Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey movie posterI wasn’t going to blog this week, but…well…then I saw The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. And I had to talk about it. So here you are. The blog will be on holiday for the rest of this week, returning next week. Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Yule, and happy holiday of choice!

I’m starting with an unspoilery review. Spoilers will be lower down and clearly marked.

(Disclaimer: I didn’t see the film in 3D or with the much-discussed higher frame rate, so I won’t be touching on those aspects.)

I’m a big Tolkien fan, and I felt that Peter Jackson did a spectacular (though certainly not perfect) job with the LOTR movies. So while I was not thrilled to hear that The Hobbit was being broken into three films, I went to the theater prepared to trust Jackson again.

And…wow, did he deliver.

It’s been a while since I watched a film adaptation of a beloved book for the first time. I’d forgotten how utterly thrilling it is, when done well, to see the characters and worlds come to life. I’d also forgotten just how much I love The Hobbit in the first place. Revisiting the people and places of Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth is a thrill, too. It feels like coming home.

In case you’re not up on The Hobbit, it’s the story of how a much younger Bilbo Baggins meets Gandalf, joins a band of dwarves intent on recapturing their homeland from a dragon, has many adventures…and comes into possession of a certain ring.

The general consensus in Internetland is that An Unexpected Journey is too long. I agree with that — I would have cut maybe half an hour. But perhaps better to be too long than too short and choppy, thereby losing the emotional arc — a problem that often plagues film adaptations. (Harry Potter comes to mind.)

The emotional arc, and the mood, gave Jackson a tricky line to walk. The Hobbit in book form is much more lighthearted than the trilogy that follows, and certainly more than the LOTR films. So he had the challenge of balancing a children’s book with a very serious epic fantasy and making them feel like part of the same story.

The result is a feat of virtuoso storytelling. It’s still more lighthearted — there’s a silly, rip-roaring party early on, and some of the action sequences and banter feel more like Pirates of the Caribbean than the deadly serious LOTR. But Bilbo follows a similar arc to Frodo, an unlikely and unprepared hero slowly finding his courage, and the mood of the film grows darker as he does so. As well, we see sequences that weren’t in the book (they’re still from Tolkien canon, though) but that tie this film to the events in LOTR, and these help unify the stories — they mostly add rather than detract.

Alternate poster for The HobbitMartin Freeman does a spectacular job as Bilbo. Granted, it’s pretty much the same character he played in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but he does it wonderfully. He’s the heart of the film, as he should be. Richard Armitage is a brooding and bad-ass Thorin Oakenshield, the leader of the dwarves, while the rest of his band are largely interchangeable (as in the book). And there are plenty of returning actors from LOTR to round out the cast. Benedict Cumberbatch fans may know that he’s playing Smaug the dragon, but will have to wait a while to see him truly shine.

SPOILERS FOR THE FILM AND THE REST OF THE HOBBIT

As I said, I’m mostly pleased with Jackson’s additions. Seeing the White Council in action, and having Radagast narrate his discovery of the Necromancer, does much to link the films together. I’m not thrilled with the inclusion of Radagast generally, but I acknowledge his usefulness.

I also don’t mind that Jackson has bulked up Thorin’s character arc. Thorin’s pride becomes his downfall in the end, so it needs to be shown early on. It’s been a long time since I’ve read The Hobbit, but I don’t recall him having quite as much of a chip on his shoulder throughout the book as he does here.

The addition of the Pale Orc and his backstory with Thorin, though…no thanks. I didn’t need another old foe. Granted, he’s sort of standing in for Smaug, since we won’t get to see Smaug for a good long while yet, and without him the film doesn’t have a unifying antagonist. But still…eh.

If you cut out, or at least cut down, Radagast and the Pale Orc (including the extra orc attack after the dwarves finish with the trolls), the film would be a much better length. You could also shorten some of the action sequences (especially the escape from the orc caves) and cut down on the voice-over at the beginning. I wouldn’t cut anything else out completely, but those changes would help a lot. Even though I’m on board with Jackson’s choice to add more linkages with LOTR, nine hours is an awful lot for an adaptation of one book.

I will end with some squeeing, notwithstanding the criticisms above. Can we talk about how perfect the riddle game is? And in fact every scene with Gollum? I might go see the film again just for that. Of course, it’s not the only thing I loved. The bit with the trolls isn’t quite perfect, IMHO, but it is a lot of fun. So is the whole dwarf party at Bag-End (and I can’t believe Jackson pulled off “carefully, carefully with the plates” sequence without it looking completely ridiculous, but he did). Thorin is the most charismatic dwarf ever, and Bilbo is just adorable and bang-on, and he’s so darn cute when he gets determined.

And I was surprised by the strength of my reaction to seeing Middle-Earth again, and the lovely little nods to the trilogy (such as the visual nods to Frodo’s first experiences with wearing the ring). I’ve been rewatching the trilogy, and it’s a treat to know there’s more coming. More Gandalf, more elves, more amazing scenery. And the dragon. After the groundwork laid here, I’m so excited to see Bilbo go up against Smaug.

In short, I can’t wait for the rest of the story.

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2 responses to “Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

  1. I may have to wait for the DVD, so I can take breaks 🙂

  2. Ken, the pre-trailer ads went on for so long that I had to take a break before the movie even started!

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