The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Hobbit1-PosterThe first portion of The Hobbit‘s adaptation to film, An Unexpected Journey, was released to theatres this past December. By any objective measure, Peter Jackson’s return to Middle Earth must be considered a success. It is, after all, still going halfway through the month of March. In fact, my local first-run theatre’s last day for showing the film happens to be the same day as the film’s home video release. Thus, for one brief moment, at least some people will have the option of seeing The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in the first-run theatre, the second-run theatre, or their own homes, entirely at their own discretion.

When a film is held open for so long, it has to be considered a success at the box office. So the question, for a reviewer whose viewing was sadly rather delayed itself, is whether the film deserves the level of success it has achieved. For my part, I can only answer “yes”. While The Hobbit is not quite as magnificent as The Lord of the Rings, its first segment is nonetheless a worthy film in its own right.

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Though it may have been worthier had Jackson remembered it was a film in its own right.

Because of the fact that The Lord of the Rings was adapted to film before The Hobbit (though the publication order was with The Hobbit first), a small alteration is made to give The Hobbit a framing device, of Bilbo writing his story down for Frodo on the eve of his momentous 111th birthday party. This helps to remind more casual viewers that they are returning to Middle Earth, and though it’s ultimately unnecessary, it does help set the mood with its levity. The Hobbit was a lighter book than any of The Lord of the Rings, and The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a lighter film than the previous film trilogy. Bilbo Baggins, played by Martin Freeman as a young hobbit, is minding his own business when he’s disrupted by the arrival of Gandalf (Ian McKellen, reprising his role). Gandalf signs Bilbo up to be the burglar for a party of adventuring dwarfs without telling him, and the audience is treated to a comedic sequence and musical number as the dwarfs arrive and invade his home.

There are thirteen dwarfs in all — part of the reason for Bilbo’s inclusion in the novel is that he makes the number 14 instead of the unlucky number (for some reason, Gandalf isn’t counted.) It is natural for any audience member to have trouble keeping track of that large a number of dwarfs, and in truth, J.R.R. Tolkien didn’t develop many of their personalities. For the most part, as with the book, the film has the dwarfs acting as named extras. A few flashes of personality are shown, particularly with the playful Fili and Kili (Dean O’Gorman and Aidan Turner), but the only dwarfs to really have a strong sense of personality are elder soldier Balin (Ken Stott) and Thorin Oakenshield, prince and leader of the dwarfs. Thorin is played by Richard Armitage, and he brings the character to life wonderfully; while most of the dwarfs are basically cheerful, Thorin is sombre and angry, still resentful over his clan’s ousting from their ancestral home. It is this which he wishes to correct. His anger and distrust of outsiders form much of the emotional tension of the film, particularly with his attitude towards Bilbo, whom he views as an incompetent burden (and not without some justification, at least in the beginning.)

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One gets the sense that Gandalf is simply having fun at everyone’s expense.

The dwarfs and Bilbo, with Gandalf sometimes in tow, proceed on their adventure to reclaim the dwarfs’ mountain fortress from the dragon Smaug. There are some fight scenes and other exciting adventure scenes, all of which are fun and well-choreographed, although most are not particularly momentous. The role of Middle Earth is again played by New Zealand, and it is as breathtaking as ever. The film was shot in a high frame rate, and made available in both 3D and 2D; for my part, while I may change my mind with the sequels, I felt that for now I would save a little money and see the standard version. I enjoyed looking at Middle Earth just fine in 2D with The Lord of the Rings, and I enjoyed it just fine with An Unexpected Journey as well. I will say that some of the CGI seemed a little more noticeable to me; in particular, the orcs and trolls stood out as being a bit obvious as not actually being in the scene. It wasn’t enough to significantly hamper my enjoyment of the film, but it was enough to just notice it.

Something that had given me some concern in my anticipation for this film was the length of it, coupled with the expansion of the book into a full trilogy — for reference, the novel The Hobbit is smaller than any of the three volumes of The Lord of the Rings, each of which received only one film apiece. I had concern that The Hobbit would require significant padding to reach two films, let alone three. This concern proved accurate, but is more of a mixed blessing than a straight detriment. Peter Jackson and his screenwriters pulled in a lot of supplemental material from the Tolkien appendices (and I suspect made up a few small things of their own), but although this does extend the length of the film, it only occasionally feels like a detour. Of course, with only one film of three out, a final verdict must wait to be rendered.

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Gandalf remembered my name! I’m relevant!

I would normally hesitate to talk about specific scenes in a film for risk of spoiling things, but I believe in this case, I can do so in general enough terms to not spoil anything that someone who has read the book wouldn’t already know.

Sylvester McCoy plays Radagast the Brown, one of Gandalf’s wizard colleagues. McCoy is completely in character as a somewhat addled woodsman of a mage, the kind of person who is worldly in one and only one way. The scene introducing Radagast is amusing, but has the definite feel of a side plot at the time that it’s introduced. One can immediately see why Gandalf is concerned, but it doesn’t feel like something that would concern the dwarfs, though we know they’ll inevitably become involved over the course of the films — unless, of course, there’s this entire subplot that gets shown without involving the eponymous hobbit directly, which would seem a little absurd. This same concern has Gandalf meet with some familiar characters from the Lord of the Rings trilogy, with Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, and Christopher Lee reprising their roles as Galadriel, Elrond, and Saruman. While all the actors do great jobs in this scene, and it’s nice to see Saruman in action before his turn, the scene is a bit of a weakness in the film. It at once feels as though it’s purely setup for later events, nods to the previous (chronologically later) trilogy, and separate from the main plot of the film.

This tendency to wink to the audience about The Lord of the Rings is also present in the scene with Gollum. This scene does come from the novel, and it’s one of the most psychologically thrilling scenes in both the film and the novel. Andy Serkis is once again the man behind the motion-capture for Gollum, and if anything, his performance has gotten better. Gollum is even creepier in The Hobbit than in The Lord of the Rings, and the one thing that disappoints me about how good Gollum is in this film is that with this scene over, his part in the trilogy is done (unless this is one of the areas where the film diverges from the book, which is always possible). But while Gollum is fantastic, and the scene is mostly as good, there is one little aspect I thought could have been improved. When Gollum’s ring is shown, the camera lingers on it for extended periods, as it moves in slow motion to its destination. The camera is essentially shouting the significance of the ring, making a dramatic moment of the debut of a central object of The Lord of the Rings. But in the novel The Hobbit, the ring was — although useful to Bilbo — largely innocuous. Its significance wasn’t clear to any character save perhaps Gandalf, and he only suspected. I feel the scene in the film would have been improved had it played the same way; let the audience members who know whisper to themselves about it, but leave it as subtle foreshadowing to the rest. Subtlety is the key; a slow-motion drop is anything but.

Still, those issues aside, I found the film to be highly entertaining. Although nearly three hours in length, those three hours flew by quickly. Like the novel it is based on, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey has a cheerful air to it that is only sometimes punctuated by darkness, and that darkness is always accompanied by excitement. And while there is a definite feeling of incompleteness at the end (even allowing for the fact that it’s the first third of a trilogy), the story is interesting from start to finish. Although I may still have some questions about how the supplemental material is to be woven into the relatively brief text of The Hobbit, I have more faith in Jackson’s ability to do so than I did before watching the first portion. And that’s a success on a subjective measure to go with the objective successes it already has.

Rating: 4 Stars

P.S. On a personal note, I had, by my count, watched 899 feature films that I remembered well enough to count. After reaching that number, I figured I should treat myself with the next, and so I chose this film as my 900th.

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20 thoughts on “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

  1. Good review Morgan. It wasn’t as good as the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but Jackson still made it work because he had heart and passion, and that’s what you need when you’re adapting works of art like this.

  2. I think The Hobbit is riding the coat-tails of the LOTR success. Would people like this film as much had it not been a “return to Middle Earth”? I think the audience is going in pre-satisfied.

    I’m not trying to take anything away from Jackson’s work. A decade has passed and he hasn’t skipped a beat. Middle Earth is as wonderfully constructed as ever and the characters are better than I imagined when I read the book.

    But I had two concerns.

    One, the higher frame rate of the film does not work for me. 48fps is good for reality TV and documentaries, but without the ‘soap-opera effect’ the film loses some of the enchantment you want in a fantasy. I don’t want stark realism; I want magic.

    Two, the story itself is just not as impressive as LOTR. I read the book shortly before the film came out and there really isn’t much to it. Why would there be? It’s a children’s book. (One of the reasons Jackson initially didn’t want to do this film.) Mainly, there is no pervasive evil that must be stopped. I know that Part 1 of this (forced) trilogy is just the setup; the real action will take place in Parts 2 and 3. But at this point there is no concern about the quest.

    So what if they fail? Some dwarf won’t get his gold? Thorin’s company will have to go back and live happily ever after in their new, thriving village? Wow, it just breaks my heart! Seriously, it’s not like all of Middle Earth will succumb to the Dark Side of Christopher Lee if Smaug isn’t defeated. There’s no hook to pull the audience in. You could say that Durin’s greed bought about his own doom and Thorin’s malice and revenge is going to do the same. Smaug may have been charged by a higher power to restore balance to the Force…um, I mean Middle Earth.

    I don’t want to sound too negative. I did enjoy the movie, just not as much as I hoped. We know how impressive Jackson can be, but can he do it with such a limited story? I give it 3 out of 5 stars…hoping that the next installment will bring the magic!

    • I think you have something of a valid point when you say people are going in pre-satisified and The Hobbit is riding the coattails of Lord of the Rings, but I don’t think it’s making a significant difference — people wanted to like the The Phantom Menace too. Riding the coattails of earlier success is one of the most consistent indications of failure when it comes to sequels and prequels, so I really doubt it’s coasting just on that alone. Is it getting a slight boost from it? Sure. But only in the sense that people are giving it a chance in the first place.

      I can’t speak to the high frame rate, I watched the plain Jane version. But I’ve seen the same complaint in a lot of reviews, so you’re not alone.

      On the plot… you’re right that it’s not as grandiose as LOTR. It’s not a children’s book — it wasn’t written for nor primarily read by children — but it’s definitely simpler. The plight of the dwarfs is definitely subject to some dissonance with some viewers/readers; it’s true that not everybody will agree that losing their cultural identity is a plight, or will twig to the fact that that’s Thorin’s main concern, not the gold itself. Still, it’s definitely smaller scope, and doesn’t really get that sense of grandeur until the final battle against Smaug.

      I have to wonder how much of this complaint (and I doubt you’re the only one to have it, it was something I wondered whether other viewers would adapt to) is due to the inverted order of the film series. The Hobbit, the novel, took college campuses by storm entirely on its own merit. The Hobbit, the movie trilogy, has to deal with the legacy and expectations of being a follow-up to The Lord of the Rings. Had it been first, the way the novels were, I think it wouldn’t be anywhere near as much of a factor.

      • I disagree with your disagreement. :)

        The Hobbit was indeed written for and read to (not by) children. The preface of the 50th edition of the book is written by Christopher Tolkien. He states that his father would tell the tale (and work out the details of the story by reading it) to his children (5 or 6 years old at the time). He goes on to state how the artwork was influenced by children’s preferences for color and shapes. He writes how initial sales from parents and schoolhouses were surprising and led to his father’s success as an author.

        Keep in mind, children were the only one’s he could write this story for back in the 30’s and 40’s. Adults didn’t read fantasy (as a general rule). Fantasy didn’t become a successful adult genre until the early 60’s. Before then it was for children. LOTR was the first to really break ground and that was 17 years after The Hobbit.

        As for Thorin’s plight, there is no loss of cultural identity going on. The Folk of Durin who lived in Erebor moved their village to another part of the land (the Blue Mountains) after Smaug attacked and they are living well.

        [Balin (to Thorin):] “You don’t have to do this. You have a choice. You’ve done honorably by our people. You have built a new life for us in the Blue Mountains, a life of peace and plenty. A life that is worth more than all the gold in Erebor.”

        Thorin is the only one who can’t seem to let it go. There is no need for the quest, unlike in LOTR. Additionally, this is just one clan of Dwarves. Dwarven-kind is not in danger of going extinct. The only thing taken away was Thror’s gold and a little family pride. Thorin’s quest is one of greed and vengeance, not heritage or survival.

        I’m not saying the story doesn’t have it’s own merits separate from LOTR. It does. And it is well written. I agree that the inverted order is causing some disappointment, but I don’t think the reverse would have been any better than reversing the Star Wars trilogies.

        Anyway, thank you posting a good review of this film. Well written and thoughtful. I always enjoy visiting this site!

        • Do you have any idea how many non-childrens’ books are first read to the young children of the author? Hundreds, if not thousands. But yes, looking into things, it looks as though the critical reception of the book was as a children’s book initially — though even then it was mostly awarded on the merit of being for older children. What we’d call young adult fiction nowadays, along the lines of Harry Potter.

          As for whether fantasy was accepted by adults prior to LOTR, I’ll grant it’s hard to find a pure fantasy example before then (although 90% or more of sci-fi from that era would be classified as fantasy today, including most of the works of Verne and Wells). The chief example would be Le Mort D’Arthur (not a children’s book by any stretch of the imagination), and derivative works (including Twain’s “Connecticut Yankee”, which was certainly for adults). But I’m also hard pressed to think of many fantasy children’s novels before then either. The works of Lewis Caroll and C.S. Lewis are about it. It’s not so much that LOTR made the genre acceptable to adults as that the genre was simply in its infancy anyway.

          As for the loss of cultural identity, you’re overlooking it. Thorin’s lament right from the beginning is that only a small number even responded to his call. “We used to be warriors”. Yes, the dwarfs still exist, still have a village, still have lives that would be considered prosperous by the global standards. But they’re not who they were. Balin’s remark is simply telling Thorin that it’s OK if they fail; he doesn’t disagree with Thorin’s basic premise or he wouldn’t be there at all. If he really felt he belonged in the life of peace and prosperity, that’s where he would be.

        • Interesting about Thorin’s lament. My take was that few responded to his call because few believed in his quest. It’s a personal vendetta against Smaug…nothing more.

          Thorin may have believed his quest to be noble and necessary, but few others did. Some were in his company because they followed him, not his goals. Some were in his company because they wanted money, pure and simple. And some were in his company because they wanted adventure, not purpose. I don’t think there were more than a few in his company that believed what he did. Thorin aggrandized the quest to rationalize his need for revenge.

          So why should I care if he fails? It doesn’t make a difference. If he succeeds? Why should I cheer? The Dwarves are happy with their current lives in the Blue Mountains. The dragon is not harming anyone (as long as people leave him alone). And the fate of Men is not dependent upon Thorin’s success. Yes, the rebuilding of Dale eventually renewed a partnership between Men and Dwarves. But that was serendipitous and not the point of the quest.

          If we are supposed to be compassionately concerned about Thorin’s plight, then the movie failed. Thorin is not a sympathetic character. All we care about is Bilbo getting back alive.

          As for the ‘children’s book’ label, I ask: if the book wasn’t aimed at children, then who was it written for? Certainly not adults. The story line is too simplistic, the wording is too carefully chosen for a younger reading level, and the exposition is written in conversational format. I know that this was an early work of Tolkien, not yet a matured author, but all of that seems fairly intentional to me.

          We also have to remember that the word usage is different nowadays. Children’s books today are something very different than YA or Tween books, but they were all the same thing back then. Anyone still living at home was considered a child. I think we agree on that.

          Nevertheless, your arguments are valid and I concede the point. The jury will disregard any comments linking The Hobbit to children’s literature and the court will strike such wording from the record. Well argued, MRL.

        • Clearly room for multiple interpretations on Thorin’s motives and mission. I’ll agree to disagree; if it didn’t speak to you, I can’t argue you into sympathy. :D

          It’s a good discussion, though. Much appreciated.

  3. “It is natural for any audience member to have trouble keeping track of that large a number of dwarfs, and in truth, J.R.R. Tolkien didn’t develop many of their personalities.” Thank you for pointing that out. It seriously bugged me when so many reviewers chose to complain “It was hard to tell the Dwarves apart… this film doesnt take the time to develop any of them!”

    I hear what youre saying about the Ring, LOL, but given that LotR was shot first, there was no way that this movie could treat the Ring as something harmless and innocuous.

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  5. Great review here Morgan. We agree on practically everything. Overlong for sure but it’s entertainment value is brilliant. It’s been little harshly criticised in my opinion by some people.

    • I agree, Mark; I think it’s suffered in something of the same way Brave did. People are judging it by how much they’ve built up its predecessors in their heads. It can’t reach those lofty ideals, and in all honesty it’s not as good as the previous films — but it’s still a fine film on its own merits.

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