Review: “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey”
I don’t have a lot of experience doing proper film reviews so bear with me on this one. Also, it was written over several days so forgive me for any errors of omission. I am assuming anyone seeing the movie would have already read the book so any real spoiler information is reserved to a section subtitled “What’s New”. In every case, however, I try not to be too specific for those who may not have seen it yet so as not to take away any little surprises.
My initial reaction is that, as a Tolkien fan and someone very familiar with the book, it was awesome. To the casual fan, there were many aspects of the film that probably went over their heads. But that won’t take away from their enjoyment of it.
Peter Jackson clearly decided to stick to the spirit and letter of the book in almost every respect. From my perspective, I think it worked well. I had, in past posts, pointed out that some lighter – even silly – components of Tolkien’s original 1937 story would probably be best left out of these films to better connect them to the more serious LOTR trilogy. However, once I let down my initial resistance I was able to appreciate how artful a job that Jackson and his crew have done.
I’m still a little reticent about some of the things we have yet to see in the coming installments but I have full faith and confidence in an operation made up of so many individuals who clearly have a passion for the material.
As expected, the film is presented within the frame of Bilbo’s “narrative” in the form of writing down the tale of his adventures in what will become known as the Red Book of Westmarch. Though Bilbo is writing the story primarily for Frodo’s benefit, he doesn’t let him see it because it’s not ready. Frodo asks,“Ready for what?” “Ready to be read”, replies Uncle Bilbo.
We pretty much knew this would be the context from the trailers so it’s not really a surprise. What I hadn’t expected, however, was that Bilbo and Frodo’s interaction is set on the exact day that we are first introduced to them in the first LOTR movie, “The Fellowship of the Ring”. The “No Admittance Except on Party Business” sign is nailed to the door by Frodo himself at Bilbo’s behest. And we see Bilbo seated at his desk in the exact way we saw him in Fellowship (particularly in the Extended Edition where he begins writing his account, starting with “Concerning Hobbits”). I had previously expected that all this would be set at least a short time prior to the actual day of Bilbo’s 111th birthday party.
The opening narration by Ian Holm leads to a “prologue” of sorts that recounts the founding of the town of Dale and the Kingdom of the Dwarves under Erebor. (More details in the “What’s New” section below). The audience is then transported, through a seamless transition, to a younger Bilbo Baggins (brilliantly portrayed by Martin Freeman), sixty years prior. From the initial meeting with Gandalf to the arrival of the Dwarves and the subsequent “unexpected party” everything is presented in great detail right from the original text. The Dwarves are indeed unique though any audience member can be forgiven if he cannot identify and name every Dwarf by sight by the end of the film. The ones that most stand out in my mind are Dwalin, Balin, Fili, Kili, Bofur, Dori, Gloin (bearing a remarkable resemblance to Gimli) and Bombur – the last being the largest of the thirteen.
Thorin Oakenshield arrives after dinner and the presence that Richard Armitage brings to the role is remarkable. The only previous incarnation of Thorin that I’ve seen is the considerably older cartoon version from the 1977 television film. Armitage’s Thorin is almost reminiscent of the character of Aragorn, though considerably more brooding and dour. His aura, however, seems very formidable and heroic. Thorin’s past exploits against the Orcs are fleshed out in a flashback as told by Balin once the party gets underway.
We get heaping helpings of the scenes we all love so much from the first six chapters – the encounter with the Trolls, the arrival at Rivendell, the capture of the company (sans Bilbo) by goblins in the Misty Mountains (which rivals the Fellowship’s escape from Moria in the LOTR), the Riddle Game and the fight between the Dwarves and the a band of Warg-riding Orcs, led by an Orc leader named Azog.
This new character comes from Tolkien’s posthumously published “The Quest For Erebor” and his context is changed somewhat here. However, I will discuss the role of Azog in the story in greater detail under a separate post. This last action with the Orcs and Wargs forms the climax of the film, ending with the company’s rescue by the Great Eagles and their arrival at the Carrock with the Lonely Mountain looming in the distance.
All in, the film runs about two hours and forty-five minutes but because the story is laden with action sequences it goes by fairly quickly.
What’s New? (Spoilers)
- Feel free to skip down to the next section if you don’t want to be spoiled. -
Nobody can complain that Jackson left anything out from the book. In fact, the opposite is true in that he added so much to it that comes from other texts requiring some minor changes to the story overall. The additional material that is presented helps broaden the narrative and most of these scenes only add to the enjoyment.
In the prologue, we are shown the wonder of the Dwarf realm under the Lonely Mountain and the discovery of the Arkenstone, which Thror (Thorin’s grandfather) takes as his most treasured possession as King Under The Mountain. We witness the arrival of the dragon Smaug (though we actually see very little of him) and the evacuation of Erebor by the Dwarves.
There is a brief appearance of Thranduil, the King of the Elves of Mirkwood as the story points to the origin of the bitterness that Thorin and his people feel towards them. On this latter point, it was probably necessary to establish this for the conflict that we expect to see in film two. We saw some of this from Gimli early on in the LOTR (“never trust and Elf!”). The more ancient cause of this enmity between the races dates back to the Second Age but one would have to revisit Tolkien’s “Silmarillion” for those details.
One notable change is the presence of Azog the Defiler as the primary villain. We are led to believe (through Balin’s tale at the start of the journey) that Azog is dead by Thorin’s hand but in fact he has returned, literally with a vengeance. When an Orc patrol discovers the party of Dwarves as it camps just prior to their Troll encounter, Azog is made aware of the presence of his old enemy and pursues him throughout the film.
There is also a meeting of the White Council (Galadriel and Saruman are present) in Rivendell which results in the Dwarves going on ahead without Gandalf to the Misty Mountains. Prior to their capture, the Dwarves face peril from fighting Mountain Giants (that is, enormous Giants actually made out of rock) which were alluded to in Chapter Four of the book. Gandalf, however, catches up with them in the nick of time to confront the Great Goblin and lead the escape.
The presentation of Gollum is nearly identical from his LOTR appearance with the creature flitting back on forth between the more malevolent Gollum personality and the meeker, more pitiable Smeagol persona (though this name is never used). It is “Smeagol” who is enticed into playing the game (his excitement is almost endearing) much to the dissatisfaction of Gollum.
Lastly, there is the introduction of the wizard Radagast the Brown and his home as Rhosgobel. We even see a glimpse of the Mirkwood spiders.
Radagast’s role is primarily to share his discovery of the Necromancer at Dol Guldur (an event previously assigned to Gandalf in the book). Jackson has stated that an additional twenty minutes will be added back to an Extended Edition for home release but, other than longer versions of the existing scenes, I honestly cannot imagine what that will include.
Many of the settings and locations that we saw in the first trilogy – from Hobbiton to Rivendell – have been recreated perfectly. Once again, the natural wonders of New Zealand are beautifully transformed into the visual treat we come to expect from Peter Jackson and his production designers.
We get to see a bit more of Bag End, particularly Bilbo’s treasured pantry which promptly gets emptied by his guests.
The music recalls the “Hobbiton” theme woven in subtly throughout the beginning – particularly when Bilbo comes bounding down the familiar paths that lead out of the Shire. Howard Shore does a magnificent job creating new thematic music while complimenting his work from the LOTR.
The Experience In The HFR Format
There are four versions of the film you can see in selected theaters. The first is the standard 2D version. Then there is the standard 3D version and the IMAX 3D version. The last is a 3D version filmed at the 48 frames per second High Frame Rate (HFR). This was the version I opted for (though the IMAX version was tempting).
Peter Jackson made a rather cutting edge decision to film The Hobbit in this format, which is double the standard 24 frames per second that we are accustomed to (The adjustment to the standard 2D version was done post-production). Some have criticized this format as being less “cinematic” looking, to its detriment. Essentially, the higher frame rate reduces the subtle motion blur that we typically see in movies as the camera pans or as an actor (or prop) moves across the screen.
I will admit that my brain is hard-wired to expect that cinematic look and sometimes the sheer depth and crispness of the images took me out of the experience from time to time. I’ve heard it described as being more like watching a play than a film and that description is very apt. On the other hand, once I got used to this difference the experience became more immersive and “up close” if you will.
On balance, I don’t think I’d appreciate this technique in all movies – not even most 3D versions. But I thought it was worth it in this case. The ticket price is the same as standard 3D so if you’re so inclined I would recommend it. There are a few folks, however, who have said they felt a little queasy watching this version so if you’re prone to motion sickness I would factor that in before deciding.
All in all this production exceeded all expectations.
If you're new to the site and would like to see my review of "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug", you can find it here.