“The Hobbit” was my favorite book when I was in elementary school. I read it many times, equally enjoying the adventure story and the british humor and style of the book. I didn’t read “The Lord of the Rings” until high school, once I had heard they were turning them into movies. At the time I was surprised they weren’t starting with “The Hobbit”, but after seeing Fellowship of the Ring I was completely sold on their method. “The Lord of the Rings” is more epic and adult than “The Hobbit” and the success of those films clearly shows that they made the right choice.
It’s important to note that The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a very different film from The Lord of the Rings, and that it is the first part of three films (it will be followed by The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug and The Hobbit: There and Back Again over the next two years) based on the book. The story follows Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), a hobbit 60 years younger than he was in Lord of the Rings, who is approached one day by the wizard, Gandalf (Ian McKellen), who recruits him to go on an adventure with 13 dwarves as the company’s burglar, interrupting Bilbo’s quiet, stereotypically English, country life.
The main difference between The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings is that of tone. The Hobbit is a much more humorous movie, taking its tone from the book, which was aimed at children. Much of the humor comes from Bilbo’s fish-out-of-water story, about being a mild-mannered country Hobbit on an adventure with dwarves. The dwarves themselves are played for comedy, too, mostly of a slapstick nature.
Martin Freeman, however, truly stands out as young Bilbo, able to strike a perfect balance between comedy and drama, and a lot of the movie takes its tone from him. Whereas Lord of the Rings had multiple main characters and branching plotlines, the bulk of The Hobbit is Bilbo’s story, which makes sense given that he’s the title character. Ian McKellen returns to the series as Gandalf, and after all these years of watching LOTR it’s impossible for me to imagine anyone else playing the role. He slips back into it as though it were second nature, and I look forward to seeing how his role in The Hobbit trilogy is expanded from the book (with information from the appendices from “The Return of the King”).
The dwarves are led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), the prince who leads the dwarves in their exile. Years before the start of our story, the dwarves lived in The Lonely Mountain, mining gold and jewels, until one day their enormous wealth attracted the terrible dragon, Smaug, who killed many of the dwarves and the men of the nearby town of Dale while the elves did nothing to assist. Richard Armitage plays Thorin as someone who has been beaten down by life, and this “merry gathering” of dwarves is his last chance to save his people. The dwarves in the group are a far cry from Gimli in Lord of the Rings: for the most part they’re craftsmen and civilians, not warriors.
After two viewings of the film I only feel confident enough to name 5 of the 13 dwarves by sight, with the rest being simply “the fat one” or “the young one” or “the one who doesn’t seem to speak english”. I imagine the rest of the characters will get developed over the next two movies, but for now they are mostly just an indistinguishable group. A few stand out, though, including Balin, the oldest dwarf who is the advisor, Kili, who’s more of a warrior than most, and Bofur, who seems to have more dialogue than the rest of the group.
Our band of heroes, Bilbo, 13 dwarves and Gandalf, set off for the Lonely Mountain with a key and a map to a secret entrance, and throughout the movie they encounter obstacles from trolls to wargs and countless orcs and goblins. The entire time they’re pursued by a giant, white orc named Azog who is missing an arm due to a previous battle with Thorin. This is one of the more interesting changes that Peter Jackson made from the source material, resurrecting a supposedly dead character to act as the primary villain of the movie. It’s a risk that only somewhat pays off, but a necessary one because the primary villain of the book, Smaug, doesn’t even appear in the movie at all.
It’s one of several alterations Peter Jackson made to the story (much as he did to Lord of the Rings). He has fleshed out the plot with information from the appendices, filling in the portions of the book where Gandalf disappears for long periods of time, which allows us to meet the wizard Radagast the Brown and lets Saruman and Galadriel make appearances. Jackson’s goal is to link the two trilogies in a way that the books never were, and the result is a movie that feels halfway between the book of “The Hobbit” and Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies.
The scene that works the best is also the most famous from the book. Andy Serkis returns as Gollum, and he and Bilbo have a battle of riddles. Much of it is taken straight from the book, but both the tension of the moment and its humor shine through much more than in the book, and that’s solely due to the actors involved. It’s really a perfect scene, and its human drama contrasts wonderfully with the big budget spectacle of most of the rest of the film. It’s hardly worth mentioning that Andy Serkis’s Gollum is pure genius, because we’ve known that for a decade by now.
It feels a bit unfair to judge The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey on its own, because it’s really just one part of a larger story. As a standalone film it suffers from some of the same problems that plagued The Fellowship of the Ring years ago. It’s slow to start, despite cameos from Ian Holm and Elijah Wood, it has some slower spots in the middle, and to some people the entire movie might feel overly long at 2 hours and 45 minutes (though not to me, but I’m an exception as far as that’s concerned). As fantastic as the production design is, and I personally think The Lord of the Rings is the most visually well- and extensively-crafted cinematic story of all time, some of the effects work better than others. Gollum is spectacular, but other CG creatures aren’t quite as convincing.
The Hobbit’s biggest failing, however, may be unavoidable. The Lord of the Rings was an enormous and epic story, with the fate of the world at stake. The Hobbit, by comparison, seems a bit quaint and unimportant. It’s still a great story, but it lacks some of the weight of it’s companion trilogy. The fact that it’s presented as a prequel helps to make it feel as though it’s an integral part of the greater story, but being released after also heightens the contrast between the two. The best indicator, for me, is the fact that I cried repeatedly upon seeing each of the Lord of the Rings movies (and still do, for that matter) thanks to the emotion of the story, but I found myself almost completely dry eyed (with one exception) in The Hobbit.
It’s hard to judge The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey without having seen the other two parts, but on its own it’s still a fantastic film. It’s different than what’s come before, but that can be a very good thing. It’s humor and its heart stand out especially, and it’s full of excitement and fun new characters to meet. I am, without a doubt, eager for the next installment, which promises to up the drama and the action (knowing what’s to come from the book). An Unexpected Journey manages to pull of both the feeling of being a part of larger saga and to be the first part of its own unique trilogy admirably. The Hobbit trilogy could not be in better hands.
*Note: I saw The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey both in 2D at 24 frames per second and in 3D at 48 frames per second. I recommend anyone interested in the movie to see it in 2D first, and then if you enjoyed it to try it again at 3D 48fps. The “new” High Frame Rate technology is fascinating and at times very impressive, but it also has its flaws and can be very distracting for most people and even off putting for some. Look for my next blog post with my impressions of
this “new” technology.