The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey Movie Review

The journey that started it all.

by Alan McDermott
Movies & TV Review


The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey Movie Review
Almost eleven years to the day since the epic tale of Frodo and the fabled ring of power first leapt onto our screens to monumental acclaim and insurmountable success, we finally get to see the long awaited retelling of Tolkein's lighter and more jovial children's tale, The Hobbit. Planned to mimic the format of The Lord of the Rings as a trilogy, this first movie, An Unexpected Journey, is indeed an unexpected marvel given it's tumultuous road to the silver screen. It is not, however, without it's issues too; ironically enough, it is the much hyped and eagerly anticipated new technology – HFR 3D – that is the major flaw in Jackson's The Hobbit.

My esteemed colleague here at AV Forums has recently written an extensive piece on both the format, and the long and arduous path to the making of The Hobbit, so I won't go into too much detail about the problems leading up to the production, but it's impossible to review The Hobbit without making some mention of it, and I'm sure everyone has questions about the new format.

You see, Jackson had wanted to steer clear of directing The Hobbit. He had always seen it as a danger if he were to take the helm since he would have been competing directly with his previous rings trilogy, and let's face it, that is a monumental act to follow for anyone. Directing the original trilogy had nearly killed him, and it's safe to assume that he felt he would rather be an active observer than a hands on wheel-man for this one. Alas, despite signing on Guillermo Del Torro to direct, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens to co-write the screenplay, and securing the rights after becoming embroiled in a bitter and nasty dispute with New Line Cinema, it boiled down to a choice between the movie collapsing, or Jackson directing it himself. A tough call, I mean, who would want to re-paint their own Monalisa?

Thankfully for us, Jackson agreed to do it, and also managed to retain the services of fantasy guru and cult favourite Guillermo Del Torro to co-write the screenplay. A dandy fellowship of pen-power would grace The Hobbit, much to our delight.

So what's all this business about HFR 3D. Well, I can tell you that it was a bitter disappointment to me. I sat down to this long awaited tale, and popped on my standard 3D glasses (no new special glasses required), and quite quickly, my jaw hit the floor. It was like looking at a documentary. It felt more like a really high definition featurette than a movie. Not unlike a lot of the true motion frame interpolation you get on televisions these days - you know, the thing that makes everything look a bit like Emmerdale or Coronation Street - the 48FPS image looks dazzlingly crisp, but sadly the smoothness of the motion on the whole makes you all too aware that you're looking at a load of men in costumes and make up. It truly did pull me out of the movie and prevented it from being as immersive as I wanted it to be.

You see, there are two things here vying for your approval when it comes to immersion. There's the movie itself, with it's cinematography, beautiful locations, wonderful costume and make up, and breathtaking CG. These all go hand in hand together to create a mood and atmosphere that we can allow ourselves to be fully drawn in by. Then there's the HFR 3D which relies entirely on dazzling you with a spectacularly clear image that boasts a smoothness of motion that really makes you feel like you're standing beside the Dwarves and Hobbits of the tale. The problem is that it really does make you feel like you're standing next to them, so much so that they stop being Dwarves and Hobbits and start becoming actors and props and sets. All of a sudden you're hyper aware of the clothing on the characters, the dirt on their faces, and it all just looks too placed. The motion is so smooth that, at first, you would be forgiven for thinking that there was something wrong with the projection. The motion seems almost speeded up, like there's been a terrible mistake in the projecttion room and somebody is about to get an earful from the cinema manager. Not so, it's just the 48p image.

I don't want to dwell too much on this aspect of the movie, but suffice it to say, having seen it in both HFR 3D and in 2D now, I really wish I'd gone for the 2D version first. It doesn't have any of the problems that I found whilst watching the HFR version, like the characters making their way through an obviously very finely crafted set, rather than battling their way through stoney mountains. It definitely has plus points a-plenty, such as feeling really effortless to watch. I would normally have struggled with a movie as long as An Unexpected Journey in 3D in the past, but I really didn't find it a strain at all with HFR 3D. Alas, for me, the cons far outweigh the pros, but perhaps that's largely down to the content. Maybe Fantasy genre movies just aren't right for the format. Maybe we need to feel slightly more detached from the actors than HFR 3D allows us to feel. The long and short of it in this instance is to watch it in 2D first by my reckoning. You will not be disappointed, and you can still check out the new tech another time, perhaps when the cinemas are a little less swamped.

I didn't want to start this review with negativity, because there is so much to be positive about, especially if you're a Tolkein-ite, perhaps even more-so if you enjoyed Jackson's original Rings trilogy as much as I did. So let me move away from the technicalities for a time, and I'll put this into perspective for you.

I have systematically read The Lord of the Rings in it's entirety at least once every four years since I was about twelve years of age. I have seen each of the three movies (extended editions) more than fifteen times. Yes, I know what you're thinking and I don't care. In fact, fifteen is a conservative guess. I've watched the trilogy (extended editions again) back to back in the same day on at least three or four occasions. This is all discounting the number of times I went to see the movies during their original cinematic releases. I suppose you could say I was a fanboy, though I really do hate that word.

However, being such an avid fan, when I heard the Hobbit was in the making, I was a little... conflicted. I wanted it so badly on the one hand, but on the other hand I was worried. Not only is The Hobbit a much shorter book, but it's also very much intended for children. How will Jackson handle that, and is that going to translate well on the screen? The original movies dealt with such a lot of darkness and quite unsettling (but wholly epic) battle scenes. It didn't hold much back and was, at times, quite gruesome. It had a seething undercurrent of dark high-fantasy horror, and it wasn't afraid to linger on some rather grim moments, like the scene in the fellowship when the Uruk-hai orc slowly draws each arrow in silence, and pauses before plunging it deep into Boromir's chest. It was bold and brave in comparison to previous incarnations of the tale.

The Hobbit is a different animal altogether. It doesn't feature a lot of the characters from the Rings trilogy, though there are a handful of familiar faces, and it does feature some talking trolls that even have names. This could go horribly wrong. At the end of the day, my battle within was won by the eager half of my brain, especially with Jackson at the helm, so when I sat down to watch it, I was as giddy as a schoolboy. By the time the credits rolled, I was completely satisfied with the experience. Delighted, isn't too strong a word; but amidst the childlike glee and satisfaction, I couldn't help but feel disappointed by the HFR 3D. I came away wondering what it would be like in 2D, and on my way home, I decided I would go and see it again in 2D as soon as I could.

As if you didn't already know, The Hobbit is set two and a half millenia after Sauron was defeated and dispossessed of the ring by Isildur - you'll remember the scene at the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring where this battle was retold and we saw Elrond basically being a bad-ass and hewing orc heads left right and centre - and sixty years before The Lord of the Rings begins and the ring finally comes to Frodo, who would turn out to be the final Ring bearer.

And that's exactly where this tale begins – In a hole in the ground...

Opening in Hobbiton, just hours before the Unexpected Party, as seen at the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring, we find Bilbo fawning over books, maps and fond memories of his youth and the adventures he played a part in. In the background we see a fresh faced and innocent Frodo (Elijah Wood) milling about Bag End, sadly unaware of the long and terrible journey that would beset him in the very near future. All is well in the Shire, and we go back in time with Bilbo's reminiscing, to the telling of this new tale - a Hobbit's tale. The opening really does feel like a heartfelt nod to the trilogy that Jackson so dearly loved, and it's a nice little insight into the moments before we met the Hobbits for the first time. It's nowhere near as energetic or as frightfully amazing as the opening to any of the other three movies, but it's in this fact that Jackson shows his hand with regards to his intent with this movie. This one is going to be different indeed.

Soon, Jackson begins to distance us from the original trilogy we're all so familiar with, as we are introduced to the thirteen boisterous and weather-beaten dwarves who will become Bilbo's companions for this epic quest. After some questionable dwarven singing and some foolhardy dish-washing escapades, we're under no illusions that this is undoubtedly going to be a much more light-hearted affair than the original trilogy. Dare I say more of a children's movie?

Years previous, the great Dwarven city of Erebor, set deep into The Lonely Mountain, was besieged by Smaug, a violent and dangerous Dragon who takes his pleasure in malice and in the hoarding gold and treasure. Driven from their home by the terrible Dragon, the Dwarves have since led a nomadic life, wandering the lands finding work as craftsmen of fine weapons and armour in various cities across Middle-Earth. Gandalf, though he had professed to have been barely involved in “the incident with the dragon” back in the Fellowship, is actually quite a prominent figure in their party; indeed he is responsible for recruiting the unsuspecting and somewhat affable Bilbo Baggins to the quest as their burglar. Their goal - to return to the Lonely Mountain and take back the Long-Beard Dwarves' home. Jackson begins to weave the well known tale with an effortless touch, bringing it to life with much the same uniqueness that he did with the previous films.

It's through his in-depth knowledge of Tolkein's universe that he has managed to find a way to make us believe that it's not all that ridiculous an idea to stretch what was Tolkein's shortest book into three movies, the first of which falls just shy of the three hour mark. He leans a lot on the Silmarillion, Tolkein's personal project, to enrich the world of Middle-Earth that he had created, giving it all a bit of backstory and fleshing out the events from the book that feature in this instalment. There's plenty in those books for Jackson to use, and use it well he does. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is three hours of a very good thing indeed. It didn't once feel like it was being drawn out or fattened up, and it sat just about right for me length-wise. Of course, he's plundered the archives, but he hasn’t thrown anything in there that seems unnecessary or gratuitous. Sure, he takes some liberties with the narrative in much the same way as he did with The Lord of the Rings, but even for an avid fan of the literature, it's perfectly palatable.

Of course, there's no escaping the fact that it's in the characters that this retelling is going to be won or lost, and let me just say right off the bat that casting Martin Freeman as the younger version of Ian Holmes' Bilbo is a touch of pure genius. He's utterly perfect. He even looks a little like Ian Holme. That being said, Freeman has done an excellent job in making Bilbo his own. He has obviously looked at Holmes' performances in the original movies, and drawn from that, but he's also managed to bring his own unique brand of “under acting” to the stage here. He's not on the screen long before we're convinced that the role is entirely his. He is simply brilliant at looking like he is out of place or he's out of his depth. Freeman is altogether comfortable with looking uncomfortable and he seems immeasurably effortless in his portrayal of the young Hobbit. When you think about this little Hobbit, he is actually rather a dislikable character at first. Something of a hermit, Bilbo is unwelcome of unexpected guests, things out of the ordinary and surprises of any kind. Finding the thought of anything breaking his routine utterly deplorable. He is most certainly, as are most Hobbits, a creature of habit. Freeman conveys this whilst managing to contain the urge to overplay it, and without making the audience dislike the little Hobbit too much, he's an affable little fellow at the end of the day, and props must go to Freeman who surprised me with how well he does in the role.

Something else that surprised me is that Freeman has somehow managed to convey more character and - for want of a better way to describe it – sparkle, than the thirteen Dwarves manage to muster between them. I can honestly say that less than half of them are memorable. I couldn't help but feel underwhelmed by many of the performances, and found the fact that I could barely remember much at all about more than a handful of them, even after having watched the movie twice, quite a disappointment. More's the pity, one of the few more memorable Dwarves is Ori, played here, rather poorly in my opinion, by Adam Brown. Why Jackson thought it was OK for the character to be played so incredibly camp will evade me forever. Unlike the character in the book, I felt no warmth towards the youngest of the dwarven company, and most of the time I spent wishing his screen time was shorter. There's nothing hardy or weather beaten about the character, and I find it almost impossible to believe that this is the same Ori that would later be one of the last standing Dwarves in Moria, and the scribe of the words that Gandalf reads aloud from the Book of Mazarbul when the Fellowship enter Balin's tomb in Moria, written in the moments before the Dwarves were overrun by orcs and goblins.

More memorable among the dwarves is Thorin, the leader of the company. Richard Armitage does a pretty stand up job portraying the haunted Prince of Erebor, though for me, I would have liked to see someone less “pretty” play the role. He's not quite as pompous as Thorin is supposed to be, but he's every bit as stubborn and mighty as the character was in the book. Something about the character makes me want a hug from him.

Barring these two, there's Balin (Ken Stott), Dwalin (Graham McTavish) and Bofur (James Nesbit) that I found memorable. Actually, Nesbit's performance is one of the more believable for me, and brings a little humour to the table that isn't erring on the side of cringeworthy. As for the rest, there is only some minor memorable involvement from Fili (Dean O'Gorman) and Kili (Aidan Turner) really. Everyone else is a bit of a blur for me, which I was disappointed with if I'm honest. It's not that they are played particularly badly, or that there's anything really wrong with the characters, it's just that Jackson hasn't managed to find room in the three hour running time for them to develop much. Perhaps it's unfair for me to say that compared to the book, which had time to expand the characters much more, the thirteen dwarves bear very little by way of character development on the whole. Compare this to Bilbo, who exudes more presence on his own than the thirteen dwarves do between them.

I kept thinking about the Dwarves in Snow White and the Huntsmen, and wishing that Jackson had found a way past the vanity of borrowing something from those Dwarves played so brilliantly by the likes of Ian McShane and Ray Winstone. When I first watched this movie, I remember thinking - "I hope Peter Jackson is watching carefully!".

Ian McKellan reprises his role as Gandalf the wizard, and he is every bit as marvellous as he was in the other movies, conveying more with the raising of an eyebrow or a slight groaning under his breath than a thousand word monologue could ever hope to. In the book, Gandalf is indeed something of a side character, constantly disappearing off on side quests that are hinted at rather than explained, which gave the character an air of mystery, lending a sense of scale to the universe you were following Bilbo and his companions through. Here though, Gandalf is much more of a central character, and you could argue that he is in fact the leader of their company, which is welcome indeed. He also has the opportunity to display some kick-ass moves on one scene in particular when the company is captured in Goblin town – yeah, Gandalf is a bad-ass too.

Something I did find a little off-putting was the sheer volume of cheap jokes that Jackson favours through the movie. It seemed ill fitting and completely bizarre to me for Galdalf to make jokes about the game of Golf, for example, or Ori's exuberant outburst when he proclaims his intent to stick something up Smaug's “jacksie”, or maybe the moment when he asks for “chips” in Rivendell. Even the character Radagast the Brown played by Sylvester McCoy seemed oddly out of place at times – despite his character demonstrating the fact that he is quite a formidable foe to any evil-doers of the land, holding his own in an explosive sword fight with the undead, for any Tolkein purist there is far too much eye crossing going on.

The comedy on the whole felt overplayed and wrong, and I have no doubts that it will have many Tolkein fans up in arms. It's cheap and seems lazy and it did make me question Peter Jackson's intent with the script; is he trying to hammer home that this is a more light hearted movie than the others? Is he underlining the fact that he intends this to be more accessible to the younger generations, just as Tolkein undoubtedly did with the book? Either way, there are surely better ways to do it than to resort to throw away slapstick and to dismiss characters such as Ori and Radagast with such wanton disrespect.

I mentioned earlier about trolls that talk and even have names. Hmm, questionable indeed, but for what it's worth, Jackson has stayed relatively true to the book with his interpretation of Tom, Bill and Bert. They won't sit well with some I'm sure, but what is worth a mention is the wonderful CG work that WETA Digital put into the characters. Arguably some of their best work yet as far as animation goes, despite the somewhat pantomime feel to the characters themselves. Quit your naysaying though, this is exactly how they appear in the book, though I'm not sure they would have used such modern language as the turn of phrase - “Cake-hole”. How would a troll know what a cake was? They are dim-witted creatures, and fall foul of the trap that almost every bond villain succumbs to; they give away their secret weakness of turning to stone before they kill their prey. Elementary error, fellas.

As we all expected, WETA Digital have indeed outdone themselves with An Unexpected Journey, and nothing demonstrates this more than with the iconic and perhaps most well known scene from any of Tolkein's books – Riddles in the Dark. Yes, Andy Serkis is back as the devilish villain, Gollum, and he's never looked quite so good. This is Gollum when he was younger, before he had spent many bitter years cursing the name Baggins for stealing his precious, before the absence of the Ring from his possession had consumed him completely. Serkis plays it with just the right amount of innocence, and we recognise the playfulness in Gollum from the original trilogy when Gollum begins to trust Frodo more. The scene is brilliantly realised by the two actors attempting to trick one another with riddles. Using some of the riddles from Tolkein's pages, but leaving some out, the two have their prizes in mind – if Bilbo should win, Gollum must show him the way out of the cave, and if Gollum should win, he gets to eat Bilbo whole. The scene is peppered with exactly the right amount of humour from both Freeman and Serkis, and it's a magical sight to behold, raising a murmered chuckle of appreciation on several ocassions from the audience in both screenings I attended. I couldn't have envisaged this scene being better.

Indeed, you could say that Gollum, though only taking on around fifteen minutes of screen time at the beginning of the third act, steals the show. Some might find the fact that Gollum seems less grim and more playful as a negative, but it's as thorough and true a depiction of any character in this first instalment as readers of the book could have hoped for.

The setting is, as you would expect, rather breathtaking. Using New Zealand's rough, rugged and altogether unique landscape as the backdrop for Middle-Earth draws you in completely. Jackson's Middle-Earth wraps itself around you and and makes it that much easier for him to tell the tale of the fourteen (fifteen if we include Gandalf, the absentee leader) adventurers traversing the land and encountering some wild and terrible beasts. It's as easy to look at as any of the original trilogy was. Breathtaking. There are a couple of scenes, however, that left me with a raised eyebrow in question of the compositing of CG – namely the scene in which the Warg riders are chasing Radagast across the plains. Something isn't quite right with the rendering here. Certainly doesn't spoil the enjoyment of the scene, so a minor gripe I suppose.

Rivendell is as beautiful as it was in the Fellowship of the Ring, and lovers of the Tolkein Universe will appreciate that we get to see rather a lot more of the Elven village. It's here too that we see Christopher Lee returning as Saruman the White, Hugo Weaving donning the headband once more as Lord Elrond and a confusingly immobile Cate Blanchett reprising her role as the stunningly attractive Galadriel, though this time apparently she has been mounted to a spike and is spun round gently to face whoever she happens to be talking to.
The mood of the movie is largely perfect for me, despite the gripes I bear for HFR 3D, and following suit, Howard Shore returns to grace the lands of Middle Earth with a suitably Dwarven theme. It's a lush and beautiful score on the whole, if a little less iconic as the first three scores he did for the original trilogy. Perhaps maybe it will grow more and more as the trilogy goes on, much like the Hobbit's theme from the first movies did. I hated it at first, but now, it's hard to imagine anything taking it's place.

And so it was that after 169 minutes, my long awaited return to Tolkein's Middle Earth was complete, and boy was I happy. For all the misgivings, you couldn't want for a better interpretation of such a widely adored piece of literature. If only Jackson had resisted the temptations and lures of advancement in technologies and had stuck with 2D, I might have been happier stil. No doubt HFR 3D would have still hit us somewhere along the line, perhaps Cameron's Avatar sequel? Nevertheless, The Hobbit An Unexpected Journey is a great start to what I hope turns out to be as brilliant and unique as The Lord of the Rings trilogy. I, for one, can't wait for the next instalment, The Desolation of Smaug, to hit the silver screen next Christmas, but I'll be watching it in 2D before I watch it in 3D this time, that's for sure.
The long awaited retelling of Tolkein's more light-hearted and child friendly fable, The Hobbit, is finally upon us. It's as glorious a retelling, in as rich a setting as we could have hoped for. It's hard now to believe that this could have been handed over to anyone other than Peter Jackson since his deep understanding of the books and his love for the lore behind them is blindingly obvious. With a broad and talented cast that sees Ian McKellan and Hugo Weaving reprise their roles as the stoic grey Wizard Gandalf and the headband wearing Elf king Elrond, and a handful of cameos from the likes of Elijah Wood and Ian Holme, you're in for a fantasy treat that is only paralelled by Jackson's original Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Leave your misgivings at the door, and make sure you've opted for the 2D version for your first viewing, and prepare to be enslaved by the captivating beauty and enthralling story telling that is Middle Earth and The Hobbit.




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