THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY Review

It is important to state that I have never been overly fond of the fantasy world. The ideas of dwarfs, goblins, wizards, and elves has always been one of great mystery in their appeal. They are stock ideas put into thousands upon thousands of different stories and adventures by a multitude of writers over a long period of time. What makes one different than the other? There is probably many people, many an avid fan of J.R.R. Tolkien or George R.R. Martin that would be glad to write an essay on why this all works so well and reaches such a wide fan base, but despite the mountain of proof they could likely provide, the insight they would divulge, I would likely still not understand the inherent ability to love such strange, silly stories. In the end, that is what The Hobbit feels like; just all a bit silly. I loved the Harry Potter books, don't get me wrong, but that was a series I grew up with and that grew up with me. I have never read any of Tolkien's work and wasn't even familiar with the titles until the first Peter Jackson motion picture trilogy became such a grand deal eleven years ago. I went, I watched all three of those films and I enjoyed them well enough even if I did feel slightly outside the loop in doing so. I never felt as if I "got" what "it" was all about or why the story was so special despite the films being greatly entertaining and beautiful to look at. As the years have passed, as I have become better acquainted with film in general, I can see the merit the original trilogy has and how skillfully they were crafted. This, in itself, is reason enough to be excited for Jackson's return to middle earth. Unfortunately, this return is so far marked by stretching things a little too thin. There seems no need for this to be the first part of a trilogy, but instead a fitting start to a more easily resolved adventure than we encountered with The Lord of the Rings. Too bad, Jackson seems to have decided the fatter the better rather than the slimmer the winner.

Bilbo (Martin Freeman), Gandalf (Ian McKellen), and Thorin (Richard Armitage)
and his merry crew are on a journey to reclaim their homeland.
In saying all of that I must also add that though I haven't read any of Tolkien's work I did begin to skim the book from which this was based the night before seeing it. Mainly because I was curious how three films (at three hours a piece no doubt) could be pulled from such a slim novel mostly regarded as a book more for children than adults. Especially considering each Lord of the Rings film was based on an individual book, each thicker than The Hobbit. Sounds like a good way for the studio to make an extra cash grab but nonetheless here we have it and for all the seeming complaints I have about it I actually enjoyed the film very much. I was able to see it in the format with which director Peter Jackson shot the film but the higher frame rate will factor little into this review here, but I will post a separate piece about my thoughts on that later. This review, as it should, will focus on the skill of the filmmaker and how well he has crafted his visual story with an endless supply of means to do so. That luxury gives us some of the most gorgeous visuals seen on screen this year while other times providing a rather hollow experience.

The story of The Hobbit is very straightforward and rather simple. In a single breath it is the adventure of Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), a reclusive hobbit whisked up into a journey by Gandalf (Ian McKellan) that joins him a group of dwarfs including their leader Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) as they make their way to the Lonely Mountain which holds the lost dwarf kingdom of Erebor that has been claimed by the dragon Smaug (apparently dragons really, really love gold). Seeing as this is only the first part of a trilogy (and only the first six chapters of the book which sounds crazy considering what all we sit through) Jackson has set up plenty of obstacles and stretched single lines of descriptive sentences to entire scenes. That isn't to say they aren't spectacular. There is plenty of epic walking as well which serves the beautiful landscapes of New Zealand. In the opening sequence, much like Fellowship, we are given a history of the conflict that has incited reason for the main focus these films will carry out. We are told of Thorin's father and grandfather and the building of the dwarf kingdom and how it was lost and how they were abandoned by the elves in their time of need. We meet up with Bilbo and get them on the road in a fantastic little set piece from the shire (even Elijah Wood shows up as Frodo) but as our band of heroes hit the road we learn more of Thorin's past which includes his victory over the Orc's and their leader Azog who clearly has an expanded role in the film from in the book as he essentially becomes this edition's main antagonist. There is nothing wrong with this and it gives An Unexpected Journey more of a three act structure than I expected it to have yet as we come to a close on this chapter it seems we have covered enough ground for us to be much more than halfway through this plight and how there can be so much more ground to cover is beyond me.

Gollum (Andy Serkis) delivers the most memorable scene in the film.
The pacing of the film is sometimes hit or miss especially in the first hour. After getting off to such a promising start given the set-up between Bilbo and his unwelcome guests and the always welcome presence of Ian McKellen as Gandalf the film started to lag as it began to feel like a series of video game levels. Though credit must be given for handling such a sprawling cast of dwarfs so well. Besides Thorin many of the others in their company are given well rounded characters including James Nesbitt as Bofur who is well enough a challenge for Bilbo's comic relief. Returning to the structure though, where in the first round you have to beat the trolls, next you have to outrun the orc's then you have to meet the elves and get in the obligatory cameos from Lord of the Rings vet's like Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett, and Christopher Lee. No matter how wonderful the presence of these actors are it does not always feel necessary to have them here. Though in this specific scene they are especially important and somewhat moving and as far as scenery goes, you don't get much more gorgeous than Rivendell. After specific plot points are explained and thankfully so as the appearance of Radagast the Brown doesn't feel completely unnecessary as well as not boding well for that silly aspect of the film I mentioned earlier. This series of meet and fights continue with rock monsters and underground trolls all of which are more and more impressive the larger and larger the battles become but as they are more impressive they also feel more empty.

In the original trilogy, and I hate to compare, I really do, because there was no way The Hobbit was going to truly compare with The Lord of the Rings, but in that original trilogy the CGI was kept at bay. At least to the point that the battles seemed legitimate and grounded in a fantasy that was made to be real. This fantasy world in The Hobbit relies too heavily on the CGI and at times is distracting. There are complete digital shots that take you out of this world and in turn the experience of what these types of films should be. For, the point of such films as this is to entertain and that is the bottom line. Take out the technical aspirations and the politics of expanding a story over too many hours, the bottom line is that the audience should be sucked into this world, this story and not want to leave and that is not consistently true with this film.

What, for me, kept this film afloat the entire time though were the performances. Each of them are great. There is no shortage of credible acting or people with clout showing up to add some prestige to an already prestigious film. There is a nice tone throughout created by Martin Freeman that allows the movie to carry that needed lighter tone. The book was such and so the movie should too. Though it does at times skew closer to its companion films than it does the actual source material this can be let to pass as I think it important for there to be a link between this series and The Lord of the Rings rather than this being a completely separate beast. Freeman though, is a breath of fresh air and carries the film quite well. it is truly impossible not to like him. The breakthrough scene for him as well as the film though comes late in the movie. As we are beginning to lose patience with the type of format Jackson has allowed here he throws in the wrench of a scene that is the simple set piece of Bilbo and Gollum. This single scene, absent of special effects and pyrotechnics is as simple as simple could be. It is dialogue-heavy in that it is a game of riddles and the tension and enjoyment the crowd sits up with during it is palpable. The animation of Gollum is flawless and Andy Serkis again delivers a haunting yet humorous performance as the starved creature. When Gollum drops that ring and we see Bilbo take it up and hold it dearly in his pocket we see the glimpse of how profound it is. That it will determine the fate of Middle Earth is something unknown to its new owner but it is the payoff the audience needed and in that one scene the entire film is redeemed and we cannot wait for the next part. It may sound as if I didn't exactly enjoy the film, but it is an impressive experience and one that should certainly be enjoyed on the big screen. I only hope Jackson finds his footing a little better before he desolates Smaug.