The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012) / Fantasy-Adventure

MPAA rated: PG-13 for violence and frightening images
Length: 169 min.

Cast: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Ian Holm, Ken Stott, Andy Serkis, Sylvester McCoy, Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett, Graham McTavish, William Kircher, Christopher Lee, James Nesbitt, Stephen Hunter, Dean O'Gorman, Aidan Turner, John Callen, Peter Hambleton, Jed Brophy, Mark Hadlow, Adam Brown, Elijah Wood, Lee Pace, Benedict Cumberbatch
Director: Peter Jackson
Screenplay: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, Guillermo del Toro
Review published December 30, 2012

The Hobbit an Unexpected JourneyPeter Jackson (King Kong, The Two Towers) returns to Middle Earth by filming the prequel to the Lord of the Rings trilogy, adapting J.R.R. Tolkien's classic book, 'The Hobbit'.  While each of the LOTR books were condensed into single movies, 'The Hobbit', the shortest of the Tolkien Middle Earth books to be made into a movie by a good margin, has been deemed worthy of extending into a trilogy of its own by Jackson.  Jackson's vision is bolstered somewhat by adding some things Tolkien had written in the appendices (such as the Azog, the Pale Orc story arc, though hardcore Tolkien fanatics may find a few extra niggles at how that has been altered) at the end of his 'Return of the King' book to flesh out more of the story and bridge the 60-year gap between the end of The Hobbit and the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring.

This first part, with the secondary title of An Unexpected Journey, kicks off the tale as told in flashback mode as a book being written by Bilbo Baggins (Holm, Ratatouille) as we knew him from the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring, as a gift to his nephew, Frodo (Wood, 9).  The book entails the adventures of a younger Bilbo, starting several decades prior, living a life of relative ease in Bag End, his Hobbit-hole in the shire.  He is visited by a great wizard named Gandalf (McKellen, The Golden Compass), and later, thirteen nomadic dwarves, who mean to employ Bilbo as their burglar on an adventure he'd rather not go on, which is to reclaim their former home on The Lonely Mountain from the treachery of a dragon named Smaug, who has taken firm residence there after the dwarves numbers were decimated by a fierce attack by bloodthirsty Orcs.  Bilbo seems adamant at first, but then his curiosity gets the better of him, and he reluctantly agrees to join the party on their quest.

An Unexpected Journey ends not too far into 'The Hobbit' after Bilbo encountering Gollum (Serkis, Rise of the Planet of the Apes) in a dank cave, whereby he comes into possession of a ring that has the power to give its wearer invisibility.  Of course, anyone who has seen the Lord of the Rings trilogy already know there's far more to the story of the ring, so its significance in this film will seem far weightier than it might at this point if you were starting with just this film. 

The most impressive aspect of The Hobbit is its stunning visuals, which intricately captures life in Middle Earth, from the lush, cinematic environs, right down to every button on every piece of clothing.  Truly, it is a breathtaking achievement in sight and sound.  If there is a downside to the visuals, it is in its repetition.  There are several shots that come into play, particularly of the heroes going to the edges of cliffs, and those cliffs often jut out to a particular point that will be showcased with a long shot of how the dwarves and co. have nowhere else to go.  Inevitably, one of more characters will fall off the precipice only for an arm to be grabbed at the last second and saved.  If the characters do fall, they all fall, and their fall is usually broken such that no one is injured beyond just a few token scuffs.  It's a difficult enough task to convey a sense of awe and wonder after already witnessing three films in the world that The Hobbit inhabits, but it wouldn't hurt to also strive for something stylistically different within the confines of the same film.

Although I do think its all quite good the way it is, I understand that there will be complaints by some that The Hobbit seems padded out, and not nearly as exciting as the LOTR trilogy  I believe that happens to be an inevitable part of the way Jackson has chosen to tell his story.  Jackson had three fairly dense books to stuff into films that would run under three hours each in the theaters, so he had no choice but to keep the action moving and jettison all but the most necessary parts to tell a complete tale in the time allotted.  Not so with The Hobbit, as he can actually capture the leisurely way that Tolkien himself would write his story, which is actually a much smaller, lighter, more descriptive, and less eventful tale than his later trilogy. 

Jackson does beef up the scenes of action quite considerably when compared to the Tolkien work, as battles rage on for ten to twenty minutes at a time.  Much of the final third of the film, save for a respite featuring Bilbo and Gollum trying to solve each other's riddles, is little but scenes of fighting, running, and getting out of scrapes at the last possible second.  As has been the case with Jackson, especially in Return of the King, each climax would seem like a fitting place to end the story, but eventually it leads to a few more climaxes until, finally, the credits roll.  (One might claim that Jackson is as reticent to leave a Hobbit-related film as Bilbo is at leaving the comforts of Bag End). It can seem a little fatiguing after a while, as many of the lengthy action scenes only further the story slightly, and they get to the point where all of the visual stimulation renders it less exciting with each passing instance of another harrowing scrape averted.

Nevertheless, as numbing as the action may sometimes get, there's no denying that it is all visually magnificent.  Rock giant battles are amazingly realized, while dark, torch-lit caverns pop out in ways that capture just how immense and scary such places can be (particularly if watched in 3D in 48 Frames per Second, which it is in about 10% of theaters showing the film on its initial release.  Note: This is the way that I viewed the film for this review).  The mix of animation and real-life actors is stunningly seamless, and though the CGI created beasts still are obviously not real, the level of detail to these characters is still very impressive. The sound is fantastic as well, though I do admit that Gollum is more difficult to understand in this film than I recall him being in any of the others, which makes it somewhat frustrating when trying to do your own sleuth-work during the riddle-trading scene.

The Hobbit, for all of the nitpicking that many may do due to impossibly high expectations, remains a top-notch entertainment that may be excessive, whether in parts or as a whole, but it is still delivered with skill, craft, care, and love from those who are behind the scenes.  With more time to build up the characters, which is especially important when you have 13 relatively similar dwarves to follow, Jackson is able to bring out more humor, pathos, and detail that had been somewhat truncated during the battle-laden LOTR films.  Patience is indeed a virtue, as we're only getting a third of the story, still two-thirds to go, in what could end up being a masterpiece of a trilogy when taken in as a whole.

-- Followed by The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013).
Qwipster's rating:

©2012 Vince Leo