The 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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.