Movie Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

By December 14, 2012

It’s been nearly a decade since Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings adaptation closed with its third film, a grand total of 17 Oscar wins, and untold millions in worldwide box office and home video sales — and now we’re being offered chapter one of a prequel trilogy. It seems only logical that we would welcome another Tolkien/Jackson project with open arms, but it sure seems like The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey has arrived carrying a whole lot of baggage. For example:

A. Didn’t Peter Jackson once say he’d rather not direct an adaptation of The Hobbit? And wasn’t Guillermo del Toro once on board as director?

B. Why has Peter Jackson chosen to offer this film in the unproven (and generally unloved) 48 frames-per-second format? I’m told that the 48fps presentation actually makes the 3-D format look a whole lot swankier, but since I detest all things 3-D in my movies, it looks like I won’t be needing the 48fps gimmickry. (Note for tech spec geeks: I saw the film in good old 24fps 2-D, and if that makes me short-sighted so be it.)

C. The original plan was to turn Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” (a relatively simple and straightforward 350-page adventure story) into two films, and that seemed to make perfect sense. And then the producers decided to turn two films into three. Yes, just like Lord of the Rings. Obviously one cannot pass judgment on Part 2 (The Desolation of Smaug) or Part 3 (There and Back Again) at this point, but I wouldn’t blame you for feeling a bit cynical about The Hobbit’s new “trilogy” status.

D. All that really matters: can Peter Jackson and his massive team of cast and crew pull off the same sort of Tolkien magic they offered us last time?

Like I said, that’s a lot of baggage. But speaking only as one gigantic fan of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, I can say this much: the end product (aka the theatrical cut of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey) is a massive piece of adventure movie fun. Considerably lighter than its three-movie predecessor (those would be Fellowship of the Rings, The Two Towers, and Return of the King, of course), The Hobbit Volume I manages to combine the best (perhaps all) of the book while infusing this simple “A to B to C” quest story with a few clever subplots pulled out of Tolkien’s other works.

So while the main story (poor, reluctant Bilbo Baggins is enlisted to join in a long adventure by a wizard and a dozen dwarfs) is relatively simple and straight-foward, Jackson and co-writers Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Guillermo del Toro have decided to add lots of Tolkien material that you won’t find in your hopefully well-read copy of The Hobbit. Characters like Radagast (a wizard) and Azog (an albino orc) and divergences like a chat between Galadriel (Cate Blanchette), Elrond (Hugo Weaving), and Saruman (Christopher Lee), a fascinating and melancholy history lesson about dwarfs, and a mysterious necromancer deep in the forest. Most of these additions fit seamlessly into the well-known Hobbit misadventures, while a few feel like deleted scenes that were wedged in at the last minute.

And while any 2.75-hour film will always have a few “down” moments, The Hobbit V1 does suffer from a handful of dry spots that feel unnecessary now, but are certainly there because we’ll need “that stuff” later. Put more simply: 90% of this movie flies by like a great old afternoon matinee; the other ten percent feels a bit flabby, perfunctory, or (gasp) even unnecessary. An optimist (or a fan) would say there’s nothing wrong with a big meal, but a realist would argue that even in a flick this massive, sometimes less is more. Having duly covered the mild pacing issues (mainly in act 2) and some nominal editorial hiccups, let us now commence with the love-fest.

The Hobbit V1 is precisely the sort of movie that turns little movie nerds into grown-up movie creators. If the “novelty” of seeing Tolkien on the big screen, on such an epic scale, has become a bit familiar by now, that’s fair, but what’s also fair is getting enthusiastic about an ass-kicking fantasy action epic that takes the “fantasy” seriously and treats the fans with kindness and respect. (Can you imagine how terrible the Tolkien films would be if they were produced by lazy filmmakers as stand-alone sequels? Let’s just not.) The Hobbit V1 has exactly the look (production design, costumes, make-up, visual effects, cinematography) and the sound and the feel of the previous Tolkien films, but it also seems just a bit smaller, friendlier, and more, well, innocent.

But there’s still plenty of scrapes, chases, escapes, and sword-swinging craziness afoot, all of it anchored exceedingly well by the always great Ian McKellan as Gandalf the awesome wizard, Martin Freeman as the earnest and very amiable Bilbo, and Richard Armitage as Thorin, a dwarf so quietly bad-ass that you’ll never look at dwarfs the same way again. Populating the background are eleven other dwarfs who range in status from “the fat one” and “the silly one” to legitimate characters like Balin (Ken Stott), Bofur (James Nesbitt), and Kili (Aidan Turner). And of course there’s time for a moment or two with old friends like Ian Holm, Elijah Wood, Cate Blanchette, Hugo Weaving, Christopher Lee, and the amazing Andy Serkis as nasty ol’ Gollum.

Buried beneath all the crazy names, gigantic monsters, and endless streams of orcs, trolls, and goblins, you can still sense Peter Jackson working hard to keep some of Tolkien’s best themes alive: that comfort is wonderful but sometimes an arduous quest is even better; that powerful things can come in very small packages; and that it’s best to judge a person by their actions and not their reputation. Nothing too deep or difficult, but some nice ideas for the pre-teen audience members who can take a little bit of costume-style “drama” along with their hyper-kinetic action/adventure/fantasy films.

Long story short: there’s a lot of fun to be found in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, and not all of it comes wrapped in action and orc blood. Yes, The Hobbit V1 is much more of a “creative” adaptation than was the Lord of the Rings series, but who says that’s necessarily a bad thing? Whether or not the filmmakers can continue to balance “a simple story” with “extra Tolkien stuff” across two more films remains to be seen, but I’ll be among the first in line to see how this experiment goes down.

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Scott Weinberg
Writer. Movie critic. Producer. Semi-actor. Wise-ass. Film advocate. Horror geek. Cat fan. Twitter junkie. Follow me at @scotteweinberg.