GENERAL REVIEW: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
“My dear Frodo. You asked me once if I had told you everything there was to know about my adventures. While I can honestly say I've told you the truth, I may not have told you all of it...”
I’ll admit that I was a tad anxious about seeing The Hobbit after hearing about its mixed critical reception. With words like “bloated,” “aimless,” and “The Phantom Menace” being thrown around, I couldn’t help but wonder if Peter Jackson really HAD pulled a George Lucas and fallen to the dark side. So with much trepidation, I took a seat in my (surprisingly) vacant movie theater to find out what all the fuss was about.
And after sitting through all 170 minutes of the film, I’m still not really sure what all the fuss was about. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was a very good movie.
I have to wonder what the cause for the critical backlash was. Unrealistic expectations? Inevitable comparisons to the admittedly-better Lord of the Rings films? I couldn’t say, but for my part I had a blast watching it.
“In a hole in the ground, there lived a Hobbit...”
If you’re familiar with the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, you’ll likely recognize a lot of what you see here. Peter Jackson remains ever-faithful to the source material, going to far as to lift lines of dialogue straight out of “The Hobbit” book. For people who have read it as many times as myself, you may the same fuzzy, nostalgic feeling upon hearing these particular lines.
Of course, Jackson does take a few liberties with the story, often for dramatic effect. Tolkien’s stories were sprawling, decade-spanning epics, so I can forgive Peter Jackson for condensing them a bit. Azog the Orc, for example, is featured prominently in An Unexpected Journey, whereas he becomes notable only in the final few chapters of the book.
On the whole, the story told in this film is much lighter and less dramatic than its predecessors. There is no looming threat of apocalypse, only the tale of little Bilbo and the dwarves. Jackson, along with screenwriters Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, does make attempts to link An Unexpected Journey with The Lord of the Rings films, but that story has already been told. We all know how it is going to end, so I suppose that takes some of the suspense away from the movie. No matter what happens in this film or its sequels, everything has to end all neat and tidy for Fellowship of the Ring.
Another thing that hinders the film somewhat is its pacing. The story can feel a little bit sluggish, with not a lot seeming to happen in-between action scenes. There were even several sequences of the film, such as the introductory scenes and Bilbo’s dinner with the dwarves, that I had to ask myself when we were going to move on.
Thankfully, the slow buildup brings a satisfying payoff. The movie picks up eventually, returning us to the dazzling environments that made Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy so memorable.
At the center of the action is Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins, a small Hobbit caught up in a very big adventure. From the moment I heard about Freeman’s casting I knew he would be perfect as Bilbo, and he didn’t disappoint. As a lead, Freeman’s Bilbo is far more plucky and likable than Elijah Wood’s Frodo (which is a commendation to Martin Freeman, not a slight to Elijah Wood). Everything about the way he plays the character is spot-on, from his bumbling nervousness to his moments of fiery courage.
Not a lot more for me to say, really. Martin Freeman was wonderful.
The same goes for Sir Ian McKellen, who reprises his role from The Lord of the Rings as Gandalf the Grey. McKellen IS Gandalf, and I can’t imagine anyone else in the role. I’m immensely pleased that he returned for The Hobbit.
This time around McKellen plays Gandalf a bit more gruffly, a departure from the wise and weary wizard from Lord of the Rings. It’s fitting that he’d do this, however, seeing as Gandalf hasn’t yet been drained of his strength by his battle against Sauron. Ian McKellen has lost none of his touch after the filming of Return of the King, effortlessly alternating between being a bold leader, a dry old friend, and a warm fatherly figure to Bilbo. McKellen seems right at home as Gandalf, and he makes us as viewers feel the exact same way.
Introduced in this film is Richard Armitage as the dwarf king Thorin Oakenshield. I’d previously seen Armitage in BBC’s Robin Hood TV series, where he played the villainous Guy of Gisborne. His role as Thorin is not all that different considering the character’s bitter demeanor, but to his credit, Armitage plays that sort of character quite well.
By far the most interesting dwarf in the film, Armitage manages to make Thorin a bit more than just a one-note cynic. The character never reaches the same heights as Aragorn, for certain, but he does give us as audience members a reason to root for the dwarves. I’m interested to see how Thorin is developed in The Desolation of Smaug, as the proper story could take him from being just an endearing character to being a truly great character.
Filling out the supporting roles are the other twelve dwarves, many of whom -- disappointingly -- aren’t given that much to do. Besides a couple memorable scenes featuring Balin, Fili, and Kili, the rest of the group is pretty much a bunch of faces floating around in the background. I’ve heard several critics say that these characters were only included to sell action figures, but come on. They were in the books, and you know Tolkien fans would be clamoring for Peter Jackson’s blood if he didn’t get that part right.
Also returning to the world of Middle-Earth are Christopher Lee as Saruman the White, Hugo Weaving as Elrond, and Cate Blanchett as Lady Galadriel. While Elrond is the only one of these three who actually appeared in the book, they aren’t exactly superfluous additions to the cast. Besides, each one of them was impeccably casted to begin with, so it’s a pleasure to see them again anyway.
The real treat, however, is seeing Andy Serkis reprise his part as Gollum. As usual, Serkis throws himself into the role and proves once again what a great performer he is. The motion-capture work done in bringing the character to life is practically flawless, reminding us what a great achievement the character of Gollum was.
...And what an embarrassment Jar-Jar Binks was.
I find it absolutely hilarious that critics are comparing Peter Jackson’s direction of this movie to George Lucas’s direction of the Star Wars prequels. Peter Jackson is both an entertainer and an artist. He takes pride in his work, and it shows.
George Lucas is a money-grubbing hack.
At worst, Jackson’s directing is on point. At best, it’s excellent. He manages to craft a gorgeous and believable world, while maintaining the integrity of the film’s plot. There are a lot of directors -- Tarsem Singh, Ridley Scott, and Michel Gondry, just to name a few -- who make beautiful-looking films, but sometimes fail to support their visuals with a story and characters. Peter Jackson, on the other hand, is capable of wringing good performances out of even the dullest actors (Orlando Bloom, anyone?).
Sure, ol’ Pete can get a little self-indulgent at times, but he’s always been that way. The important thing is that the movie is beautiful, the story is solid, the action scenes are exciting, and the characters are endearing.
Seriously, what more can you ask of this guy?
In closing, to I recommend An Unexpected Journey? Absolutely. If you’re a fan of Tolkien or the Lord of the Rings trilogy, you’d be doing yourself a disservice by NOT seeing it. It may not be perfect, or as good as its predecessors, but it’s a damn good time at the movies.
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