(The Verge) — I have been waiting for the film adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit since I read the book when I was nine. This was before Peter Jackson’s highly acclaimed The Lord of the Rings film trilogy was released, and reading the prequel to the series helped me prepare for those movies. In fact, The Hobbit remains my favorite book to this day, with its engaging fantasy setting and grand sense of adventure. After being such a huge fan of the original story as well as Jackson’s versions of LOTR, it only made sense that I would be excited for his return to the director’s chair (after Guillermo del Toro stepped down from directing) for his adaptation of my favorite book. So, did the big screen version live up to my expectations? Well, that’s hard to say, since the squealing fan boy in me set my expectations for this film unrealistically high. Still, I can safely say that The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a worthy adaptation of the original book that fans of Tolkien’s story and the LOTR films will greatly enjoy.
Our journey begins with an older Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) recalling his adventures 60 prior as well as giving some history on the events leading up to them. The proud dwarves of Erebor lived peacefully under the Lonely Mountain for many years, with their vast riches and mighty armies. This all ended when the evil dragon, Smaug, ravaged the city and drove the dwarves out of their home. Fast-forward years later, when the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) visits a younger Bilbo (Martin Freeman) and offers him the chance to go on an adventure. Bilbo is reluctant to accept his offer, preferring the safe and quite life in his hobbit hole of “Bag-end”. This changes when 13 dwarves, led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) reveal their plan to reclaim Erebor by using Bilbo as a burglar, much to Bilbo’s dismay. After finally deciding to join Gandalf and the dwarves on their quest, Bilbo’s adventure begins in earnest.
An Unexpected Journey features some familiar faces from The Lord of the Rings in addition to several new characters. Martin Freeman captures the essence of Bilbo Baggins perfectly, portraying him as a reluctant hero with a kind heart who will do whatever he can to help his friends. While Bilbo gets a fair amount of screen-time early on, he takes a bit of a backseat to the dwarven company, and especially Thorin. Most of the dwarves were given fairly minor roles in the original novel, and while they have a bit more to do in this version, that is still mostly the case. Thorin, however, if featured pretty prominently throughout the story, which is both good and bad. While it is nice to see his character more fleshed out, it is somewhat at the expense of the other characters. I honestly would have liked to see Bilbo take more of a center stage to the story, since it technically IS him telling it.
(Sir) Ian Mckellen reprises his role as Gandalf, and although he sounds noticeably older here (which is odd considering his character is 60 years younger), his portrayal as the Grey Wizard is just as good as it ever was. This is also true of Hugo Weaving as the elven lord, Elrond. The returning character who stole the show for me, though, was that of Gollum. Andy Serkis’s live-action performance mixed with CG is arguably better than his portrayal in LOTR, and the famous “Riddles in the Dark” scene between him and Bilbo is handled expertly. The majority of the character’s in An Unexpected Journey are memorable and contribute to the overall story. However, a few of the characters not featured in the book feel shoehorned into the movie, such as Galadriel (Kate Blanchett), the White Wizard Saruman (Sir Christopher Lee) and
Tom Bombadil the Brown Wizard Radagast (Sylvester McCoy).
One of the things Peter Jackson’s adaption of The Lord of the Rings did so well was engaging the audience in the almost real looking Middle-Earth, which The Hobbit also succeeds in doing. Everything from the lush green fields of New Zealand to the CG representations of Rivendell and Erebor make the world of Middle-Earth feel totally believable. Speaking of CG, An Unexpected Journey features much heavier uses of digital effects than the previous movies, with somewhat mixed results. The digital depictions of Rivendell and Erebor are absolutely beautiful, while the computer generated Wargs and goblins can look slightly out of place, especially compared to the real life extras used in LOTR. Although I can understand from a logistics standpoint why Jackson would favor using CG monsters over hiring extras, it slightly detracts from the film’s sense of realism. On a minor note, there are several instances of slow-motion during action scenes that feel unnecessary and come off as distracting. This movie also takes advantage of modern 3D, and despite me not being a huge fan of 3D, this is one of the best examples of the effect done right.
Part of the reason The Hobbit remains my favorite book is how it made the reader feel like they were truly going on an adventure with these characters. Jackson’s version certainly maintains this theme, as well as capturing many of the elements that made the original story so great. Bilbo’s role as the reluctant hero who later becomes a valuable asset to the company is present here, and his journey as a character is enhanced by Martin Freeman’s excellent performance. Another part of what made the book so great was the way the varying locations were given a full attention to detail. As I stated earlier, the different environments in An Unexpected Journey are beautifully represented, and contribute to the story’s sense of scope. Many of the iconic scenes from the book are fleshed out and translate incredibly well to the big screen. Unfortunately, the overall pacing is slightly hampered by the scenes that were not originally in the book. The early parts of the movie favor uses of flashbacks and side-cuts in order to give some context to the world and characters. Even though I was fine with the actual content of these scenes, the way they were inserted into the movie made the pacing feel uneven at times and seemed to stray too far from the story at hand.
I also feel I should express my feelings on this film being the first in a trilogy of movies. I was honestly skeptical of the original decision to turn The Hobbit into two films, and the announcement that there would be three made me even more worried. There are times where it feels obvious that scenes were stretched out in order to fit everything into a two hour and forty minute running time. Despite some scenes dragging a bit, I didn’t have any real problems with the overall length of film. In fact, I wish some scenes were even longer, which I’m sure will be addressed in the inevitable extended edition release.
Peter Jackson’s return to Middle-Earth is an exciting adventure, and a must-see for fans of Tolkien and the LOTR trilogy. The incredibly engaging world in addition to the endearing characters and excellent recreations of iconic scenes from the book all make this a tale worth investing in. While it may not be on quite the same level as the Lord of the Rings movies, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey captures the spirit of Tolkien’s universe and creates an engrossing experience, making it one of the best films of the year.