Few, if any titles in pop culture can claim the pedigree or the legacy given to the Lord of the Rings. The trilogy of novels written by JRR Tolkien nearly sixty years ago are three of the most acclaimed books ever penned and in the process sparked the birth of the modern fantasy genre, with all the works that followed shaped in some form or another by the tale of the War of the Ring. Much the same, the decade old film trilogy was a milestone in its own right, as Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings film trilogy proved to be a cultural milestone and gave us three of the best movies ever put to celluloid, regularly grouped as some of the best movies ever made, and easily the best movies of my lifetime. Given the large and weighty legacy of the Lord of the Rings, it’s easy to forget that the story of the saga began not as the sweeping epic of good against evil we know today, but the tale of a single Hobbit who lived in a hole in the ground.
The Hobbit was Tolkien’s first novel and first foray into Middle Earth, and the tale of Bilbo Baggins and his adventure alongside Gandalf the Grey and thirteen dwarves as they seek to slay the dragon Smaug and reclaim the Lonely Mountain and its treasure has enthralled readers since its publication in the 1930s. So needless to say, it didn’t take long after The Lord of the Rings became a smash hit film series for Hollywood to get to work on a movie adaptation of the Hobbit. While production was somewhat troubled, ranging from the MGM bankruptcy delaying it with a number of other films to original director Guillermo del Toro leaving the project to make Pacific Rim, the film managed to get back on track under the same man that made movie magic with the Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson himself. About the only complaint to be had was the original duology was split further into a trilogy, like every other movie these days. Thanks a lot Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
To say I had high expectations for the movie would be an understatement – like so many others, you could say I’ve been waiting nine years for this movie. I wouldn’t be the man I am today without the Lord of the Rings trilogy – sitting in the theater watching Fellowship of the Ring was when I decided I wanted to be a writer and where I discovered my love of movies. The Hobbit has a high pedigree to live-up to, and every trailer and teaser that came out built the anticipation to an unprecedented level. It took nine years, but I went to the midnight premiere with a grin from ear-to-ear, and like almost everyone else at an opening so large they had to open additional theaters, and I could not help but cheer with the start of the opening credits.
So does The Hobbit live up the hype and expectations, or are we looking at yet another prequel trilogy set to break our hearts? Grab your walking stick and set out for adventure, as I review The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.
In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit. His name was Bilbo Baggins of Bag End, and like all the other hobbits of the Shire, he loves nothing more than his armchair, his pantry and his garden, and his quick to disavow anything that could upset that balance, especially adventures. That comes to an end when the wizard Gandalf the Grey comes to his home with thirteen dwarves, a company led by Thorin Oakenshield seeking to reclaim their home of Erebor from the dragon Smaug, who invite Bilbo to join their quest. Though hesitant at first, Bilbo eventually sets off on an adventure that will see him meet elves and wizards, face off against orcs and goblins, and play a high-stakes game of riddles in the dark – and obtain a ring of power that we will see much more of in the future.
As anyone who has read The Hobbit knows, the story diverges from the Lord of the Rings in a few major ways, ranging from the more humorous and stylized tone to the nature of the story being more quest-based than good vs. evil, and I’m thrilled to the movie captures this perfectly. Rather than try to capture that same tone and spirit of the Lord of the Rings movies, the Hobbit movies created their own, and the film is every bit as charming and magical as the book, with a few winks and shout-outs to both Tolkien’s stories and the Lord of the Rings films tossed in, with a few more of the untold tales added in. Better still, the script is as sharp as Glamdring, at times both cunning and clever, and often humorous – the latter part surprised me the most with a number of one liners and scenes leaving the audience in fits, ranging from a toe-tappingly catchy rendition of ‘Blunt the Knives’ to the always entertaining schizophrenic Gollum. Yet if you came here looking for depth, fear not, for the film delivers the same sort of heroism and humility delivered by The Lord of the Rings, and a number of touching moments, from a monologue by Gandalf in the middle of the film to a scene between Bilbo and Thorin near the end. While some might complain of the length, it’s not padded at all, rumors to the contrary, and though it gets off to a slow start in the Shire, once the company sets off, you can’t help but be swept away with them, from escaping some particularly hungry trolls to fighting their way through Goblintown.
Though it should be of little surprise, a major highlight of the film is the characterization and the acting. Much like with Jackson’s prior work with the Lord of the Rings, the characters are much more fleshed out than in Tolkien’s work, but the effect is much more pronounced here than it was in Lord of the Rings, if only that in the Hobbit, aside from Bilbo, few of the other characters are given much more than dialog. Here, they are given personalities, motives, little details that make getting to know each one of them a delight. Not only do we see more of main characters like Gandalf and Thorin Oakenshield than we did in the books, but each of the dwarves are given a personality, and even the villains are developed further.
This is largely helped by the performances of the cast, who from the biggest role to the smallest, knock the ball out of the park. Martin Freeman, who plays Bilbo, captures that same humor, homesickness, and growing heroism of the character that made The Hobbit a classic, all of which Freeman captures perfectly, and he is a joy to watch on screen. Ian McKellen, once again as Gandalf the Grey, showcases a side to the character we never got to see in Lord of the Rings, with the wizard’s motivations and character far more fleshed out this go around. Richard Armitage, and indeed, all thirteen actors playing the dwarves, make living, breathing characters out of dwarves whom in the book barely got names, and they are a joy to watch in action, giving us the best batch of dwarves this side of Game of Thrones (Anyone else wish they could have cast Peter Dinklage in this somewhere? Peter Dinklage makes everything better). Once again, Andy Serkis steals the show as Gollum, with the Riddles in the Dark scene providing one of the movies highlights – at this point, I would pay money to see three hours of Smeagol/Gollum arguments. Even the minor cast members work magic – my personal favorite had to be the Great Goblin, played by legendary Australian humorist Barry Humphries, whom a few of you may know better as Bruce the Shark from Finding Nemo, and he’s a riot here as well. About the only complaint I have is Sylvester McCoy as Radagast the Brown – imagine if they’d had Tom Bombadil in Lord of the Rings – and even he had some great moments. Overall, you have an all-star ensemble cast working their magic and you can’t help but be enchanted.
This brings us to another highlight of the film, the special effects and cinematography, and little surprise to anyone who’ve seen Jackson’s craft before, it really is a masterwork of detail and world-building. Once again, Jackson has used New Zealand’s more wild and wonderful places to showcase Middle Earth, and some fantastic CGI work only enhances it further. Some shots of the dwarven Kingdom of Erebor at its height or Rivendell literally left me breathless, and there is no shortage of awesome moments like that in the film. The design of the characters and creatures is also a high mark, and you can see some leftover touches of Guillermo del Toro’s tutelage here as well, especially in the designs of the goblins and orcs, and the results are very true to the source material and always eye-popping. Once again, the fight and battle choreography are top notch, and a scene toward the end where the company fight their way through goblin town gives us the best fighting-chase scene since Indiana Jones – you know, the three good ones. Though the film’s usage of CGI is far heavier than Lord of the Rings, it as seamless for the most part, and my biggest complaint was the design of Azog the Defiler, not because he’s designed badly mind you, but because he reminds me of the Engineer from Prometheus. The comparison may be an apt one – from a special effects standpoint, The Hobbit may have just usurped Prometheus as the year’s best looking film.
This brings us to perhaps the most divisive part of the review: the ongoing debate over frame rate, with the movie having been shot in 48fps and being shown at the same high-frame rate, as opposed to the traditional 24fps. It has left critics and crowds divided, and reading through the negative reviews of the movie, the lion’s share of criticism of the movie has been a condemnation of the high-frame rate, as opposed to the film itself. While that is a topic for another day (and a poor approach for a critic – it would be like me trashing Avatar for the 3D, as opposed to the god-awful acting and cliché story), having seen the movie in both 24fps and 48fps, go see 24fps, at least at first. I am confident that 48fps is the future, but there are still some kinks to be worked out, especially for movies like the Hobbit, which aren’t hyper-realistic. That said, even in 24fps, the film is crystal clear, and the 3D is worth it as well, and the difference between and most other film is notable and for the better. I would defiantly wait for your second showing before seeing it at 48fps though.
And yes, there will be a second showing, maybe even a third. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was a delight from start to finish, and left the attending audience, myself included, standing up and cheering, and is easily one of the year’s top films. The story is enthralling, the adventure palpable, and the acting and cinematography masterful. Those fearing Phantom Menace style whiplash rest easy – the only bad part of the return to Middle Earth is that we have to wait until next December for the next installment, one I will be looking forward to every bit as I was this one.
Is it the next Lord of the Rings Trilogy? Certainly not, and had it never tried to be – instead, we are given the treat of a delightful adaptation of the Hobbit that stands perfectly well as a great film on its own, with a few nods to its literary sequel and cinematic predecessor spread throughout. This, in the end, is a Hobbit’s tale, and the unexpected journey a delight every step of the way, one you simply cannot miss.