, continue to stand apart in a league…heck…a whole world of their own.
While Bilbo’s trip may include the beautiful scenery of LOTR of old, the journey does unfortunately carry a few bumps along the road, giving way to probably the film’s weakest aspect as a whole: the story (and unfortunately by proxy, the pacing/editing). By design of course, The Hobbit is a much more “kid-friendly” story than Tolkien’s more bloodshed-induced Lord of the Rings trilogy: the Dwarves provide great instances of comic relief, and overall the film exudes much more humor and light-heartedness for a refreshing change of pace (the Dwarves insistence on good food and drink in particular brings lots of laughs early on in the film, in an impromptu musical number and song).
Unfortunately, this relaxed pace also actively works against the film, particularly as a product of the decision to split the book into its own off-shoot trilogy (especially as the shortest of any of Tolkien’s works in the Rings series). Given that it is the first in three planned films at a nearly 3-hour running time, the film simply is bogged down by the weight of trying to live up to the lofty heights of its predecessors: the story does not carry the same sense of heft and urgency as that of the original film’s journey with the One Ring, especially when giving priority to so many side-stories and subplots that get in the way of the real task at hand: the journey to relinquish Smaug.
While the foundations have indeed been set for the next two films to be a bit more “action-packed” now that some of the exposition has gotten out of the way, as Bilbo and his company march ever closer to Smaug and The Lonely Mountain, Jackson proves a little too leisurely in his pacing to let scenes carry out far too long than they deserve at times. These “rest stops” along the way, while entertaining (such as the introduction of Radagast the Brown, or of an interesting rivalry between Thorin and the Orc war-chief, Azog), at times feel like they detract from the story as a whole, like speed bumps and distractions that serve, at least in this first installment, to make us look at our watch and ask “are we there yet?,” with still hundreds of miles to go. The excess padding and filling between the main points of the story are evident, and unfortunately can’t help but re-emerge the feelings of the trilogy-ization of The Hobbit being more of a business-focused decision than that of a genuinely artistic one…a decision which may ultimately not just trip up An Expected Journey, but may also seek to work against the next two installments.
(However, that’s a Future Us problem…for now).
That out of the way though, the film still manages to get past the fluff and at least make it enjoyable: Radagast is an appropriately odd but fun and kooky new take on the wizarding realm of Middle-earth, as well as there being some great cameos of familiar faces from the original trilogy (Galadriel and Elrond in Rivendell, with reappearances by Cate Blanchett and Hugo Weaving, respectively). The wonderful return of Gollum (Andy Serkis) is a twisted and delightful treat as well, and even though the scene too suffers from the excessive “We Need to Pad this Thing Out” syndrome that permeates the film, it at least helps that Gollum looks as great and emotive as ever. Even with only a few-odd scenes in the last third of the film, Gollum just devours them, and one can only feel a stammering sense of giddiness when the One Ring makes its first appearance on screen, if only briefly, as yet another reminder of the grand things that will come to pass.
Even through a decade in the dark, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey rekindles the sense of adventure and grand scale that made us want to journey to Middle-earth in the first place. Successfully fitting right alongside the earlier tales as Frodo, Gandalf, Aragorn and company faced danger after danger, it is certainly thrilling to be there once again, through all the bumps and trials, to see it through Bilbo’s eyes. While some of that wonder and magic gets a little scuffled along the way, being there and back again has at least more than proven to be another trip worth taking all over again.