Review – The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

As a Tolkien fan, how could I let the year end without reviewing about The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Despite being a huge Batman fan, this was the film I most wanted to see, and I was not disappointed. I love Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films. For Jackson to make a workable movie out of a book that Tolkien himself said was unfilmable is impressive. For Jackson and his team to capture all the emotion, sentiment, and most of the themes of the book while making only a handful of major changes speaks to their skill. So I knew that The Hobbit was in good hands.

Let us start with the obvious: the film looks gorgeous. I worried about the 48 frames per second being an issue, but it only took a few minutes to get used to it. After seeing the film three times, all in 3D, my only complaint is that the slow motion scenes look as if the actors are miming slow motion. That is a side-effect of the crispness that the higher frame rate brings.

Like the LotR films, The Hobbit was filmed in New Zealand, and Jackson makes great use of the locations. This is where the 3D shines. The scenes of the Dwarves trekking to the Misty Mountains look as if you are really there. The 3D works best in quiet long shots where there are enough foreground, midground, and background elements to really get the sense of separation. It works less with the staged 3D elements, like the fire embers rising out of Bilbo’s chimney and the shot-for-shot scene where the ring falls onto Bilbo’s outstretched finger just like it did Frodo’s in LotR.

Speaking of special effects, the miniatures are back and beautiful. We get to see more of Rivendell, a completely different take on Moria, and finally an example of Dwarf architecture at its height. Erabor looks amazing. I am sure there were lots of additions added digitally to give it a greater sense of depth, but the model itself is stunning. It looks like it was carved out of jade or malachite. We also get a small glimpse of Dale, the town Smaug destroys. It has a Mediterranean feel to it.

Of course, Hobbiton is back, and it looks just the same. This time around, the New Zealand government had the crew build it to last. They build it out of stone, wood, and steel, so if you go to New Zealand, you can actually visit Hobbiton. How cool is that?

Motion capture plays a larger role in the film. Some of the early reviews complained about the lack of people in suits, and while I can see their complaints, none of them seemed to notice that most of the scenes where there was contact between the heroes and the villains were done with mocap. The technology is so good now that it can capture facial expressions on the set. That means an actor can give a full performance and little must be changed in the animation process.

As a result, Gollum looks amazing. Watching his face as he searched for the answers to Bilbo’s riddles was a joy. It is literally Andy Serkis’ performance all the way through. The same is true for Azog. It is Manu Bennett’s performance. Jackson was also clever in his use of mocap. Some of the goblin scenes in Moria do have stuntmen in suits. Azog’s second-in-command and his troops were all guys in prosthetics. The old school make-up is there, you just have to look for it.

Before I get to the dwarves, I just want to say something about the Goblin King. How Peter Jackson managed to get a PG rating with a character who has a pair of testicles for a chin is beyond me.

As for the dwarves,  some of their designs are weird. The dwarves we saw in the LotR films are different from the ones in The Hobbit. Part of the reason of this may have been so actors like Richard Armitage are recognizable. However, the prettiness Kili compared to the battle-damaged Dwalin compared to Ori make little sense.

Now let us get to the meat: the story and acting. The film is well-acted. Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, and Ian McKellan turn in excellent performances. McKellan’s Gandalf is the lovable grumpy old man from Fellowship. You can tell McKellan enjoys Gandalf the Grey more than Gandalf the White.

Freeman had a challenge because he must echo what Ian Holm did while building on it. Freeman does this very well, adding tons of humor to otherwise serious scenes. The only issue with Freeman is that he is not that old. In the book and the LotR films, Bilbo is already aged when he finds the Ring. Jackson decided to change both of these, so now not only is Bilbo younger, but he sees the Ring fall out of Gollum’s pouch. This makes Bilbo’s scene in the Prologue of LotR wrong.

Armitage sells a moody, angry, impulsive, and borderline selfish Thorin. While this happens in the book, it is most pronounced in the film. Also played up is Thorin’s dislike of Elves. He does not want to go to Rivendell, does not want to show Elrond the map to the Lonely Mountain, and almost turns down his sword Orcist when Gandalf tells him it was made by Elves.

My favorite acting scene from the film is the council meeting between Gandalf, Elrond, Saruman, and Galadriel. Cate Blanchett’s slow walking is almost hilarious except she is so sincere in her commitment to the character that one just thinks that is how Galadriel walks. (It is also a subtle hint that she is not really there, just projecting herself there telepathically.) By far the most beautiful shot is Galadriel and Gandalf’s talk with the sun rising behind them. It is something out of a storybook.

One of the problems in the book and the film is that plenty of the dwarves get lost in the story. We get a more of Thorin, Balin, Bofur, and Kili than the others. Jackson and his team manage to make this work, but just barely.

There are major changes to the story. One was how Bilbo found the Ring. Another is how Bilbo goes on it journey. In the book, Gandalf has to rush him out of bed. In the film, Bilbo initially rejects the dwarves’ offer, but after a night of watching the dwarves eat all his food and listening to their song, in the morning Bilbo sees the unsigned contract and changes his mind.

There are many changes like this, changes done to make the characters more proactive than reactive. That happens with the trolls, with the dwarves leaving Rivendell, and with Gandalf and the eagles.

There are also major changes to the story, particularly concerning the Necromancer. In the book, everyone knows he is in Dol Guldur because they chased him there. In the film, only Gandalf and Saruman know, although Saruman pretends not to. He behaves more like he did in Fellowhip, which sets up his fall in the LotR films.

Jackson chose to completely alter the timeline to add tension and justify the other major change: showing Gandalf’s actions in Dol Guldur.

That adventure is hinted at in the book, but never explained. However, you cannot have one of your main characters disappear for 60% of two films, bring him back for a major battle, and then have him wave off questions about where he had been.

The film ends with the eagles, which is about a fourth of the way into the book, so Jackson has a lot of ground to cover in the next two films, especially setting up the Battle of the Five armies. But again, I trust that Jackson and his team know what they are doing.

Overall, the film is as good as the theatrical release of The Fellowship of the Ring. It has a few problems, but nothing more than any other opening to a trilogy. The complaints about the film are, in my opinion, baseless. The Hobbit certainly has a high standard to meet, and it is silly to think Jackson can recapture lightning in a film shorter than the other films with so much to set up. The extended edition will likely be better, so there is no point is complaining when you have not seen the film as Jackson really intended it to be.

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7 thoughts on “Review – The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

  1. The problem with this film – if you can call it a “problem” – is that the book is a light adventure for children (written while JRRT was still working out the details of his world) but PJ wants to include the much larger (and darker) back story of Lord of The Rings. So rather than Gandalf mysteriously disappearing for days at a time as in the book, we see every detail of the White Council. Rather than Radagast mentioned only by name, we see him battle no other than the shade of the King of Angmar. And all this is juxtaposed with the comic dialog of the Three Trolls and pretty speech by the Goblin King and rock-tossing by the giant Mountain Trolls and the Riddle Game (which was just about perfect) and such. Well, PJ wants to show us as much of this world as he can, and that’s fine with me; I loved every minute. But I bet after all three are done someone pulls a “phantom edit” and carves a much lighter Hobbit out of all this.

  2. Sorry, I found the film tedious and pointless. It was visually stunning, certainly, but that’s not all that makes a good movie. The story has little of the symbolism and theology of TLOTR trilogy, which is what made that trilogy so compelling. The Hobbit was written merely as a childrens romp through Middle Earth. This is a perfectly reasonable basis for a film but a single three-hour film would have been sufficient. As a trilogy it is attempting to paint itself as the same sort of epic morality tale as TLOTR but without the substance, teasing thrice the ticket fee from the viewer’s wallet in the process. Impressive though it is cinematically, it’s hard to see it as much more than exploitation.

  3. I have to say that while I enjoyed The Hobbit I worry about two things.

    1. The changes that Jackson is making. When I can understand wanting to change things for the sake of the big screen but change too much and you risk scaring away the die hard fans.

    2. Three films? I can certainly buy two films out of The Hobbit but I’m worried that trying to stretch it into three movies runs the risk of adding fluff material that will turn fans off.

  4. 1. The changes that Jackson is making. When I can understand wanting to change things for the sake of the big screen but change too much and you risk scaring away the die hard fans.

    He had the same problem with the Lord of the Rings, but the films still brought in over $2 billion worldwide. I do not think the hardcore fans’ complaints will hurt the films in the long run. Those diehard fans probably will not see the films anyway.

    2. Three films? I can certainly buy two films out of The Hobbit but I’m worried that trying to stretch it into three movies runs the risk of adding fluff material that will turn fans off.

    I initially thought that, but seeing where the film ends, Jackson still has 3/4 of the book to cover, and he has the extra material involving Gandalf at Dol Guldur. As I wrote in my review, you cannot have Gandalf disappear for 60% of the story, bring him back, and have him wave off questions about where he was like he does in the book. Jackson has to show it or completely change the story. With that extra material, and a proper buildup to the Battle of the Five Armies (in the book the attack comes at random and half the battle is told in flashback), I think Jackson has enough for three films, depending on how he cuts the next film. If he leaves a lot of Gandlaf’s story for the third film, he has plenty for another two-hour movie.

  5. Having heard several reviews complaining about how long it took for the journey to even get started, I went in expecting to be disappointed. Instead I really enjoyed it. Despite the length, there was always plenty to keep me interested.

    Mostly I found the plot changes were benign and didn’t spoil my enjoyment, unlike some of those in LotR. One plot element that did jar horribly for me was actually true to the book: talking trolls. Those in the LotR film were bestial creatures which did not appear to have that capability.

    I also found it difficult to suspend disbelief at some of the perils the party was able to survive unscathed, including rock avalanches, falls of many tens of feet onto rocks, and fighting a whole goblin army without loss.

    The only issue with Freeman is that he is not that old. In the book and the LotR films, Bilbo is already aged when he finds the Ring.

    Bilbo is fifty at the time of “The Hobbit”. Hobbits are a long-lived and slow-aging race who do not reach majority until aged thirty-three. At fifty, Bilbo would have been equivalent to a human in their late twenties. Freeman is about forty.

  6. I also found it difficult to suspend disbelief at some of the perils the party was able to survive unscathed, including rock avalanches, falls of many tens of feet onto rocks, and fighting a whole goblin army without loss.

    Well, Dwarves are supposed to be a hardy folk designed by Aulë to withstand whatever Morgorth might throw at them. Perhaps that including rocks hurled by by giants and falling hundreds of feet followed by a several hundred pound goblin falling on them.

    Bilbo is fifty at the time of “The Hobbit”. Hobbits are a long-lived and slow-aging race who do not reach majority until aged thirty-three. At fifty, Bilbo would have been equivalent to a human in their late twenties. Freeman is about forty.

    True, but I would expect him to look a little older given the scene from the prologue in Fellowship and that the ring slows Bilbo’s aging. It is a lot of aging to get from Freeman to Holm.

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