If there is one movie everyone's been anticipating to see, it's Peter Jackson's return to Middle-Earth with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. The level of excitement for this prequel series has undoubtedly reached Star Wars levels of excitement back when The Phantom Menace was first announced. However, does The Hobbit succeed where the Star Wars prequels failed? Let's find out!
DISCLAIMER: If the title wasn't a big enough of a giveaway, this review will be filled with a treasure trove of spoilers about the film that would make the dragon Smaug envious. So if you haven't seen the film I suggest you go see the film right now, because it's definitely worth your time to watch.
With that little annoyance out of the way let's delve back into the world of dwarfs, dragons, and The One Ring.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a fantastic film that shouldn't disappoint anyone who even remotely liked The Lord of The Rings trilogy. In spite of being a prequel the world of Middle-Earth feels new and exciting whilst also feeling familiar at the same time. From the very get-go we are treated to the familiar lands of The Shire where Ian Holm returns as Bilbo Baggins, on the eve of his 111th birthday party and the start of The Lord of The Rings.
Immediately Bilbo sets us up with some backstory about the Dwarf lords who lived under The Lonely Mountain and how the diabolical dragon named Smaug forced the dwarfs to flee their kingdom and become nomadic. After attempting to reclaim another former land of theirs, the mines of Moria which will sound familiar to anyone who saw the first film, from orcs the dwarfs eventually settle into their nomadic lifestyle. However, there is one dwarf, the legendary dwarf king Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), who still wishes to reclaim The Lonely Mountain from the clutches of Smaug.
This is where Bilbo comes in. The young hobbit, played perfectly by Martin Freeman, is met by Gandalf the Gray (once again played by Ian McKellen) who asks Bilbo if he wants to join him on an adventure. After meeting the rest of Gandalf's company, a group of dwarfs led by Thorin, Bilbo learns that they need a hobbit to sneak by Smaug, who doesn't know the scent of hobbits. Naturally, like any true hero on a journey, Bilbo declines Gandalf's offer at first. However, Bilbo's natural curiosity about the world beyond the Shire calls him to join Gandalf and the thirteen dwarfs on their journey to The Lonely Mountain.
To start, I should clarify in that I saw the film in good old regular 2D at a standard 24 frames-per-second. So have this fact in mind when I say that The Hobbit is a beautiful movie to behold. The sweeping landscape shots are just as amazing as they were in LOTR, and the makeup effects for all the dwarfs were very well done. It was refreshing to see such a variety of dwarfs in the film, and might I say Armitage's Thorin Oakenshield gives Viggo Mortensen's Aragorn a run for his money in the "sexy fantasy hero" department even though he's supposed to be a dwarf. The other dwarfs, all of which I won't be going into too much detail because there are so many, are also very well done and memorable. However, it's Freeman as Bilbo that really stands out as it is clear he was born to play the titular hobbit.
While I couldn't shake the obvious parallels between Freeman's Bilbo and his role as Arthur Dent in Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy, Freeman really gives a memorable performance managing to hold his own against powerhouses like Ian McKellen. Speaking of which, McKellen, in spite of looking a bit older, hasn't lost his step as Gandalf. This time around it was nice to see a more adventurous Gandalf who would utilize his magical abilities much more often than we see him do in LOTR. I particularly enjoyed when he improvised some fireballs by setting pine cones on fire with his previously established ability to light small fires with his fingers.
The film mainly follows Bilbo and the dwarfs as they make their way through Middle-Earth, however the film does jump away from their journey to either show us a flashback to a previous battle in history or to entirely different characters to setup what will undoubtedly be plots in the second and third films.
It is here that I must confess that I haven't read the novels, not The Hobbit nor the LOTR trilogy, and I honestly have no true intention to do so. They are dauntingly thick books and I barely have the time to read (or write for that matter) a regular sized novel let alone four. However, I am aware of the fact that Peter Jackson and company are stretching out the films into a trilogy while The Hobbit remains a single novel. Though, in either case, I'm glad we're getting another trilogy and not just a one-off return to Middle-Earth. However, I did feel this movie dragging on a bit as I watched in the theater.
At nearly 3 hours long I was surprised it wasn't longer, because it sure FELT longer than that. However that shouldn't be considered a truly negative criticism about the film, as I was entertained throughout the entire film. Though, as I think about how long most movies I go see are these days it surprises me that we don't reinstate intermissions between the first and second halves of a movie because by the end of The Hobbit I was exhausted! So much happens in this movie, and it is somewhat surprising that we have two more movies after this! As Gollum said at the end of The Two Towers: "We have a long ways to go yet..."
However, it was clear (at least in my eyes) that nothing in this movie was intended to "pad" the movie in order to help stretch it into a trilogy. Everything you see feels relevant to the story. Take the introduction to Radagast The Brown (Sylvester McCoy), a wizard who is rather fond of nature. It is clear that his discovery of a necromancer in his woods will be a key plot point later on in the next films. And that hedgehog! Oh man that scene with that dying hedgehog got me like no other friggin computer generated animal has gotten me before! I even remember the little bugger's name: Sebastian! I nearly bawled like the baby in my theater when I thought he died! I cheered when Radagast managed to save his life! (Note: if anyone wants to get me a Christmas present, find a plush Sebastian the Hedgehog, because I would totally love one now!)
Speaking of computer generated critters, the creatures in The Hobbit are almost, unlike in the LOTR trilogy, completely done with computer effects. I was somewhat miffed by this, especially when the orcs in the previous films had been, almost entirely, done with practical makeup effects. However, I was glad to see some practical orcs here and there and the cg isn't that terrible. The Pale Orc, Azog The Defiler, was a very menacing creature and I wasn't entirely distracted by the fact he was done entirely with computer effects.
The one creature that did turn me off, however, was The Goblin King, who has forever put the miracle of jiggle physics into a dark, dark, place it will not return from... *shudders* It was a bit irritating that this creature was done with CGI when a practical puppet, in tandem with some CGI to help, could've been so much better. Or maybe I say that because a rubber puppet wouldn't have gainaxed so much in such a terrible, terrible, way...
Nightmare fuel aside, the effects in The Hobbit are fairly well done, even though I felt it relied a little too much on CGI. However, there are some really amazing scenes, such as the group's encounter with a trio of tolls, and the scene where the group discover themselves in the middle of a literal brawl between mountains. The Hobbit really adds the fantasy to this fantasy film, where the LOTR films seemed very fantasy-lite.
However, I can't do a Hobbit review without mentioning the creature that made such abominations like Avatar possible: Gollum. If there was one scene I'm sure fans of the books and LOTR films were waiting for it was the legendary showdown between Bilbo and Gollum. Andy Serkis once again plays Gollum, and it was pure movie magic to see the creature come to life once more. It was even better to see him and Bilbo play a game of riddles, Bilbo either winning safe passage out of the caves or losing and being Gollum's next lunch. It was a fun, and memorable, scene as Gollum's dual personalities argued on what to do with Bilbo once he lost. If there's one thing that makes The Hobbit worth seeing it's this scene. And the return (technically the introduction) to The One Ring was as chilling as ever when you first see it "abandon" Gollum. It's even more chilling since everyone knows the truth about the Ring, a true plus to this being a prequel.
While the film does start rather slow, with a few bits of action in the form of flashbacks to keep the film from feeling like a true hike through Middle-Earth, I have to say The Hobbit is a wonderful start to a new trilogy. The performances here are top-notch and the story fairly well done, if a bit long winded. I did have some issues with the over-reliance on computer graphics but I can't really complain, as long as the graphics aren't mediocre I truly don't mind. Though the gainaxing goiter on the troll king could've been toned down...
I give The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey four rings of power out of five for being a fairly solid first entry into a new trilogy of Middle-Earth movies.