The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey Review [Spoilers]
Oh, you want more?
Okay then. It’s really good? Like, really, really good. But, perhaps I’m not the most objective observer. I’m an avid fan of the Lord of the Rings, and I think that Peter Jackson’s LOTR trilogy is a triumph of cinema. Jackson directing The Hobbit was a dream come true (though, truth be told, I would have loved to see what Guillermo del Toro would have whipped up had he directed). I truly feel that the Lord of the Rings trilogy is the Star Wars trilogy of my generation–both being big effects driven trilogies that offer more than the usual explode-y blockbuster trappings. I read the books every year during finals week in high school. There was a period of time where I would play one of the Lord of the Rings extended edition DVDs every night before I went to bed and fell asleep to the films. I proposed to my wife with a replica of the One Ring. Like I said, I’m not the most objective observer of The Hobbit. What I can say is if you are a fan of Jackson’s LOTR trilogy, and understand that The Hobbit was aimed at a much younger audience than that epic trilogy, then you’ll find a lot to love with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.
The biggest difference between The Hobbit and LOTR is in tone. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but the two trilogies (assuming the tone remains consistent among the next two installments) will stand in stark contrast to one another in that respect. The Hobbit is a more madcap adventure as opposed to LOTR’s somber quest. It wasn’t that humor was missing from LOTR, or it’s action sequences, but the entire series was leagues more serious and for good reason. The Hobbit is more fun, jaunty, and light-hearted. There’s danger to be sure, but sometimes even when Bilbo or the Dwarf company find themselves in danger there are pratfalls, jokes, or just playful choreography that wouldn’t have appeared in LOTR. This doesn’t make The Hobbit inferior to it’s predecessor, just different. I expected this change in tone since I’ve read the book, but I can imagine others coming into this film with only the knowledge of the LOTR films, and being jarred by the change in tone. It’s playful without being pandering, and though it’s peppered with gags throughout, Jackson doesn’t tone down the violence. There are plenty of lopped heads and slain orcs to satisfy even the staunchest adult viewer.
One of the chief concerns that has been constantly levied at Jackson and this new Hobbit trilogy is why, why is this a trilogy? The fact is, when all is said and done, and we have The Hobbit trilogy extended editions sitting on our DVD shelves, it will probably be quicker to read the book than to watch the trilogy on our TVs. The Hobbit isn’t a large book, but what Jackson and his team of screenwriters have smartly done is roll into this story more of the expanded lore of the Tolkien universe. On paper it might not seem like a good idea to extend The Hobbit into three films (it might feel thin, like butter scraped over too much bread), but on screen it gives An Unexpected Journey a bit more gravitas. Yeah, Bilbo finds the (spoilers) One Ring in The Hobbit, but that’s about it as far as the connective tissue between The Hobbit and LOTR went. Here, Jackson weaves in familiar faces, and adds more mystery regarding the future of Middle-Earth to make this series feel bigger than it might have otherwise. It’s an inspired decision and these extra pieces fit very well into the narrative of An Unexpected Journey.
Perfect casting was one of the things that Peter Jackson captured with the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and he nails it again with An Unexpected Journey. Returning players Ian Holm (who opens the film as the aged Bilbo), Ian McKellan, Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, Andy Serkis, Christoper Lee, and Elijah Wood all reprise their LOTR characters with aplomb. Newcommer Martin Freeman is incredible as young Bilbo Baggins. Freeman has joked lately that he’s king of the nerds and he’s not far off. Aside from playing Bilbo, Freeman has also played Arthur Dent in the film version of Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy, John Watson in the BBC Sherlock series, and my personal favorite Tim in the original British series The Office (the character would become Jim in the American remake). As Bilbo, Freeman perfectly captures the humor of the character, the staunch rigidness that hobbits are well known for, the fear of the unknown, and Bilbo’s growing sense of wonderment.
The dwarves are great, though if I’m being perfectly honest I couldn’t tell you which is which without a flow chart. Though each dwarf is visually distinctive from one another, it’s hard to keep them all straight in my head. And while there are a few absolute standout performances among the dwarf company, many of them are used for a joke or a visual flourish and little else. It would be difficult to give each of these characters massive arcs considering there are thirteen of them, so it’s understandable that some of the company get short-changed. That being said, there are still two films yet to be seen, so this may be rectified before the trilogy ends, but it’s still a sticking point within this film. Among the standout dwarves are Ken Stott as Balin, James Nesbitt as Bofur, Dean O’Gorman as Fili, Aidan Turner as Kili (Kili and Fili play the role of Merry and Pippin insofar as being the young, brash, and funny members of the party), and Richard Armitage as Thorin. Armitage has the most rounded arc of any character in the film (aside from perhaps Freeman’s Bilbo). And though Thorin’s story is still incomplete, (it’s his quest to reclaim his family lands that guides this tale) he certainly grows within this film in a satisfying manner.
Sylvester McCoy (of Doctor Who fame) plays Radagast the Brown, a member of Gandalf’s order of wizards. This character doesn’t appear in the book, and here he’s a bit…eccentric. A man who rides a sled pulled by wild rabbits, Radagast is perhaps the epitome of the difference in tone between The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and LOTR. Out of all the additions to The Hobbit, I could see Radagast being the most divisive. McCoy plays Radagast like The Doctor on amphetamines … which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. He’s manic, and perhaps a bit insane, but his appearance helps to crystallize the expanded lore that Jackson introduces here.
Of course, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey isn’t a perfect film. As the first part of a trilogy (which was essentially filmed as one movie), it does take it’s sweet time getting to that unexpected journey. We get to see a lot of world building occur before the journey begins in earnest, and while it’s all very well done–it’s not quite to the level of Lord of the Rings.
Having Bilbo narrate the film is a great narrative device if you’re telling the simple story of The Hobbit (and allows for LOTR cameos), but once you introduce the expanded lore–and with it things that Bilbo simply wouldn’t have had knowledge of–Bilbo’s narration (which, to be fair, only really occurs in the very beginning of the film) seems inadequate.
And while the team at WETA generally does some of the best effects work in film today, there are a few noticeable issues peppered throughout An Unexpected Journey. Specifically, whenever someone is riding a horse, or other mode of transport during an action sequence. There’s a couple sequences involving Radagast’s sled, and Warg riders that just look terrible. Moments where you can absolutely tell that the person riding on screen is just on a green sound stage. A combination of unnatural camera movement, mixed with the live vistas of New Zealand, and a weird blurriness surrounding the actors all add up to a terrible effect. It’s actually a problem that cropped up from time to time in LOTR, and I had hoped would be ironed out here, but sadly no.
Thankfully, most of the other effects work is tremendous, owing a lot to Peter Jackson’s mixture of traditional model work and CGI creations. Jackson (like co-screenwriter del Toro) is one of the few blockbuster directors who realizes that CG is a great tool that doesn’t completely supplant traditional makeup and model effects. And the art direction is sublimely realized with terrific looks for architecture and costuming. Costuming in particular is worth noting. As a film that takes place sixty years prior to LOTR, An Unexpected Journey actually makes an effort to have the fashions appear notably different in this film. In particular, the Eleven fashion seems to have changed–perhaps not radically–but you can tell it’s a different time frame than LOTR.
Howard Shore returns as composer, and his work is once again incredible. Mixing in familiar themes (I got shivers when the Shire music played) with new music, Shore is at the top of his game. The dwarven song from the trailer is just as great here, and the inclusion of some musical easter eggs from the animated Hobbit film was an inspired choice.
In the end, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a fitting and comfortable return to the world of Middle-Earth. Peter Jackson proves again that he loves this material, and knows how to display it to the world. He was the right director for the job more than a decade ago, and I’m extremely pleased that I have two more films to watch him play in the Tolkein sandbox. If you loved the Lord of the Rings, then I’m confident that you’ll at least enjoy The Hobbit. But, if you’re like me–smitten with the world Jackson presented to us in the LOTR trilogy–well then, I’m sure you’re going to love The Hobbit, just like me.