The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey – A Critical Review

I won’t waste your time with a lengthy, theatrical introduction — The Hobbit is a film I’ve been waiting in eager anticipation for since Return of the King hit theaters back in ’03. I read the book at least seven times throughout my formative childhood years and for a while aspired to become a wizard — then I turned 21 and my dad made me go out and get a real job (but I’m not bitter). Anyway…

It is an enormous undertaking to adapt any book into film, especially when said film is based on a universally loved novel with a vehemently loyal and notoriously unforgiving fan base. However, Peter Jackson proved with the original Lord of the Rings films that he’s the only man on the face of the Earth capable of successfully adapting Tolkien to the silver screen. So, when New Line Cinema finally had the good sense to green-light The Hobbit films we all knew it was in good hands. All that remained to be seen was whether or not Peter Jackson had retained his creative integrity throughout this past decade. With premier weekend behind us, I’m pleased to report that the past ten years did not see him grow corpulent and repugnant with wealth and the promise of further fortunes (otherwise known as, “going Lucas”), and that he still has the fans’ best interests in mind with this new trilogy.

What is difficult for myself as an intensely analytical film critic is to relax and enjoy a film while in the theatre and not scrutinize it as it flashes before me. Too often I’ve found myself analyzing a film as it plays before me, evaluating it scene by scene until the credits roll, which more often than not results in me not enjoying the film and being more condemning of it than usual in my subsequent review. For An Unexpected Journey, I attempted to forget that it was based on a beloved book and tried to simply watch it as an independent film.

The decision to split The Hobbit into three films was made in order to incorporate elements of the Appendices into the story; as a result, there were sequences and characters in An Unexpected Journey that were not present in the book. At first, this was a tad disconcerting, but then I remembered that there were original sequences added to the first LOTR films. With this in mind, I decided that Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh probably had the right to add whatever they felt was necessary to create the ultimate viewing experience. So, how did the end result fare, you ask? Let’s begin with my review of the good parts:

The Dwarves:

We haven’t seen many of Tolkien’s dwarves portrayed in film up until now, save for Gimli in the first three LOTR films. As you are certainly aware, The Hobbit possesses twelve dwarven characters. During development when on-set photos were scarce, I was picturing twelve Gimli’s running around, all identical with no distinct personalities, similar to how all Klingons look and act alike in Star Trek lore. Would each of these dwarves all look like Gimli? How can twelve bearded characters have distinct personalities and be distinguishable to the viewer? Fortunately, I was not in charge of adapting The Hobbit to film, and thus Peter and Fran were able to create distinctive and individual dwarves that stood out and were memorable.

Editor’s Note: As my readers and friends have so astutely pointed out, there are thirteen dwarven characters, not twelve. This just goes to show that those who understand precalculus may not necessarily be able to add.

The Dwarves - encompassing all the Scottish, Welsh, and Russian stereotypes you've come to know and respect

The Dwarves – encompassing all the Scottish, Welsh, and Russian stereotypes you’ve come to know and respect

In the book, with the exception of Thorin and perhaps Balin, the dwarves were fairly two-dimensional and nondescript. Fortunately, this is not the case with the film, as each dwarf possesses a unique personality and appearance. My personal favorites were Balin, Dwalin, Bofur, and of course, Thorin.

Balin was a favorite of mine from the book, and retained this ranking for the film as well. He appeared charmingly grandfatherly and as a mentor figure to Bilbo, a sage character for wisdom and possessor of a beard to be admired. Also, I was drawn to Dwalin — his gruff demeanor, bald head accentuated by scalp tattoos, and more gothic attire reminded me of many a rig worker I knew back in my pipe lining days. I also approved of the inclusion of an Irish dwarf in Bofur’s character — his was the only character who seemed to possess actual wit and something of a Fu Manchu mustache/goatee. Finally, with Thorin we have a complex, obsessed, and genuinely driven character who appears to be An Unexpected Journey’s substitute for Aragorn. Still, each character was colorful and unique in their own fashion. My only complaint was that Bombur, the one dwarf that seemed to stand out the most in the book, didn’t even have a line in this first film, but I think we can overlook this as his ample fat does most of his talking for him.

High Frame Rate:

The one complaint I hear about this movie is its implementation of HFR — a full 48 frames per second. Most who have an issue with this usually cite surreal graphics and too smooth a shot as being the primary issue. I’d like to put these concerns to rest here and now — I saw An Unexpected Journey in 3D IMAX and didn’t have any issue whatsoever with the HFR. Bear in mind, I normally hate full HD — when I walk into a Sony store and observe a blu-ray copy of Avatar playing in full 1080p on a 50-inch screen, the visuals make me want to vomit all over the sales counter. In that instance, I too find myself complaining about surreal graphics and a shot that is almost too smooth to be real.

Fortunately, Peter Jackson’s faithful RED cameras did not disappoint and I could find nothing to complain about as far as the visuals go. The graphics were breathtaking in 3D and there wasn’t an issue with the CGI looking fake or the border of the blu-screen being easily discernible as it is with other films (oh, let’s see… every Harry Potter film to date). The only difficult part will be seeing it from here on out on smaller and smaller screens, as the visual bar has been set pretty high for me thanks to the wonder of IMAX.

Additional Content:

As stated above, content from the Appendices was added to stretch The Hobbit into three films. At first, I was not sure what to make of these new scenes, but I later warmed up to them once I remembered that Peter Jackson was giving us the complete story of The Hobbit — the story from the book as well as what was going on “behind the scenes.”

For you super nerds, you’ll know that while Bilbo, Thorin and Co. were LARPing over to the Lonely Mountain, Gandalf and the White Council were dealing with the threat of the Necromancer in Southern Mirkwood. As such, characters such as Saruman the White, Lady Galadriel, and Radagast the Brown were included. A particular scene with the White Council meeting to discuss the presence of a dark power in Dol Guldur was added — and it was fantastic to behold. Also, seeing Dol Guldur, the Hill of Sorcery, for the first time on screen was like seeing Kashyyyk for the first time in Revenge of the Sith — except it wasn’t a massive letdown. I await the rise of the Necromancer and the inevitable return of the Nazgul with bated breath.

Also, I wasn’t initially sure what to make of Radagast the Brown — like Yoda’s feigned madness in The Empire Strikes Back, Radagast initially comes across as idiosyncratic and a complete oddball, but later proves himself to possess true power. However, I note a disturbing implication in that the wizards of Middle Earth appear to be substance abusers — Gandalf enjoys that blessed weed with little people and Radagast apparently enjoys mushrooms a tad too much. Good thing Saruman only stoops to hard alcoholism or else the entire White Council would literally go to pot.

"Hey man, Bilbo's not here, man..."

                          “Hey man, Bilbo’s not here, man…”

Otherwise, a new antagonist is included in the form of Azog the Defiler, a pale orc and long time enemy of Thorin’s people. While he only receives a passing mention in the book, his presence was greatly expanded for the film, which added fluidity to the story and provided a consistent antagonist that the novel sorely lacked (while Smaug was the focus of the entire book, he only appeared physically in the latter chapters). As such, Azog hunting Thorin and company throughout the film provided a much needed sense of tension and helped to fill up some of the scenes where otherwise there would have been no conflict.

It was also interesting to see orcs, goblins, and trolls before they were all united under Sauron’s banner during the War of the Ring. We see them banded together in their own clans, fighting for their own interests and largely only a threat to farmers and small, remote settlements, in stark contrast to the gargantuan armies depicted in the original LOTR. Orcs have personal politics too, folks — they probably even voted before Sauron drafted them into the Eyeball Corps.

Original Text:

As an adaptation in and of itself, An Unexpected Journey was beautiful in its execution. Some scenes, such as the first interaction between Gandalf and Bilbo, were quoted more or less word-for-word from the book. Otherwise, snippets of information presented as exposition in the book, such as Tolkien’s “invention of golf” soliloquy, were incorporated into the dialogue. Furthermore, the iconic “Riddles in the Dark” scene where Bilbo meets Gollum for the first time was flawlessly executed. I won’t go into too much detail in case there are those of you who have yet to see it — all I will say is that it alone makes the film worth the price of admission. Truly spot on.

In all, the essence of the book was kept intact and the look and feel of the original three films was preserved. As a side-note, the look of The Hobbit thus far has reminded me of the 2006 RTS game The Battle for Middle Earth II, which featured dwarves and goblins as playable factions and included Dol Guldur as a location in its campaign. An Unexpected Journey appeared to incorporate many of the artwork first seen in TBFME II into its own visual style. Not that I’m on a Lord of the Rings binge, but the reason this entry is a little late is because I’ve been playing The Battle for Middle Earth II (Mordor all the way, baby).

The Tone of The Hobbit:

In contrast to The Lord of The Rings, The Hobbit was written as a children’s book, and is thus much lighter and more whimsical in tone. Indeed, An Unexpected Journey did not have as heavy a tone as the original films, as its scope is far smaller. The driving force of The Hobbit is a treasure hunt as opposed to nine dudes saving the entire world from evil, which almost requires the inclusion of the Necromancer and the war to come in Mirkwood.

There is far more comic relief than previously seen in Lord of the Rings, but this is not to the detriment of the film by any stretch of the imagination. The dwarves have their humorous moments and their serious ones, both of which blend together seamlessly. We must remember, this is 60 years before Fellowship of the Ring — Middle Earth isn’t in grave peril yet, so we can afford for a more lighthearted tone.

Preparing for this more comedic mood, I was curious to see how the scene with the three trolls would be accomplished, as we have not been privy to seeing talking trolls before now. We see Cockney-accented trolls and a less-than-menacing Goblin King — somehow, it works within the world Peter Jackson has established and isn’t ridiculous.

Conclusion:

If I had one complaint for An Unexpected Journey, it’s that it felt incomplete, as though I somehow only viewed 1/3 of the final film for some reason. I await the lighting of the beacons to signal the release of the extended edition DVD and will return to you when The Desolation of Smaug hits theaters next December.

“The road goes ever on and on, down from the door where it began, now far ahead the road had gone, and I must follow if I can.”

9/10.

May you all tread the road in peace