The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Director: Peter Jackson
Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Cate Blanchett, Christopher Lee, Andy Serkis, Lee Pace, Sylvester McCoy
I'm looking for someone to share in an adventure.
Today we've got one of my favorite people to talk film shop with and...well Sleepy Hollow...one of my co-hosts on the IchaPod CraneCast, Maxwell Haddad! You definitely need to check out www.cinemaxwell.com as well as his writing over at The Young Folks. I'm so thankful he's taken on An Unexpected Journey for us here in the Fellowship!
When Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy came to its spectacular conclusion with Return of the King in 2003, it was presumed that our time in Middle Earth (or, at least, Jackson’s highly commercially and artistically successful version of it) had come to an end. Just a few years later, however, word broke that Jackson was working on producing a two-part adaptation of The Hobbit, a prequel (although it was written first) to The Lord of the Rings to be directed by Guillermo Del Toro (Blade II, Pan’s Labyrinth). This match seemed like it was made in heaven, and although J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit is only about 300 pages long, there was enough goodwill and faith remaining (not to mention Tolkien’s appendices that expands on The Hobbit) to expect great things from this new 2-part series.
Then everything fell apart, and to make a long story short Guillermo Del Toro left the project only to be replaced by maestro Peter Jackson himself. Then word broke that instead of 2 films The Hobbit series would be a trilogy, Jackson would be experimenting with all sorts of new technology (including a much-maligned high frame rate), and new characters and storylines would be concocted in order to flesh out Tolkien’s relatively simple, child friendly story. If The Lord of the Rings are a literary fantasy epic, then The Hobbit is a children’s adventure. The goodwill began to evaporate and comparisons to the Star Warsprequels were mentioned time and time again. Was this the case of a director allowing his ego to overpower his artistic merit and previous success? Would this new Hobbit trilogy be a disaster? How would audiences and critics react?
The fact of the matter is that it all lies somewhere in the middle. When The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey released in December of 2012, the reviews were mixed and audiences had differing opinions, but the film was a huge financial hit, grossing over 1 billion dollars worldwide. The Oscar and other year-end awards success that had befallen The Lord of the Rings films did not occur again, and whereas The Lord of the Rings films were perfectly stationed to be a genuine surprise, a combination of high expectations and some unfortunate negative pre-release buzz (amplified by the rampant negativity of certain media outlets that questioned every decision Jackson was making sight-unseen) did not allow The Hobbit to be a cultural event. Still, the film played well over the holidays and into the New Year, received a modest 64% on Rotten Tomatoes, and was liked by many, this author included.
My love of Lord of the Rings ensured that I saw this film at the first possible screening, and it was with cautious optimism that I approached the midnight show. In my review of the film back in December of 2012 I wrote, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey falls somewhere in between the realm of the emotional epic and the children’s adventure, and to my mind it works quite well.” Upon more recent re-watch, I generally feel the same way - although the film is not without its flaws. The most obvious is the length (keep in mind that I am not one of those that is always against long films), which is sometimes at odds with the content of the film. Whereas The Lord of the Rings films were epic and had high stakes, this first Hobbit in particular is a more relaxed, silly, introductory film with relatively low stakes. The first hour of the film takes its time setting up this new Middle Earth tale, in which Bilbo Baggins (played here with charm and terrific comic timing by Martin Freeman and played in The Lord of the Rings by Ian Holm) joins Gandalf (Ian McKellan) and a group of Dwarves (notably Thorin Oakenshield, played with gravitas and majesty by Richard Armitage) on a quest to The Lonely Mountain. The dwarves in general are a silly, ridiculous group of characters that sing songs, eat a lot of food, and have genial attitudes. Many audience members seemingly did not care for this first hour of the film, but I found it charming and whimsical, and although Jackson does indeed tell the story at his own leisure, the film successfully re-captures the visual magic ofThe Lord of the Rings. The wonder and splendor is not quite there (that’s left more for The Desolation of Smaug), but the details seem right.
As the film continues on and the dwarves begin to evolve and affirm their unique personalities (brothers Kili and Fili, in particular, are memorable) so too does the emotional connections. The film’s main centerpiece is the evolution of the antagonistic relationship between Bilbo and Thorin and the eventual respect and admiration they find for each other against all odds. It is a strong undercurrent that ties this nearly 3 hour film together and had me hooked even when events almost fell off the rails. Take Radagast the Brown, for example, an almost too-hokey character played by Sylvester McCoy, or a long sequence involving some incredibly stupid trolls. For all of this, though, there is an action sequence as spectacular as the attack on the Goblin’s fortress at the finale or the film’s very best scene, an elongated sequence that could almost be its own film in which Bilbo comes across Gollum (Andy Serkis) and the One ring that becomes so prevalent throughout both this series and The Lord of the Rings.
All of the technical aspects of the film are strong, with a few moments that are too obviously CGI but otherwise beautiful production design, cinematography, a great sense of scope and scale, and an expectedly terrific score from Howard Shore. The song “Misty Mountains,” sung early on in the film by Thorin and the dwarves is one I still listen to. I avoided the high frame rate presentation after hearing such vitriolic word, however I did see the film in 3D and felt that Jackson used perspective well and kept the film nice and bright.
In many ways The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a film at odds with itself. It wants to be silly and serious, whimsical and epic. For every unfortunate scene there is one that is fantastic. For every great speech or rousing moment there is a dull stretch. On the whole I find it to be an enjoyable adventure, however, and although it is undoubtedly not in the same league as The Lord of the Rings it is a good setup for what’s to come. Luckily, what’s to come is even better…
NEXT TIME: Smaug 'em if you gaud 'em!