I normally start each review with a respective trailer but this song, sung by Neil Finn of Crowded House/Split Enz/Finn Brothers, is so spectacular that it would be a crime not to let you hear it.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Director: Peter Jackson
Production Studio: New Line Cinema, MGM, WingNut Films
Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, James Nesbitt, Ken Stott, Cate Blanchett, Ian Holm, Hugo Weaving, Christopher Lee, Andy Serkis, Elijah Wood.
By this point you’ve probably heard or read other reviews of Peter Jackson’s much-anticipated return to Middle Earth so a lot of what I am about to divulge might not come as much of a surprise… or will it? I’ve heard such mixed things about The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey ranging from critics ranting about it’s “Lack of Majesty” to it’s “Lack of Pacing”, but having sat down to finally watch the film I feel confident in debunking a hefty amount of the hate it has been getting. Of course: An Unexpected Journey does not live up to the massively epic scale of the Lord of the Rings trilogy (If you didn’t know that The Hobbit acts as a quasi-prequel to Lord of the Rings then you seriously need to read more often) but as far as I see it it’s not meant to, not at all. Does the more light hearted tone of The Hobbit cause it to suffer and has Jackson delivered a poor movie because of it?
No, this is a good movie that does well setting up the spectacular events which are to follow in the next two installments.
An Unexpected Journey begins with the elderly Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) narrating to his nephew Frodo (Elijah Wood), about his adventure which was only allured to during The Lord of the Rings. Here, Bilbo takes the time to establish the circumstances surrounding the fall of the Dwarven City of Erebor to the dragon Smaug. We are then taken back in time a good sixty years to the younger Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) as his home is gatecrashed by Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) and a company of 13 dwarves led by Thorin (Richard Armitage) who want to enlist his services as a thief to aid them in their quest to defeat Smaug and take back Erebor. After much contemplation the home-loving Bilbo decides to leap out of his comfort zone and join the company on their quest, a quest which takes the band through peril and wonder across Middle Earth. Along the way they are held hostage by trolls, hunted by orcs, and brave the supernatural.
I’d best start with what works well in An Unexpected Journey because there is a lot to talk about. The setting and aesthetics are both vintage Middle Earth; Weta Workshops have pulled off translating the look of Tolkien’s world to the big screen once again and deserve top marks for the fantastic attention to detail found across the board. The plot, whilst undeniably less epic and all-encompassing than The Lord of the Rings, provides some pretty mature subject matter as well as some really intense moments. The battle scenes are fairly graphic with decapitations and flying body parts adorning the menu but don’t expect epic battles on the level of Helms Deep and Minas Tirith. On that note… for those who bagged on this movie for it’s supposed lack of “Epic” I am addressing you directly here: Not only did The Hobbit come before The Lord of the Rings and therefore laid the foundations for what came after itself but the two stories tell two distinctly different tales. The Lord of the Rings follows numerous story arcs which interact with each other to form an epic story of comradeship in the face of overwhelming odds. The Hobbit on the other hand tells the story of a reluctant hero who literally steps into the unknown and finds himself in the process. Bilbo ventures out of his home to help others in their quest to regain their own: It is an odd setup which Bilbo and Thorin, who spend much of the film at odds with each other, eventually come to acknowledge by the time the credits of this first film start to roll.
This brings me to the acting which is absolutely fantastic. Martin Freeman portrays Bilbo Baggins about as well as anyone could have hoped; it’s fascinating watching his character evolve from a person who cowered at the slightest inkling of trouble to one who charges a horde of angry orcs by himself. Still, he is given his moments of weakness but nowhere near on the same scale as Frodo was… maybe Frodo should have taken a leaf out of his uncle’s book? He wrote it all down for Christ’s sake!! Ian McKellen reprises his role as the wizard Gandalf whom we all came to know during The Lord of the Rings. It is important to keep in mind that this is a Gandalf pre-Lord of The Rings who has significantly less on his plate than we know he will have in future, and this shows. The erudite side of Gandalf is no less sharper than we have come to know but he clearly lacks the sense of urgency that one might associate with the impending return of Sauron, and in the context of the story this makes sense. Along the way we discover that Gandalf has his own motives for joining the group… so be sure to pay attention! The dwarves range from the comical, to the laid-back, to the downright intimidating. However, they all get their moments to shine and show audiences just why they are a part of this motley company of adventurers and avengers. Elrond (Hugo Weaving), Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), Saruman (Christopher Lee) all return to fulfill their respective roles but it is the exceptional performance of Andy Serkis as Gollum who nearly steals the show at the tail end of the film. I cannot say a whole lot about the “Riddles in the Dark” scene between Bilbo and Gollum but suffice to say everyone involved absolutely nailed it, there is no way they could have done it better.
Unfortunately there are some pitfalls to be found in the film. This is a point I brought up during my review of The Dark Knight Rises and it’s going to resurface here: This film is insanely long! It clocks in at about 3 hours 20 minutes, so be warned and be sure to get a drink before you sit down in the theater. This leads nicely into the second problem with An Unexpected Journey which is that the journey itself takes a fair amount of time to actually get on the road. Sure, time needs to be taken to introduce characters and establish the purpose of the quest but 50 minutes…? Hmmm… That’s pushing it a bit. Certain story arcs are hastily rushed through, the notable example being the arc involving The Necromancer, which I hope is delved into deeper in the next installments. I saw An Unexpected Journey in 2D and in 24fps (Frames Per Second) and therefore had no gripes whatsoever with the way certain scenes were shot, but I have heard very mixed things about the 48fps version so keep that in mind.
Overall the positives far outweigh the negatives and The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey proves to not only be the return to Middle Earth that people have wanted for so long but it also proves to be an engaging story which takes both it’s protagonist and it’s audience on a good adventure across the fantastical land we all love.
I’m eagerly awaiting the next installments of this new trilogy!
Final Score: 9/10
+ You’re finally going back to Middle Earth, it’s like meeting an old friend again after such a long time apart!
+ Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins
+ Extremely strong supporting cast
+ Engaging story
+ Great special effects
+ Beautiful scenery
– Not everyone will “Get It”
– Takes too long to get going
– Certain plot developments are not elaborated on whilst unnecessary scenes tend to drag on, some better editing wouldn’t have gone amiss