I am not a huge Tolkien fan. I’ve never read any of the books and while I enjoyed The Lord of The Rings trilogy a lot when it came out, I don’t think I’ve re-watched any of the films more than once in the last decade despite the fact that I own them on DVD. Their combined length plays a major factor – these movies all require something of a time commitment. I’m sure I’ve forgotten plenty of plot lines and characters in that time; it’s hard to overlook Gollum and his “precious,” but I’m a little fuzzy on the rest of the stories. And wasn’t Viggo Mortensen supposed to be a big star after those movies? I’ve seen some of his most recent work in films like A History of Violence and Eastern Promises (both films worth checking out) but he’s hardly the household name that I think people expected him to be.
Still, I still think fondly on The Lord of The Rings movies, even if I haven’t revisted them in quite some time, so I was looking forward to seeing the first of The Hobbit movies (there are three movies planned in total). I had a basic working knowledge of the world and creatures from the previous films, but didn’t know much more going in. I assumed it was some sort of epic journey – they are all about some epic journey – but I wasn’t sure about the chronology of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in relation to the other films, nor if any of the characters I was familiar with would make an appearance. The three hour runtime was slightly daunting, so I made sure I went to the earliest showing on a weekend.
I’m not sure how they managed to make a movie that is both slow and exciting, but they did it. I enjoyed The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey quite a bit, but it definitely felt like a longer movie than it actually was (and it wasn’t short to begin with). There were periods of intense action, but then there were periods where the story seemed to meander. I’m looking forward to the following installments – it’s kind of annoying when films end in the middle of the story – but I don’t think that this trilogy will quite live up to the Lord of the Rings films.
The Hobbit takes place 60 years before the events of The Lord of the Rings trilogy and focuses on the journey of Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), who is the great uncle (I think ) of Frodo, the protagonist of the first set of movies. Bilbo is enlisted by the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen, reprising the role) to assist a band of dwarves on their mission to reclaim their kingdom from the dragon Smaug. Along the way, we also learn the story of how Bilbo came to obtain the Ring from Gollum (Andy Serkis), an event that has great importance in The Lord of the Ring films.
An Unexpected Journey settles into a bit of a pattern throughout the film – Bilbo doubts himself and his abilities, others doubt Bilbo, lots of walking, battle, repeat. It’s mostly entertaining, but it is also a bit formulaic and the walking and doubting can be a little slow. Jackson obviously loves working in this world and there is an impressive eye for detail, but sometime he dwells a little too long on these aspects and loses sight of pacing and advancing the story. While there was a lot of character development in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, I don’t feel like I got to know any of these characters particularly well. I had a tough time keeping a lot of the dwarves straight, whereas the members of the fellowship in The Lord of the Rings each had their own distinct personality. We only really get to know the leader of the dwarves, Thorin (Richard Armitage). Freeman does a fine job as Baggins, but I didn’t walk out of the movie with any real sense of him and what makes him tick. Perhaps these new characters will be more fleshed out in the subsequent films, but after the first installment I thought of them more as detailed sketches rather than fully developed characters.
The real stars of the film are the characters that have been brought back from the other films. Ian McKellen is always solid and he steps back into the role of Gandalf effortlessly. It’s like he never took off his magical robes. But it is Gollum that unsurprisingly steals the show; when he finally makes an appearance in the last quarter of the story, the film really comes to life. I was a fan of Gollum from The Lord of the Rings – how can you not be? – and I am constantly impressed with the work of his portrayer Serkis. He is also responsible for giving Cesar such humanity in The Rise of the Planet of the Apes (a film I enjoyed much more than I expected). It is really fascinating to see the process for creating these characters – CBS News recently did a story on Serkis and what he does that is worth taking a watch. He’s really one of a kind.
As The Hobbit is a children’s book, An Unexpected Journey is a little more family friendly than The Lord of the Rings trilogy. There are some exciting fight scenes, but they are not all that scary and the violence is toned down from the other films. The Hobbit is PG-13, but leans more toward the PG than the 13 in my opinion. The action is still exciting, but it is much safer than what you may be expecting from watching the original trilogy. One scene involving the battle between two mountains was pretty spectacular, though one could argue that it didn’t do much to advance the story. It sure looks cool though.
Some other thoughts:
- Gandolf and Gollum are not the only familiar faces that show up in the first film and even more characters are rumored to appear in the later installments.
- I will never understand how elves are bigger than dwarves and hobbits in this realm, but as someone who is vertically challenged, I do appreciate that it’s the little people that are getting things done in these films. Short people power!
- I was a little concerned that I found myself thinking that one of the dwarves was attractive. So I was relieved to find out that it was Aiden Turner, who actually is an attractive person and is best known for playing Mitchell the vampire in the original BBC version of Being Human. I was worried there for a minute; I never dig short guys.
- I probably could have done without the dwarves singing. This isn’t Snow White.
- I really don’t know how people keep all these different inhabitants of Middle Earth straight. Every time they introduced a new race of people, my head started to hurt and I suspect it will only become more problematic as the series continues.
- This video made me smile – there were too many dwarves
- Am I the only one who thinks that Gandalf is high most of the time? He is always puffing on that pipe and has a pretty mellow look on his face a lot of the time.
- FYI – pretty impressed that Gandalf is in my Microsoft Word word bank.
- You don’t have to be familiar with The Lord of the Rings to understand what is going on in An Unexpected Journey. If you are looking to jump in, you can do so without missing much.
- Radagast, the brown wizard, is apparently only a footnote to the original Hobbit book, but I liked what they did with him in the film. And once again, I was reminded what a freaking softie I have become when animals are in any kind of peril. This is ruining my street cred.
- I opted to see the movie in 2-D, so I cannot speak to how the High Film Rate looks on the big screen. In general, it has received mixed results. I was curious, but not curious enough to plunk down the extra cash to find out. Plus I was afraid three hours in those glasses would give me a headache. I thought the movie looked beautiful in boring old 2-D.
I liked The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, but found it did not hold up well when compared with the original Lord of the Rings trilogy. Such comparison may be unfair – we are only 1/3 of the story that Jackson wants to tell – but I walked out of the theater slightly disappointed. The Hobbit is a fun movie, but I fear that in Peter Jackson’s attempt to stretch a 300 page book over 3 movies, he has made a series of films that is far too slow and is stretched too thin in trying to incorporate to many minor points and characters. An Unexpected Journey is far too much set up and not enough of forward movement; while there was plenty of neat things in the film, a lot of them were wholly unnecessary in service of the narrative and only served as a diversion. I would have liked a little more focus on the core characters and story. Again – this is an unfinished work and perhaps I will feel differently once the trilogy is completed. But at this point, despite the fact that I found the return to Middle Earth pleasant and entertaining, it was ultimately unsatisfying.