Movie Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Bilbo

Returning to Middle Earth after the nine year hiatus since we concluded The Lord of the Rings trilogy and watched Bilbo, Frodo, and Gandalf sail off to the Grey Havens was a surprisingly joyful experience.  The moment Peter Jackson announced he would be making a film version of The Hobbit, then revealed that he would split the movie in two, only to outdo himself and later announce it would become a trilogy, the general mood of those around me has been nothing short of depressingly cynical.  I absolutely loved Jackson’s treatment of The Lord of the Rings and have been somewhat annoyed at the disdain shown to a man who managed to make a lovely group of films based on something usually regarded to be unfilmable.

I will admit to being a bit surprised that a cute children’s book such as The Hobbit would get such grandiose treatment of being turned into an almost nine hour trilogy, but after seeing the first part of three, I no longer have any doubt.  The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was a fantastic voyage back to a place that feels as real to me as any actual place on this green earth… and Jackson hasn’t skipped a beat, the continuity and style between the previous installments and this feel fluid and grounded in something solid.

Before I get into any details about the movie itself, I have to mention that my review of this film is hardly coming from an objective position.  I was a huge fan of this novel when I was a wee lad… and my oldest daughter just completed the book a few weeks ago, and she was as enthralled as I was.  Being able to sit with her in a theater and watch what are essentially the images ingrained in my brain since childhood come to life while my 10 year old daughter whispered all sorts of exclamations of recognition and joy was enough to fill my heart for years to come.  It would be an impossibility for me to separate my emotions from that… sorry.

So how did Peter Jackson create a trilogy out of a small children’s novel?  He added in all sorts of extra material… some made up, some from the appendices at the end of The Lord of the Rings, and some bits extrapolated from a single line of text.  If you know the books, you will know which elements were added and from where… if you don’t, who cares, it all conspires to give more back story and to imbue the tale with much more at stake than just gold and an adventure… there is revenge, there is bad blood, there are reasons given for how things eventually come to pass, and there are hints as to how those things happen and why.

The film opens with the tale of Erebor, the last great kingdom of the dwarves, and how the King became mad with his lust for gold and riches and how the great dragon Smaug came down from the north and took the wealth of Erebor from the dwarves and forced them into exile… a people without a home, left to wander.  From here, we fast forward about 120 years… to the day Bilbo Baggins is preparing for his eleventy-first birthday party… the day The Fellowship of the Ring begins.  It is quite a treat to see Ian Holm reprise his role as Bilbo and Elijah Wood returning as Frodo, if only for a few minutes before traveling back 60 years to the moment when Bilbo’s great journey begins… with an unexpected visit from Gandalf the Grey.

From here, Bilbo is put out as thirteen dwarves begin piling into his hobbit hole and making quite a mess of things and raiding his pantry until nothing is left.  They, together with Gandalf, explain how they will take back what was theirs, Erebor and the treasures within, from Smaug and reclaim their home and kingdom.  With Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) as their leader and eventual king, they devise a plan… and it is this plan which becomes the hobbit’s unexpected journey.  What I never quite clued into before watching the film is that this journey is more than just to there and back again… it’s a journey for Bilbo from who he is, into who he will become… and from there, we know where the story leads us.

I think Martin Freeman was born to play Bilbo Baggins… and Ian McKellen, Gandalf.  I cannot imagine two people better suited to their roles.  At no time did I ever feel that Freeman was doing a Bilbo or Ian Holm impression… instead, it seems as though Ian Holm had been doing an amazing Martin Freeman impression.  Perfect casting for our little furry footed adventurer.  There were a few other characters who return from The Lord of the Rings, somewhat shoehorned into the story, but completely germane to the larger tale and not a distraction at all.  Gandalf makes a comment to Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) that time has not affected her appearance… I couldn’t agree more.  Whether it be CGI or incredible make up, all returning characters seemed as though age is not altering anything about them.

When I first began to see the production stills and portraits of the dwarves themselves, all thirteen of them, I wasn’t convinced.  They looked silly… a bit goofy… and Thorin seemed to be some pin-up dwarf of sorts.  Somehow, it all works… it all fits… and I bought into everything.  If my daughter can name the dwarves immediately upon seeing them (“daddy… that’s Kili and Fili”), they did something right.  And to give each character a well defined role and personality made for a wondrous company.

Also returning, and whose appearance has huge consequences as we all know, is Gollum… again performed by the amazing and phenomenal Andy Serkis.  Some of the early cynicism seemed to come from believing that because of the increased technological abilities for motion capture they would make the Gollum scene from the novel a huge part of the film… perhaps giving him more to do in order to showcase how awesome the tech has come and giving people more of a fan favorite.  I’m very happy to say that yes, his performance is incredible, but nothing extraneous has been added, the scene plays out as it does in the novel… and with the knowledge of what is to come, it’s a great scene.

One thing I did not do was to see this in it’s high frame rate presentation.  This is the first film to be filmed and shown at 48 frames per second (fps) as opposed to the standard 24 fps.  There are only  about 450 theaters nationwide who converted their projectors to handle this, and I am fortunate enough to live close to three of these theaters.  The reactions to this new tech has been mixed to say the least… some like it, some don’t notice a difference (these are the same people who don’t think HD makes a difference… I now assume these are folks who require glasses who don’t wear them… these are the “Blu-ray doesn’t make a difference” people… I don’t understand them), others have despised the experience claiming that without the film blur, everything looks so real that you can tell it’s a movie set… therefore, it looks so real it looks fake.  I opted not to see it in this format, I may see it again so I can see what all the hub-bub is all about.  I did notice a few of the more action based and CGI assisted scenes that had a bit of a jerky stutter to them, so I imagine the high frame rate would have smoothed those moments out… not sure.

Would I recommend The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey?  If you are a fan of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, absolutely.  If you are one of these “too cool for school” types who don’t go for fantasy and wizards and elves and all that, perhaps your blackened little heart wouldn’t enjoy this film too much.  I had a long discussion about the true meaning of “suspension of disbelief” with my daughter as we headed into the theater.  These tales require a great deal on the part of the viewer in terms of buying in… if it’s not your thing, it may be difficult.  If it is… this is one journey I would not hesitate to make.

I went there, I want to go back again,
Cornelius J. Blahg 

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