Film Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Thirteen dwarves, a wizard and a hobbit set out on an adventure.

The punch line, in some quarters, is that director Peter Jackson and company – literally, in the case of Weta Workshop, which handles Middle Earth’s special effects – are stretching the diminutive prequel to The Lord of the Rings into a complementary trilogy of three-hour epics.

The Hobbit:
An Unexpected Journey

Directed by Peter Jackson.
Starring Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Sylvester McCoy, Andy Serkis, Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, Christopher Lee.

ut there is plenty to smile about even for audiences who treat the world of Tolkien with something approaching solemnity and certainly for those little adventurers who aren’t old enough to have seen the other trilogy.

When Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) finds himself selected by the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) to participate in an adventure – wholly unknown except that, most un-hobbit-like, it will involve a great deal of travelling and the likelihood of danger – his life is upended by the arrival of a band of dwarves.

Their names, which become a comic motif in the form of Gandalf’s taking roll call, are Fili, Kili, Oin, Gloin, Balin, Dwalin, Bifur, Bofur, Bombur, Dori, Nori and Ori. For most intents and purposes, they coalesce into a single mass of hairy gruffness, but each has his quirks, and the characters are as well differentiated as any thinking viewer could expect among a band of protagonists fifteen strong.

Their leader, Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), is this series’ answer to Aragorn: dark and earnest and seeking to reclaim a lost kingship, he is the very opposite of the good-natured Bilbo, who is as homely and timorous as he is unheroic and doubtful about committing to the dwarves’ quest for a dragon’s treasure.

And while the dragon, Smaug, is an antagonist largely saved for later in the tale, the company has trolls, goblins, and a vendetta-driven orc chieftain to contend with en route, not to mention Gollum (Andy Serkis in another riveting motion-capture performance), who enters the story to trade high-stakes riddles with Bilbo and misplace a certain precious ring.

A melée among stone giants which sees the adventurers trapped between brawling mountain crags is endowed – at least in high-frame-rate 3D – with a sense of real, physical mass and movement typically missing from this increasingly abundant sort of large-scale computer-generated spectacle.

Dwarves careen and carom down the sides of mountains or through their cavernous innards, and all that’s missing – except a closer resemblance to the fairly homogeneous dwarves of the LOTR trilogy – is a sense of genuine peril.

But there is evil rising in the forest, as Gandalf learns in a meeting with Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and Elrond (Hugo Weaving) attended by Saruman (Christopher Lee), and this Necromancer – as discovered by the hermitic, animal-loving wizard Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy) – presages the greater dangers to follow for Bilbo and all Middle Earth.

Contravening the trend toward bigger, darker follow-ups, the welcome levity of Jackson’s Hobbit offers the kind of true escapism never afforded by self-seriously “gritty” fare – and after Friday’s events in Connecticut, most of the world could use a light-hearted escape.

A few scenes are overlong – particularly the dwarves’ dinner at Bilbo’s hobbit-hole, which includes a dishwashing ditty like an old Disney reject – and others almost seem briefly to retread LOTR material beat for beat.

But any time there is an eye-rolling moment or what seems like misstep, Peter Jackson quickly redeems it, reminding viewers that they are in the familiar hands of a storyteller completely at home in this world.

Jackson shot The Hobbit at 48 frames per second, which allows for a much brighter 3D image than ever before – a particular benefit for the many scenes set at night and underground – and much crisper, smoother picture in general, but at the expense of the classic cinematic feel.

Initially, the higher frame-rate is jarring, and the ultra-smooth, vaguely cheapened look it gives to small-scale movements has been called the “soap-opera effect.” But it pays off by making Middle Earth that much more immersive (though some may find it is “too real” or that the effect detracts from the traditional mystique of the movies) once its distinctive novelty wears off in the opening scenes.

If An Unexpected Journey is not wholly satisfactory as a standalone adventure, it is because that is precisely what it is not. It very effectively introduces a group of characters whose quest to the Lonely Mountain, which they first glimpse at the end of this instalment, will carry them – and the fans in the audience – into the sequels, The Desolation of Smaug and There and Back Again.

Outright cliffhanger endings are pervasive enough in serial storytelling that this film’s muted or incomplete arcs are less a surprise or a disappointment than a first taste with more to follow. Adaptations from Harry Potter to Twilight have received the split-movie treatment to flesh out characters more fully and expand on world-building, and if there is one universe of backstory that undeniably deserves the same it is Tolkien’s extensive mythology of Middle Earth.