As an avid reader of Tolkien’s books and an avid watcher of The Lord of the Rings films, it’s hard for me to divide my thoughts about this movie into binary states of awesome and not awesome because I appreciate staying true to the source material while also understanding that book-to-film interpretations often require extra elements from outside source material. So let’s not waste any more time…
Here’s how Warner Bros. describes the plot: “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey follows title character Bilbo Baggins, who is swept into an epic quest to reclaim the lost Dwarf Kingdom of Erebor, which was long ago conquered by the dragon Smaug. Approached out of the blue by the wizard Gandalf the Grey, Bilbo finds himself joining a company of thirteen dwarves led by the legendary warrior Thorin Oakenshield. Although their goal lies to the East and the wastelands of the Lonely Mountain, first they must escape the goblin tunnels, where Bilbo meets the creature that will change his life forever…Gollum. Here, alone with Gollum, on the shores of an underground lake, the unassuming Bilbo Baggins not only discovers depths of guile and courage that surprise even him, he also gains possession of Gollum’s ‘precious’…a simple, gold ring that is tied to the fate of all Middle-earth in ways Bilbo cannot begin to know.”
There was a lot of controversy when Peter Jackson announced that he was taking The Hobbit, a single book that’s only around 300 pages (depending on whether we’re talking hardback or paperback), and expanding it into THREE movies. The three movie parts will be An Unexpected Journey, The Desolation of Smaug (2013), and
There and Back Again The Battle of the Five Armies (2014). Personally, I found it a little ridiculous and very “money-grab” for a director who had been more concerned with winning over the legions of Tolkien fans with his unbelievably good LOTR films rather than with his own box office payoff (though I’m sure it wasn’t entirely out of this thoughts).
Unlike LOTR, which was one epic adventure over the course of three books, The Hobbit is much shorter and less epic. Where LOTR had an underlying sense of urgency to save Middle-earth, The Hobbit centers more on the adventure of Bilbo Baggins, Gandalf, and the dwarfs, who attempt to reclaim the dwarfs’ former home, the Lonely Mountain, from Smaug the Dragon. See what I mean? Less epic than SAVE MIDDLE-EARTH FOR ALL RACES!
I’ve heard several people argue, “Well, they should’ve done The Hobbit before LOTR.” Quite frankly, that’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. Do you really think The Hobbit would’ve done as well with non-Tolkien fans at the box office if LOTR hadn’t come first? No. And it certainly wouldn’t have given Jackson enough box office credentials to convince a production company to give him money. That would be like if George Lucas had started with Star Wars: Episodes I-III before introducing Star Wars: Episodes IV-VI. Now, just because I’ve admitted that The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey isn’t as extraordinary as the LOTR films doesn’t mean that it isn’t good…
Let’s talk about the actors first. Martin Freeman, who plays Bilbo Baggins, was absolutely fantastic. I feel like he pegged Bilbo’s neuroses, confusion, and constant fidgeting as if he had read the book word for word (which he might have). You can tell that Freeman is a good actor because, just in An Unexpected Journey, we saw Bilbo with a range of emotions: annoyed, frightened, curious, rebellious, lonely, brave, etc. Ian McKellen, who plays Gandalf, is always great (Please, God, let him fight his prostate cancer long enough to finish the final two films in this Hobbit trilogy). I’m glad he maintains a sarcastic obstinance in his portrayal of Gandalf. And then there’s Richard Armitage, who plays the homeless, dwarf king Thorin Oakenshield. While Armitage did a great job acting the part, I have mixed feelings about Jackson’s development of Thorin.
On the one hand, in a company of bumbling, comic relief dwarfs, Thorin does manage to stand out as a lone badass out for vengeance, which makes him a definable leader. On the other hand, I feel like Jackson is trying to make Thorin into the new Aragorn, what with his brooding glances and sexy, rockstar hair. Sure, Thorin and Aragorn are similar in that they were both displaced for many years before finally finding their purpose, and they both saw many battles. But where Thorin has stubbornness (because he’s a dwarf) and a “Give me what’s mine!” attitude as a leader, Aragorn had humility and caution. I know they’re trying to draw parallels to coax the non-Tolkien audience into seeing the movie, but Thorin and Aragorn really should not morph into one overarching idea of the ranger with a crown (because Christ metaphors are reserved for Aragorn).
On a similar actor note, how much does it kill you that Andy Serkis hasn’t been (and probably won’t ever be) nominated for his work as Gollum? Because it ruins me. If you’ve ever watched the behind-the-scenes features for the LOTR trilogy, you will see how much dedication he puts into his performance as Gollum. I mean, yes, Gollum is a CGI character, but what you might not know is that Serkis is in a CGI suit (I still don’t know what they’re called) running around on the set, doing all of the necessary expressions and movements for Gollum while also delivering his lines in an endearing yet disturbing schizophrenic manner. It’s fantastic. Not to mention, Gollum practically stole the scene in The Hobbit during his little riddle-off with Bilbo. I think that was probably my favorite scene of the entire movie. It was funny and frightening, and there was this never-ending tension that kept building and building until the moment where Bilbo escaped with the Ring.
I have to say, with so many characters, I was worried that it was going to get tiresome trying to keep up with all of the dwarfs (Fili, Kili, Oin, Gloin, Dwalin, Balin, Bifur, Bofur, Bombur, Dori, Nori, Ori, and Thorin) with the correct appearances. Fortunately, The Hobbit doesn’t focus too much on who’s who. Instead, it focuses on Bilbo, Gandalf, and Thorin, leaving the rest of the dwarfs to be recognized by their appearances, not their names. The dialogue and close-up distribution between all of the dwarfs worked out very nicely as well. Obviously, Thorin received more time than the others, but each dwarf in the company at least got to say something during the movie and had a few moments of screen time.
Now, one of the biggest points of discussion with The Hobbit was that Jackson used a high frame rate—48 frames per second (fps), to be exact. Currently, the standard frame rate for film is 24fps, also known as digital or analog. Basically, the difference between The Hobbit and non-high frame rate movies is that The Hobbit looks like it’s filmed in extremely good high-definition. Imagine watching a well-lit stage production from the front row, and you’ll know what I mean. Some people complained that it’s hard to get used to during the movie, which I think is bullshit because most people won’t notice unless they’re purposely trying to look for the high frame rate (Chalk that one up to linear perspective, bitches).
What’s amazing about the 48fps is that, unlike 24fps, it allows for movement—such as a camera spinning or actors moving quickly in the frame—without blurring. On top of that, the 48fps allows the scenery (even green “screenery”) to have more texture and definition, so that it looks like you could reach out and feel it better than 3D. With scenes in the Shire and Rivendell, this was the most noticeable (and beautiful). The other place where the high frame rate worked well was that it made Gollum, who is completely composed of CGI over actor Andy Serkis, look more realistic. Where it failed was with the CGI orcs and goblins; they were almost too unrealistically cheesy. Nevertheless, we should stop bitching about the 48fps because, if anything, it’s going to guide us into a new age of film technology—much like how James Cameron lead us into a new age with the creation of virtual reality cameras for his Avatar actors, so that they could see the fantasy world in which they were acting.
Speaking of cheesy orcs and goblins, what the hell?! Jackson went way overboard with CGI this time around. Not that he didn’t use a ton of CGI in the LOTR trilogy, but there was so much creative costuming and makeup for the orcs, goblins, and Uruk-hai in those films. This time, they were mostly (if not entirely) CGI. Sure, that probably saved money in the budget, so that they had more to spend on the high frame rate cameras. But really? That was bush-league.
There are going to be a lot of things that fans of The Hobbit book won’t like (or maybe they will, if they’re really into Middle-earth history). Azog the Defiler—also known as the “Pale Orc”—is this film’s antagonist, as there technically isn’t an antagonist until they reach Smaug. Azog led the orcs in the War of the Dwarves and Orcs that killed Thorin’s grandfather, Thror, King Under the Mountain. Although he isn’t really part of the story, Gandalf did mention him to Thorin in The Hobbit book: “Your grandfather, Thror, was killed, you remember, in the mines of Moria by Azog the Goblin.” He looks like a combination of an Uruk-hai with Gothmog, the pig-faced orc from The Return of the King. Sadly, his appearance is almost more hilarious than it is terrifying. Since Azog wasn’t killed in An Unexpected Journey, I imagine we’ll be seeing him again in the following Hobbit films as a constant force of trouble for Thorin and company.
Also included in this film is the White Council made up of Gandalf the Grey, Saruman the White, Lady Galadriel, and Lord Elrond—though the true council also includes Radagast the Brown and Cirdan the Shipwright, whom we did not see in that particular scene. The White Council isn’t in The Hobbit book, and I can’t remember whether they were first mentioned in the Silmarillion or in the histories of Middle-earth, but they appear in An Unexpected Journey to discuss the Morgul blade of the Witch-King of Angmar found in Mirkwood by Radagast the Brown, which particularly worries Galadriel who says that the blade was buried deep with Angmar when he died. This scene, of course, foreshadows the rise to power of the Necromancer (who is actually Sauron).
Speaking of Radagast, he’s also in this movie. He was briefly mentioned in The Hobbit book, but he didn’t appear until The Fellowship of the Ring book. And since he was left out of the LOTR films, I’m assuming he was brought into this film to beef it up and foreshadow the coming of the Necromancer as well. Knowing this, my guess is that the Necromancer’s antagonistic role will only increase with each Hobbit movie, so that it will (perhaps) effortlessly lead right into The Fellowship of the Ring.
While these extra plot lines do bloat this movie at times, it does help fill the extra time that would otherwise be occupied with dwarfs sleeping or eating (*yawn*) and sets up the events necessary for Sauron to return to Middle-earth. I do agree that it’s nice to stay true to the books, I’m glad Peter Jackson at least drew his filler from the histories of Middle-earth, the Silmarillion, and LOTR.
Overall, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is visually spectacular and has a slow but good start to the now three-part adventure of Bilbo, Gandalf, and the dwarfs. However, in comparison to LOTR trilogy, An Unexpected Journey seems more like a “good enough” and not a “great” film, as it acts primarily as the foundation for much better battles and plot lines for the following films. Then again, the same could be argued of The Fellowship of the Ring in comparison to The Return of the King. If you’re a Tolkien fan, you might be disappointed when you realize that a lot has been added to give this film some girth. But take comfort in the fact that Jackson at least drew his extra material from the LOTR appendices, The Silmarillion, and other various histories of Middle-earth written by Tolkien.