The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Directed by Peter Jackson
Screenplay by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, Guillermo del Toro
Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, James Nesbitt, Ken Stott, Cate Blanchett, Ian Holm, Christopher Lee, Hugo Weaving, Elijah Wood, Andy Serkis
How long is The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey? 169 minutes.
What is The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey rated? PG-13 for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence, and frightening images.
An Expected, Belabored, But Still Fun Adventure
If there’s one thing you can say about Peter Jackson, it’s that he loves Middle Earth. It’s difficult to think of other filmmakers who revel as much in spending time in the universes they create as Jackson does with his adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic collection of novels. This pleasure is palpable throughout The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and at least gives some artistic credence to the story’s bloat to three movies.
For those unaware, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is the first part of a prequel trilogy to Lord of the Rings. One book at approximately 300 pages, Tolkien’s 1937 work The Hobbit tells of how Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen, reprising his role) chooses the hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman, The Office (UK), Sherlock) to join him on an adventure. Initially reluctant, the homebody, well, holebody Baggins is essentially drafted by Gandalf to serve as the burglar for a gang of 13 dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage). Seeking to reclaim their home and treasure from the dragon Smaug, the group heads to their former home Erebor and encounter orcs, giant spiders, shapeshifting men, and, of course, Gollum (the scene-stealing Andy Serkis, reprising his role).
Although The Hobbit in live action was originally planned to be an understandable two films, Jackson used appendices and other sources to create so many extra scenes not in the original novel that it “needed” to become a trilogy. While I would like to say that the additions added depth to a relatively simple novel, the positives of their inclusion often seem matched or even outweighed by their length and apparent pointlessness.
Admittedly, many of the “problems” of the movie are “problems” of the book. With the exception of Thorin, none of the other dwarves has much of a discernible personality. The adventures they go on lack weight. Unlike in Lord of the Rings where each encounter or battle increased in intensity and importance, these segments become very repetitive in The Hobbit. The group travels towards the Lonely Mountain, fight orcs or goblins in a fast-paced action sequence, and move on to fight orcs or goblins in another fast-paced action sequence. As they barrel through bands upon bands of villains, the lack of stakes become more apparent and the threat of danger is severely minimized. While these issues aren’t that bothersome in a brisk action-adventure fantasy novel, they do become cause for concern when we’re expected to spend ~ 9 hours watching it.
Much of the stuff that Peter Jackson adds similarly seems unimportant, though maybe it will provide greater returns with the following two sequels. A post-opening/pre-plot sequence showing old Bilbo (Ian Holm) writing “The Hobbit, or: There and Back Again” on the day of his long expected party is certainly cute, a love letter to fans of the series. It’s nice to return to the Shire and see Frodo putting up the “No Admittance except on Official Party Business” sign, but it doesn’t feel essential and overstays its welcome. A council with Gandalf, Saruman (Christopher Lee), Elrond (Hugo Weaving), and Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) discussing the journey certainly expands the adventure beyond the confines of the original book, but Gandalf mentioning that he feels a greater danger a-brewing (probably the unnamed Sauron) only highlights just how minor the quest we’re watching is. The wisdom of adding Gandalf’s fellow wizard and cousin Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy) is still up in the air.
However, these negatives aside, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is still a remarkable achievement. Although all the performances are at the very least good, Freeman is superb as Bilbo Baggins. He brings a thoughtful, wry humor to the oft-nervous character, and the film loses something when he’s not on screen. Instead of competing with the epicness of Lord of the Rings, showing it more consistently from the point of view of someone way out of his league might have provided an interesting contrast. Jackson also gives increased importance to Azog, a Goblin King whom slayed Thorin’s grandfather and whose hand Thorin cut off. Dead by the start of the novel, in the film, he trails the dwarf party seeking vengeance. Even though his existence might appear a bit forced, a secondary recurring villain such as he is missing in the original novels but will probably work on a movie screen.
As expected, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is fantastic visually, and once again Middle Earth truly comes to life. There is a gloriously epic quality to this film and a sense of fun that is rare in so many other big-budget blockbusters. It’s disappointing that Jackson’s affection towards this land led him to overwhelm it with footnotes. At a brisker pace with more plot movement, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey could have been a welcome addition to the One Ring Saga. Unfortunately, something feels off and dawdling about this film; though thankfully, he didn’t Lucas it. One hopes The Desolation of Smaug and There and Back Again will provide more strength to this uneven chapter.
Of course, this review would be remiss without a discussion of 48 fps, the high frame resolution being used by Peter Jackson to present the movie. Initially, the film looks as though it is moving in 1.5x speed while the sound sounds normal. As the movie progresses, I found myself growing more accustomed to it, but every once in a while the 1.5x speed weirdness would reemerge. Regardless, the level of clarity and detail in 48 fps definitely adds to the experience, and I recommend seeing The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in this format.