Of all the many wonderful and decidedly nerdy things my parents introduced me to, two pop culture entities stand out among the rest: Star Wars and The Hobbit. I fell in love with The Hobbit at a very early age and have never wavered in my devotion to it. I watched that ruddy cartoon adaptation a million times, I read the book for the first time around age 8, and I spent many nights falling asleep to the BBC dramatizations of either The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings. It is the only book that I make a habit of reading repeatedly having finished it countless times over the years and each time I think I love it a little bit more than before. As such, the very idea of a true-to-book film adaption has excited me for nearly 25 years and the closer we’ve gotten to this film, the more uncontrollably enthusiastic I have become, to the point that nothing short of a Phantom Menace-like event would be able to prevent me from loving this film. And so it is: despite the flaws which are certainly evident and despite the narrative “bloat” that so many of my colleagues are complaining about, I love The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and expect I will only come to love it more with future viewings. Our protagonist and titular character is Mister Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), a Hobbit (or a Halfling to the uninitiated) of average appearance but great heart. After coming in contact with a wandering wizard named Gandalf (Ian McKellen), Bilbo is brought into just the sort of adventure that he didn’t know he needed. Bilbo is asked to join a group of 13 dwarves, led by the would-be king Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), as they attempt to take back their home (and their treasure) from the clutches of a monstrous dragon. Without really knowing why, Bilbo agrees to join and through encounters with elves, goblins, and a particularly vicious pack of orcs, comes to find that there is more within him than he ever would have imagined.
The prequel (as it were) to Peter Jackson’s smashingly successful franchise LOTR, The Hobbit focuses less on the weighty issue of good versus evil and more on adventure. It’s a much different tone that may catch unsuspecting viewers off guard but this sense of whimsy holds absolutely true to the book on which it is based. The Hobbit is a children’s book, or at least was intended as one when it was written, and those sensibilities carry over to the film. There’s a bit of goofiness mixed into the film and that comes through both in the narrative and the actions/appearances of the characters. Simply put, The Hobbit (at least in this early stage) is a lighter affair than the darker nature of LOTR and Peter Jackson goes out of his way to highlight that difference early on. My instinct tells me that as this franchise builds and expands, it will take on more of an edge but for now, An Unexpected Journey is first and foremost concerned with fun and adventure and little more.
As many critics and bloggers have noted, the setup for this film takes a while. A long while, actually. Those unfamiliar with the book or who have read it but do not hold it in high regard will undoubtedly find this exposition to be tiresome and longwinded and I would say that’s fair. For me, however, the setup and the exposition served as a glorious reintroduction to the source material that I hold so dearly and if you could have seen my face in the dark of the theater, I imagine I didn’t stop grinning like a schoolchild for a solid hour. Much of the early going is taken directly from the novel, to the point that many lines of dialogue are quoted verbatim, and I loved every minute of it. From our introduction to the characters, The Hobbit meanders a bit (or more than a bit, depending on your position) but never does it lose its way or bog down. I found the exposition to be rather delightful, really, though there is certainly little action to keep the heart pounding. About half way through, the adrenaline is pumped up to a higher level and Jackson takes us through a series of exciting and perilous encounters that bring our adventures to the brink of death many times over. For me, this culminates in the Riddles in the Dark segment in which Bilbo comes in contact with Gollum (Andy Serkis), a twisted creature that will play a significant part in the future. This was a THRILLING scene for me that thoroughly lived up to everything I would have hoped it would be.
From a purely cinematic standpoint, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey succeeds on most fronts. The casting and subsequent acting are, in my mind, nearly perfect. I don’t know when exactly Freeman became a name that caused me genuine excitement but if he hadn’t reached that point before this film he certainly has now. His approach to Bilbo is exquisite and he illuminates a complicated character with great flair. Frankly, I think his performance alone is worth the price of admission for any fan of the book. McKellen’s performance is more familiar but it is nonetheless a quality portrayal and I will say that he does an excellent job of not only navigating the change in tone from LOTR to this but in leading the way to the audience accepting this shift. Armitage’s role in this film is slightly smaller than it will be in the future installments but he displays why he was chosen in the first place by bringing a sense of grim determination to the role that it requires. The film as a whole is beautiful, filled with the sort of outstanding photos and shot selections that helped make LOTR such an achievement. There is perhaps an overreliance on CGI but it is good CGI and did little to hinder my enjoyment overall. I think Fran Walsh and the rest of her team did an excellent job of blending scenes and lines directly from the book along with the addition content. There are only two real additions to the plot mix and while I could take or leave one of them, the other will serve a valuable purpose in the series moving forward. And, as expected, Howard Shore’s score, one of the key elements in LOTR, is utterly magnificent.
In its present state, I would not say that An Unexpected Journey quite lives up to the spectacle of any of the LOTR films. But then again, those are some of my very favorite films and it is unfair to hold a film to that standard. As it stands, I would say that this film a good starting point that at times borders on great and I believe I’ll appreciate it even more once the entire series has been released and I can look at it as one giant and complete film. Regardless, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey should more than satisfy fans of the book, even if it isn’t as easily accessible as the previous series.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey Director: Peter Jackson Cast: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage Rated: PG-13 (battle-related violence and a few dramatic and intense sequences) Recommended For: Anyone could enjoy this film but I would say those who have no familiarity with the source material would enjoy it less