The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey Review
by Daniel Rester
Let me say right out of the bat that I love Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings film trilogy, based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s novels. So when I heard that Jackson was creating a film adaptation of the Rings prequel novel, The Hobbit, I was very excited. I have fond memories of reading the novel when I was younger. I also remember the novel being short in length and quite quick in its pace. However, it was announced that Jackson’s adaptation would comprise of three films, using the book for the initial story and incorporating elements of some of Tolkien’s other work as well. It was also said that Jackson would apply some focus to 3D and the use of 48 frames-per-second, instead of the usual 24. Such ideas made me a little nervous, wondering if a small fantasy novel like The Hobbit could survive such a treatment. Well, now the first film in the new trilogy is here, and it is titled The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.
Journey takes place in Middle Earth sixty years before Fellowship of the Ring. The main protagonist is Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), uncle of Frodo (Elijah Wood) from Rings. Bilbo is a hobbit who enjoys his quiet life in The Shire and has no taste for adventure. One day, a wizard named Gandalf (Ian McKellen) comes to The Shire and seeks out Bilbo for a mission. This mission involves thirteen dwarves, who also arrive and invade Bilbo’s privacy.
The dwarves are led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), a mighty prince who wishes to take back the dwarf city of Erebor — which houses piles of gold. Only problem: a huge dragon named Smaug took over the mountain city years before. The dwarves want to recruit Bilbo as burglar, as he is small and could easily sneak into Erebor via a secret passage. After some reluctance, Biblo agrees to the quest and the company sets off. Along the way they encounter many adventurous things, with Journey ending around Chapter 7 of the book.
As I said before, I was a bit shaky about this film before going in. Hearing about many critics bashing it didn’t help either. However, I am happy to say that Journey is a really good film, and in my opinion it is undeserving of many of the harsh critiques it has been receiving. One big critique has been about the 48 fps, which apparently makes the film “hyper-real” and strange-looking. Many critics have really downgraded their scores of Journey because of this. I did not see Journey in 3D or the 48 fps, but rather 24 fps, so I will not be judging it on those things. Even so, I think critics should look more at the film as a whole itself, rather than basing much of their opinions off of just one of its possible presentations. I can understand how a certain presentation of something could be distracting, but the in-this-moment presentation and the lasting art should still be separated. All of that said, I will now get on to my thoughts on Journey.
Journey for me is one of the better fantasy-adventure films in the past few years. Jackson shows that he still loves Middle Earth and knows how to present stories within it. From the first frame onward, I felt as if I was in this world again. Jackson and his screenwriters give considerable care to Tolkien’s work as a whole (with both the regular novel and included elements), with the director really knowing how to bring it to life as well. Like with Rings, the film is lengthy and occasionally excessive (with a beginning that is a bit too extended). However, it never loses its sense of adventure as Jackson puts it on display. This is because a lot of the writing is splendid — complete with the lighthearted humor that the novel had — and is matched by magnificent visuals. Some of Jackson’s pacing may be a bit off at times, but he still knows how to deliver on spectacle. The action scenes are exciting, but even moments of traveling in the film inspire awe. This is because the locations (New Zealand), CGI, art direction, and cinematography blend together for cinematic magic, all aided by Jackson’s surefooted direction. The cinematography is especially great, with many stunning wide angle shots and some impressive depth of field.
The writing, direction, and visual display are all strong, but some of the performances really help as well. Freeman is perfect as Bilbo; the actor really knows how to bring out the aggravation, sensitivity, and bravery in Bilbo. McKellen is also terrific in reprising his role as Gandalf, still managing to spellbind audience members by bringing out the character’s leadership and speech qualities in an effortless manner. Armitage is a warm welcome, as well, with Thorin being kind of like the Aragorn of the dwarves. The actor does a great job at displaying the character’s determination and strength. These three actors and characters are given the most screen time of all, so having them all be likable is a plus.
The many dwarves in the film are also fun. However, I wish a few of them would have had a bit more depth to them. Perhaps the later installments will add to their backgrounds and personalities, and hopefully so. As for now, they are still entertaining and well-presented by the various actors.
There is also a menacing pale orc character and an interesting wizard character named Radagast the Brown in the film; both play sort-of key roles in the film in certain ways. A few characters from Rings also end up in the story, including Gollum (Andy Serkis), who nearly steals the show. The “Riddles in the Dark” scene, which has Bilbo and Gollum questioning each other in a cave, is arguably the best moment in the whole film. Freeman and Serkis work very well off of each other, and Serkis reminds viewers why he is the king of motion-capture performing. This scene, along with a few others, reaches the great heights that Rings reached, even though the film as a whole does not. But at the same time, the stories are very different and perhaps the films shouldn’t be too closely compared.
Journey is overly long, occasionally episodic, and has those underdeveloped dwarves. But I still found it to be an enchanting and fun ride, with admirable performances and plenty of visual splendor. This is one of those rare cases where I believe the majority of critics are being a bit too nitpicky, bringing the film down for little details instead of praising it more for all that it has accomplished. Or maybe that is just me. I do think that it will please most Rings fans, though they should not expect it to be as epic or dark as those films. Like I said earlier, the two should only be minimally compared because their stories are so different. But now I find myself both a fan of the Rings trilogy and Journey, and I look forward to the next installment in the trilogy.
Rating: 3 ½ out of 4 stars (Grade Equivalent for Me: A).