On a screen in a theater there was The Hobbit. Not an IMAX or stadium seating theater, nor yet a 3D or 48fps theater. It was a traditional theater, and that meant the story of The Hobbit could be seen in much the same way as the Lord of the Rings films. Comparisons between the two film trilogies is as valid as they are inevitable. Still, viewers will soon realize that despite the obvious parallels and similarities, these are different stories with different styles – in much the same way that Tolkien used the plot structure of the more whimsical Hobbit for his more serious and epic War of the Ring saga. What Peter Jackson has done is to craft a Hobbit’s Tale that is more serious and epic than the book, and more comedic, fantastical, and hyperbolic than his Rings films. This risks turning off hardcore fans of the book and the films, but the result is a uniquely immersive and entertaining film that, while a lot of fun, also manages to be about something more than a simply treasure hunt.
An Unexpected Journey begins slowly and purposefully, immersing the audience in the world of Middle Earth. Some critics have said that the film really doesn’t “get going” until the Company leaves The Shire, but this misses the whole point of the scenes in Bag End. After a prologue, narrated by Ian Holm-as-Bilbo, the film “gets going” with the arrival of Gandalf and the dwarves at Bag End. There’s no action here and the scenes are played for comedy and whimsy. But the whole point is to establish Bilbo’s innocence and complacence. And this is necessary because the film is, ultimately, about Bilbo’s journey to accept his own inner strength and courage. This is, after all, his story and the opening scenes really build not only his character, but his deep connection to the world he has built for himself.
But, as Gandalf says, the world doesn’t exist within Bag End – it exists without. And Bilbo’s unexpected journey will take him past trolls, through Rivendell, across (and through) the Misty Mountains and to very roof of Middle Earth. He does battle with goblins and wargs, and with his own insecurities. And he has the most riveting game of riddles … ever.
For the most part, Peter Jackson does a fantastic job telling this tale. But there are a few missteps. The most glaring issue is Azog – the ostensibly film’s antagonist. His role is to serve as a foil for Thorin, and to some extent Bilbo. But while his presence serves a larger purpose in connecting Thorin and his Company of dwarves to larger issues on Middle Earth, much of Azog’s scenes seem more like commercial breaks from the heart of the story. Worse is Azog’s presentation. It isn’t necessarily that he’s CGI (see Gollum), but his design is a bit too predictable (scars across his body, a face that just screams, “look I’m a villainous defiler!”). The other glaring drawback is Radagast the Brown. Like Azog, his character helps connect the Quest to Middle Earth, but his character is too ridiculous to take seriously. Jackon’s intent to forge this elusive connection between trilogies is strongest in Rivendell at the meeting of the White Council (at which Galadriel proves to be a powerful presence).
Other issues viewers might have arise from the fact that the story is not meant to have the same heft as the Lord of the Rings and while it incorporates a lot more humor (much of it slapstick), the result is a film that is less profound and emotional than, say, Fellowship of the Ring. More potentially problematic is the film’s hyperbole and more cartoonish tone. At one point, the dwarves careen downward through Goblin Town, crash onto the ground, and have the Goblin King fall on them – with no obvious ill effects. And the Goblin King himself is likewise indicative of this new style. Like the Trolls, he’s all CGI and not very threatening to look at. At one point he even mockingly bows before Thorin. This choice of direction doesn’t represent a miscue from WETA or Jackson, but it nonetheless provides another barrier to audiences (particularly those who loved the realism of the previous trilogy) engaging with this film.
However, these drawbacks are minor compared to what goes right in the film. For starters Martin Freeman’s performance as Bilbo is nothing short of phenomenal. It’s funny, touching, inspiring and always entertaining. Ian McKellan might be a literal reincarnation of Gandalf the Grey. Richard Armitage effectively conveys a dwarf whose singular desire is enough to motivate himself, thirteen dwarves, one hobbit and a powerful wizard. And while the dwarves do tend to get lost among one another, Balin and Bofur stand out nicely – showing us equal measures of dwarvish honor and wisdom.
And then there’s Gollum, as performed by Andy Serkis.
It’s safe to say that the film’s high point is the Riddle in the Dark scene in which Bilbo makes a fateful discovery and must face the murderous Gollum. Peter Jackson let’s the scene run for more than five full minutes of uninterrupted screen time and the result is … well … riveting. Gollum has never been this scary or ominous, this murderous and duplicitous. It’s tour de force performance that propels the film into its final act – a series of action set pieces that let up only to allow Bilbo to finally accept his role in helping Thorin and the dwarves return to Erebor and reclaim their homeland.
In terms of aesthetics, the world of Middle Earth is once again breathtakingly depicted by the landscape of New Zealand – and the artistry of WETA. The score, written once again by the incomparable Howard Shore, is familiar and fresh, intimate and epic, funny and ominous. He weaves old themes with new ones, provides new variations, and creates a tapestry as rich and detailed as any of his Lord of the Rings scores.
Overall Grade: B+
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is easily a classic film. Technological innovations aside (worthy of their own review), An Unexpected Map is thoroughly entertaining and engaging. Despite the fact that it’s a more lighthearted adventure (and therefore not nearly as profound as its predecessors), it provides a meaningful story that matters – the notion that true adventure only happens when we step out of our door, take a leap of faith … and are willing to put up with companions who are as courageous and loyal as they are loud and obnoxious.