Disclaimer: I saw this film in 2D in the 24 frames per second format, so my opinions are formed wholly on this basis.
For some of us, the nine years since “The Return of the King” brought the trilogy to a triumphant end have been a wasteland of mourning. Wistfully glancing at our wall maps of Middle-Earth, reading and rereading the trilogy, and in times of dire need, watching all 999 hours of behind the scenes film footage, “The Hobbit” movies could not have come soon enough. The news of three movies for the 300-page children’s book, met with groans elsewhere, simply heralded more glorious time to be spent amongst Dwarves and Elves and Hobbits. For us, this review is irrelevant. Just go watch it—Middle-Earth is back, enough said.
For those who did not await this movie with bated breath (ranks I will do my best to join for the rest of this piece), the first installment of Ringmaster Peter Jackson’s “Hobbit” trilogy, “An Unexpected Journey” takes the spectacle and adventure of “The Lord of the Rings” and substitutes the epic for the comic, though it falls far short to its predecessor in both respects. Sixty years before the trials and tribulations of Frodo and Fellowship, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), a Hobbit content as any to stay at home and mind his garden and his doilies, is swept away on an adventure by everyone’s favorite wizard, Gandalf the Grey, and a company of thirteen Dwarves. Facing foes as frequent and varied as trolls, goblins, orcs, wolves, and the rain, they seek to retake the Dwarves’ ancestral homeland of Erebor, occupied by the ferocious, gold-loving dragon Smaug.
Written nearly a decade before “The Lord of the Rings,” “The Hobbit” is a very different book in spirit and form from its epic sequel, setting the stage for the fight with Sauron but also quite content as its own light-hearted adventure. Not to say that “The Hobbit” is not thrilling or scary, but it possesses a simple charm and childish mischief as opposed to the grandeur and heroism of “The Lord of the Rings.” The stakes are lower here, the world does not hang in the balance, and the Ring is but a mysterious afterthought. The problem with the “Hobbit” movie is that it can’t quite make its mind which it is more: an independent story or a prequel to the trilogy. Jackson seems afraid to let the story stand alone, tying it as neatly as possible to “The Lord of the Rings” by lavishing too much attention on familiar characters such as Elrond and Galadriel and even writing the story up to the very day “The Fellowship of the Ring” begins.
While this constant allusion to the trilogy seems harmless, it affects the film’s ability to win us over fully. In trying to imitate “The Lord of the Rings” with its majestic sets, allusions to lost kingdoms, brooding heirs, and action-packed sequences, “The Hobbit” loses the playfulness and the magic of the book. The leader of the Dwarf company, Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) spends much of the movie in brooding silhouette, intent on becoming the shorter, hairier version of Aragorn and Hamlet. The escape from the Goblin kingdom is too much like the flight through Moria, the Eagles again appear as the unexplained deus ex maquine, and even the music is recycled from the trilogy with the exemption of the single, beautiful Dwarf theme. Despite the best efforts of the actors, Bilbo, Gandalf, Thorin, and the rest simply make us yearn for Frodo, Sam, Aragorn, and Gimli rather than fully establishing themselves as characters to be loved and cherished in their own right.
Where the film most captures the spirit of the book is a delightful scene in which the Company is captured by Trolls, who spend so much time arguing how to cook Bilbo and his friends that dawn breaks and they turn into stone. The witty banter, the chaos of the Dwarves, Bilbo’s cleverness, and the sheer hilarity of the Trolls come together to create a scene that is simultaneously hilarious and frightening, one where you almost don’t want the Company to be saved if it means it coming to an end.
This balance between comedy and suspense is once more achieved in the thrilling Riddles in the Dark. Andy Serkis and Martin Freeman could not be better in this sequence that is somehow funny and familiar, yet frightening and tragic. Serkis manages to convey so much humanity in Gollum’s eerily blue eyes and guttural screams for his precious, and knowing what is to come for Gollum and the Ring only makes his loneliness, despair, and twisted need the more painful.
Serkis, sadly only in one scene, is joined by an admirable cast. Freeman makes his own mark upon Hobbiton by creating a Bilbo distinctly different from Frodo, bringing the tough timidity and quiet obstinacy that has made him so beloved as Dr. John Watson to face off the perils of Middle-Earth. Tolkien veterans Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett, Christopher Lee, and Elijah Wood (the man has not aged a day—it’s terrifying) make their brief appearances memorable, and Sir Ian McKellan is as wise and good-humored as ever as he steers the Company out of the trouble time and time again.
What is perhaps most memorable about “The Hobbit,” however, is the Dwarves. Thorin, Fili, Kili, Dwalin, Balin, Dori, Ori, Nori, Bifur, Bofur, Bombur, Oin, and Gloin—their names roll off the tongue and are immediately lost in the hubbub of the group, but Jackson and his team manage to make each of them unique. Throughout the film Gandalf is like a schoolteacher, counting the Dwarves off to make sure they are all present, and yet we slowly come to recognize each of them for their own oddities, be it an ear trumpet, different colored beards, strange braids, or a puzzling lack of beard. (Jackson also seems to be operating under some rule that every trilogy must have its own beardless, attractive archer, be it Elf or Dwarf.) Though Jackson sometimes overindulges in their humor, the Dwarves are so loveable in their bumbling, chaotic quest for homeland that we forgive them the length and the hiccups of their journey and simply enjoy it.
“The Hobbit” was never intended to be as epic as “The Lord of the Rings,” and many of the film’s failings fall in its desire to be so. It never rises to the grandeur or the greatness of the trilogy, and at times simply makes us yearn for those golden days of yore, but its silliness, humor, and warmth still make it an entertaining addition to the chronicles of Middle-Earth. With two more films to come, “An Unexpected Journey” shows both room for improvement and the pillars of a stalwart series built upon the virtues of friendship and bravery, and the belief that the smallest of creatures can change the course of the future.
Now playing in theaters.
Verdict: 2 1/2 stars out of 4