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The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

At 24fps, and in two easy-on-the-eyes dimensions, Peter Jackson’s first installment of The Hobbit is simply a movie, as opposed to an experience. It is a good movie, at that. But is it great? No. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey delivers on its promise to bring Tolkien’s whimsical prelude to the Lord of the Rings to life on the silver screen, but somewhere along the way the whimsy and heart of Bilbo’s great adventure got lost.

The Hobbit (poster 1)The opening lines of Tolkien’s novel are indelibly carved into my psyche. “In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit… .” Simple, direct and without a doubt one of my favorite written passages ever committed to paper. So as the opening credits rolled, I waited with bated breath for that classic line. To me, there was simply no other way to open what is sure to be a timeless trilogy of films. Ten minutes and one ill-advised “bookend” scene later, and I (sort of) got my payoff. The opening scene, tying The Hobbit to Jackson’s LOTR trilogy of films, seemed tacked-on, ill-advised and smacked of hand-holding. While things certainly improved from there, the film never quite took the tone I was hoping for.

Unlike the LOTR, The Hobbit is not what I would consider to be “epic fantasy.” More akin to works of Roald Dahl or Neil Gaiman’s Stardust, The Hobbit is as much a folk and fairy tale as it is fantasy. To be sure, the fantastical setting, exotic races and languages, and epic scope don’t exclude it from the fantasy genre, but tonally the book is far more personal than LOTR. The Hobbit, in novel form, is ultimately the story of Bilbo’s great adventure. There, and back again. On screen, Jackson has made the conscious decision to place the tale, as opposed to the characters, at center stage.

Part of the problem, perhaps, is the homogenous nature of the supporting characters. Twelve dwarves, each with their own voices and personalities, are far easier to handle (or ignore) in novel form. A few paragraphs, over the course of a few hundred pages, are far less costly to the writer than a few minutes of screen time are to a director. And Jackson sacrificed some of the characterization of the Company of Thorin Oakenshield on the altar of “The Plot.” I can’t really argue with the choice—at nearly three hours for the first installment, Jackson clearly tried to fit as much as possible into the film. But while Thorin and Balin (and to a lesser extent, Dwalin) actually came across as characters integral to the story, the rest of the dwarves did not. But for the sake of accuracy, they could have been named “Dwarves 3-12.”

Jackson’s choice to give the dwarves short shrift is made all the more disturbing by his excellent character work with Gandalf and Radagast the Brown. Ian McKellen, who for my money has never been bad in anything, once again plumbs the depths of Mithrandir, and I was pleased to see that the Gandalf the Grey of The Hobbit is decidedly different from the Gandalf of 60 years later seen in the LOTR films. McKellen does a masterful job of portraying a powerful character that is fighting entropy, apathy and irrelevance as much as evil. The inclusion of Saruman and Galadriel, while once again bridging the gap between trilogies, underscores Gandalf’s love for Middle Earth by subtly suggesting that perhaps the rest of the White Council may be a tad…content.

The Hobbit (poster 3)

Sylvester McCoy as Radagast the Brown was thoroughly entertaining. While Radagast’s role in the novel was unseen, Jackson uses the character to introduce The Necromancer and the creeping malaise of the Mirkwood. While not staying completely true to the novel, Jackson manages to add drama and a sense of dark foreboding through Radagast’s travails, all the while providing perhaps the most satisfying character moments of the film.

An Unexpected Journey culminates with Bilbo’s fateful encounter with Gollum, deep in the Misty Mountains. Of all the scenes in the film, this was the best. Riddles in the dark, panic and claustrophobia, disgust and despair—Jackson manages to capture each and every emotion on film. CGI or not, Gollum is once again a pleasure to watch. Andy Serkis has inhabited Sméagol long enough to know him inside and out, and his performance is another highlight. Much like Gandalf, Gollum is a subtly different character in The Hobbit, and these differences come across well on the big screen.

The Hobbit (poster 2)Martin Freeman as Bilbo was a genius piece of casting. The perfect mix of neuroses, heart and fear of failure, Freeman’s performance captures the essence of Bilbo Baggins far more than that of Ian Holm, who plays the elder Bilbo we see at the beginning of the film and in the LOTR trilogy. Freeman’s wit and charm complement Bilbo’s, and his timing—comic and dramatic—is impeccable.

At 24fps and in 2-D, I did not find the CGI or the actual manner in which the movie was filmed either disturbing or distracting. Middle Earth once again looked beautiful, if not a bit more austere than in the LOTR films. I did find some of the quick cuts and top-down shots to be unnecessary, and some of the scenes within Erebor and in the hall of the Goblin King were a bit dark, but that could be a function of my lousy eyesight as opposed to a cinematographic miscue. An Unexpected Journey was, in my opinion, filmed in a workmanlike manner leaving very little to gripe about.

Unfortunately for us fans, the whole of the film amounted to something less than the sum of its parts. While it may be unfair to judge one part of what is essentially an eight hour film without seeing the whole, I think it is fair to say that heart, fun and sense of adventure that pervaded the LOTR films was missing here. A whimsical tale minus the whimsy played as dour and heavy-handed when it should have been light-hearted and, ultimately fun. After all, The Hobbit is the prelude to an epic, not the epic itself. That being said, I still enjoyed the movie and can’t wait to see it again. A good-but-not-great Peter Jackson film set in Middle Earth is vastly preferable to any other alternative. And who knows? By the time the thrush knocks three times and Sting is blooded, the whole may be greater than the sum of its parts.

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Rating: 8.9/10 (19 votes cast)
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, 8.9 out of 10 based on 19 ratings
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16 Comments

  1. Khaldun says:

    I was actually shocked at how bad I thought it was. So bad that I don’t know if I’ll be watching either of the two sequels. Felt like a bunch of random action and not an actual STORY.

  2. Dominic Stevens says:

    A fair and well considered review.

  3. lynnsbooks says:

    I think you’ve captured very well here the feelings that I had. I was expecting something a lot more light and didn’t really appreciate that the hobbits, instead of being a bit bungling, had been turned into warriors and heroes. I suppose I was expecting a tale and not an epic and felt this was tailored more for the none reading fans of Tolkien. It’s become a mini-me version of LotR. Still, brilliantly done and I will watch the next.
    Lynn 😀

  4. I’m a pretty big fan of the film and am looking forward to the next installments. I read the book a long time ago and loved it growing up. As a big lover of the LOTR movies, I didn’t think The Hobbit would be as interesting, but I wound up enjoying the movie a lot more than I originally thought I would.

  5. Kristina Young says:

    I absolutely hated it the first time around. I think I was more shocked and angered by its differences from the novel, added scenes and story lines. However, I gave it a second chance and was able to really enjoy it the second watch around. I’m disappointed in the changes but now that I’m aware of them, I’m able to appreciate it more.
    I’m really looking forward to the next one and seeing Smaug again.

  6. Lucas says:

    To be honest, I almost stopped reading this review after the first two paragraphs. After seeing the votes being so supportive, I decided to go ahead and finish the review. I certainly can agree with a few notes brought up regarding the movie, but the expressed distaste of Jackson fleshing out more than just Bilbo’s journey bothers me.

    I believe that bringing in lore from the Silmarillion added much flavor and connectivity than just the initial story. I fully believe this work should have made Tolkienn proud by making the world of the books more entwined together in the film adaptations. Yes, the original book centered on Bilbo, but this is a long time past having one or even 10 books out, originally.

    Finally, the darker tone of the film excellently highlights the perils while giving those who grew up with (or without) the books a chance to see what it would have been like without the “younger adult” story that originally took place. (I apologize if that last line is a but “wordy.”)

    Any who, yes, I gave this a four star review of the review. You were, allegedly, to review the movie, not discuss the down falls of the movie for not living up to your interpretation of the book. Your comments on the characters were spot on, in my opinion. Your, seeming, enjoyment of the 2D experience as well as the unneeded over head views during a few of the this-is-obviously-shot-for-3D scenes was also felt. Hopefully 3D dies (again) soon, and we receive better views of the beautiful world they have created to represent Middle Earth.

    Take care, I do enjoy reading the articles here, and I look forward to the next article. : )

    • Zack (@perch15) says:

      I don’t disagree that the added material worked well. I enjoy the Silmarillion nods. I enjoyed the movie. I just prefer the lighter tone of the novel and think it may have been the wrong decision to move away from that. I do take issue with your statement that I didn’t review the movie, however. I think that is exactly what I did. Thanks for reading!

      • Lucas says:

        My disappointment was in the throwbacks continually stating differences between the movie film instead of just purely going for the film. Obviously, I should have been less dark in my own tone when posting, but after the initial perceived knock on opening with something other than the original book lines, the rest of the comments about disparages between book and movie felt a bit much. Personal tastes, I would be willing to admit. : P

        Maybe it was the Middle Earth nerd in me mixed with my love for how the movie turned out. I’m going to respond to some other comments regarding other tidbits that could easily be placed in this reply, but they might be more appropriate in other places.

  7. AC James says:

    Typically I find the books to be better but I really enjoyed the LOTR movies… Until The Hobbit.

  8. Vincent Quill says:

    I have to say, I really liked it. I don’t think it was in any way an accurate translation of Tolkien’s book into movie form, but the hobbit was never my favourite of Tolkien’s books. I especially liked the prologue, and the only scene I felt was poorly done was the troll scene. It was nothing like the book! It was too short, it didn’t feel like it was the whole night that they had to confuse them, their arguing amongst each other was nonexistent, and worst of all, Bilbo stole Gandalf’s role!!! Otherwise, I thought the movie was great. A little too action-oriented than the book, but overall a fun movie, and gollum was hilarious!

  9. I loved it. Like Lucas, I think opening it out and bringing in more of the background worked excellently, and I’ve always felt Tolkien might have done just that if he’d rewritten The Hobbit after LOTR. I saw it in 3D, and I don’t really see what all the hate’s about. I know some people don’t like 3D overall, but to me it enhanced the experience without being in any way distracting. I’m already looking forward to parts 2 & 3.

    • Lucas says:

      I think the thing with 3D is that it can remove immersion despite sticking you figuratively in the action. The glasses (especially for those that are not used to glasses, at least for a little longer 😉 are the opposite of fun. The head/eye aches that typically occur just distract from the movie.

      Maybe it’s my eyes with age, but 3D tends to make things fuzzy around the edges, too. : P

      • Yes, I know some people have that reaction, and obviously that’s a problem, though fortunately 3D films are usually offered in 2D versions too. All I can say is that I personally enjoy them, when well done.

  10. Ryan Howse says:

    The primary issue with The Hobbit was one of tone, and it was a hard one to satisfy. Film fans of LOTR wanted more of the epic grandeur of those movies (and indeed, those books.) But The Hobbit doesn’t contain nearly so much epic grandeur–it could have been a much more lighthearted tale, closer in spirit to The Princess Bride or Stardust. Jackson’s attempt to bridge the gap meant that it never achieved either.

    But when all is said and done, it was lovely to return to Middle-Earth.

  11. Geno says:

    I appreciate your review of the film. It seems we had the same overall experience. I enjoyed the movie on a certain level, but found myself longing for the lighthearted world of Bilbo’s nature thrust into the frightening world. There were some really great moments (though not in the original tale) like when Bilbo tells the dwarf “you’re used to not belonging anywhere.” and it served wonderfully as motivation for Bilbo to stick around and help the dwarves reclaim their home.

    The white orc was way too involved for my taste, and the entire goblin king scene felt off. Many battles went on and on… and on… and on… to the point my wife and I looked at each other said “really?”. The stone giants “battle” was disappointing to me. I’ve always read that scene as more giants at play, than the—I haven’t the words—scene that appeared on screen. And, though I enjoyed Radagast, he took more screen time than his character warranted. I wanted to love it… and my Nephew (who admittedly has only seen the films and not read any of the books) praised it to the highest degree. As it is, the film was a different vision than Tolkien presented in the hobbit, but it was a mostly worthy installment in an epic franchise.

    I was hoping for the cinema-literary experience I felt in LOTR. I’ll be watching the next two installments, but I’ll do so with different expectations. In so doing… I’m sure I’ll enjoy them.

  12. Pablo says:

    I felt just about the same after watching the movie. It was good, but something was missing for it to be great. I think it’s because it wasn’t as lighthearted as the novels and the ending felt a little abrupt, but, then again it’s supposed to be “one movie” consisting of three parts, and I have only seen the first one. It’s probably a better experience if you watch all three parts in one go.

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