‘The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey’ Review


Film Pulse Score

Release Date: December 14, 2012
Director: Peter Jackson
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Film Pulse Score: 8/10

When I walked into the theater last night to take in the midnight premiere of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, I came fully armed with both an unabashed love of the source material and lowered expectations.

I count myself as a very big fan of what Jackson did with The Lord of the Rings, even counting The Fellowship of the Ring as one of my Top 5 all-time favorite films.  I also love The Hobbit, though it has admittedly been some years since I last read it, and I wasn’t really sure if Jackson could strike gold twice, especially since the tone of the two stories are so completely different.

Additionally, although I tried to avoid spoiling myself on other reviewers’ thoughts, I did find a couple of common complaints that made me trepidacious:  That the movie felt over-long and that the scenes featuring Radagast the Brown were bad – not just merely sub-par, but “Jar-Jar Binks” bad as one reviewer put it.

All those thoughts in hand (head?), I settled in.

The first thing apparent is that Jackson, while clearly trying to tie The Hobbit films into his cinematic version of Middle-Earth, knew better than to try to film An Unexpected Journey as something as epic and sweeping as The Lord of the Rings films.  The Hobbit, as a book, is more whimsical, light-hearted and built on flights of fancy and coincidence than any of the original Rings novels, so the film follows suit.

The colors are starker, the lighting brighter, the mood lighter.  After a stunning prologue concerning the Dwarven Kingdom of Erebor that introduces us to Thorin Oakenshield (played with smoldering intensity by Richard Armitage), the story itself kicks in, and its joyous.

For the most part, I won’t go over story points here.  If you know the book, you know most of them. If you don’t, you’ll be surprised. Be assured, though, The Hobbit film feels overstuffed compared to Tolkien’s original text, and for good reason. Peter Jackson decided to glean information and passages from the appendices of The Lord of the Rings to fill in some narrative gaps, like answering the question of who Radagast the Brown really is, what happens to Gandalf when he isn’t with the dwarves, and explaining the mystery of the Necromancer.

Thoroughly necessary to a film version of The Hobbit? No. Essential to a cinematic version of Middle-Earth as a whole? Absolutely.

Not everyone is going to appreciate the additions. Many, in fact, have called it “bloat.”  One man’s bloat, though, is another man’s elaboration, and I for one was grateful for it.

The most striking thing about the look of the film is how much the creature effects have improved in a decade. The original Rings films were revolutionary in their effects, but the work here is unlike any I’ve ever seen. The detail in the body and facial movements of the movie’s “big baddies” – the Trolls, the Goblin King and yes, Gollum, are astounding to behold.  Every tic, eye movement and twitch is clearly visible and palpable, and WETA should be lauded for not resting on their laurels and striving to improve and already impressive technology.

Gollum, especially, deserves notice.  By now, Andy Serkis can probably perform Gollum in his sleep and still be compelling, but what struck me the most about the character this time around is how complete his range of emotions has become. When he is straining himself to think of an answer to one of Bilbo’s riddles (fear not, Tolkienites, Jackson’s recreation of “Riddles in the Dark” might be the most flawless scene of the film), he narrows his eyes and bulges his cheeks in frustration; it’s all very real, as is the pain and hurt in and around his eyes once he realizes his ‘Precious’ is truly gone – it’s heartbreaking.

Despite the technical mastery on display, The Hobbit would not work without Martin Freeman and Ian McKellen.  Freeman, who came to prominence as Arthur Dent in the underrated film version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (2005) before becoming a cult favorite as Watson in BBC’s Sherlock, was simply born to play Bilbo Baggins. His natural affability and unassuming nature makes his a perfect fit for the reluctant Hobbit hero, and he has a natural comic timing and sincerity in his delivery that elevates every line he utters.

McKellen, as will surprise nobody, is pretty much spot-on perfect in taking up the mantle of Gandalf the Grey yet again. The Gandalf of The Hobbit is more affable and whimsical than he was in Rings, and McKellen has no problem with the new take.  He’s all at once an instigator, a guide, a friend and an action hero, and his eyes tell more stories than some entire scripts.

In looking at the film objectively – as a whole – if there is any complaint, it is that Jackson tries too hard to link The Hobbit to his original Rings trilogy by way of thematic device.

There are several scenes in the film that recall similar moments in the original trilogy, and very often they are completely unnecessary outside of making the audience notice the similarities.

It was annoying when Lucas did it in the Star Wars prequel trilogies, and it is annoying here.  The Hobbit is not The Lord of the Rings. Not in scope, stakes, or mood, and as Jackson is such a fan and scholar of Tolkien’s work, I’d hoped he would know better. In that aspect, I am a bit disappointed.

To address the two “preconceived” flaws I came into the screening with, I will say this: Radagast the Brown is a silly character. He hangs out with animals, has a bird’s nest in his hair and has a sled pulled by rabbits.  He would have been completely out of place in any of The Lord of the Rings films.  In The Hobbit, however, he’s a welcome addition that helps remind us that this is more of a fanciful tale than a battle for all mankind.

The running time is steep, but even at 2 hours and 50 minutes, the film did not drag.  Some have found fault with the length of time the film takes at the beginning setting up the dwarven company and their meeting / council with Bilbo at Bag End.  I respectfully disagree. This scene establishes the dwarves as characters and we see a glimpse of their personalities – more so than we ever saw in the book – which makes them seem more substantial and not just bodies taking up space.

Will you like it? Well, it’s not for me to make that call, but…

I will say that if you go into The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey looking for another Lord of the Rings, you’ll probably be incredibly disappointed.

If you approach it as a lighter tale, though, more about whimsy than epic stakes, there’s no telling where you might be swept off to.

2 Responses to “‘The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey’ Review”

    • I saw it in the normal 2D and at 24 FPS. I didn’t want my initial viewing to be affected by an unfamiliar format, but I do plan on seeing it down the line on the IMAX 48FPS screen.

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