The Hobbit - An Unexpected Journey (2012)

Director: Peter Jackson

Starring: Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, James Nesbitt, Ken Stott, Sylvester McCoy, Cate Blanchett, Ian Holm, Christopher Lee, Hugo Weaving, Elijah Wood, Andy Serkis

All journeys have a beginning. Before the story of the war to end all wars in Middle Earth as told in “The Lord of the Rings,” there was a tale to be told of a band of Dwarves, displaced from their homeland by a merciless dragon, set on a quest to reclaim what was theirs. “The Hobbit,” as a cinematic entity, had a tumultuous journey of its own to undertake before being presented to the world. Uncertainty presided over which film studio would provide financial backing (ultimately, New Line Cinema and its parent company, Warner Bros., share credit with MGM). There was also confusion over exactly who would be in the director’s chair. Originally, Peter Jackson had stepped aside, favoring his “King Kong” remake and handing the reins over to Guillermo Del Toro. A Writer’s Guild strike in 2008 threatened to end the project before it ever got underway. Eventually, circumstances would be such that Peter Jackson would return, and the tale of “The Hobbit” could finally be told.

Because it was necessary to film “The Lord of the Rings” first in order to have the adventures in Middle Earth realized in live-action feature form, there was always a crushing certainty that “The Hobbit” (much smaller in scale compared to “The Lord of the Rings”) could only pale in comparison. When first seeing “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” theatrically on New Year’s Eve 2012, I must confess to having high expectations BECAUSE of “The Lord of the Rings,” perhaps unreasonably so. All I know is that, while I enjoyed myself then and each successive time I have watched it in the meantime, “An Unexpected Journey” did not quite meet my expectations. Upon my most recent screening, I believe I finally have a better idea as to why this is.

Before talking of what I find disagreeable about the movie, I want to turn my focus onto all that is right with “An Unexpected Journey.” As it always was with “The Lord of the Rings,” the casting is impeccable. There are the reliable returning members of the cast like Ian McKellen as Gandalf, as well as brief appearances from Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett, Christopher Lee, and Elijah Wood. Yes, Frodo Baggins appears in a brief scene that neatly ties in with the opening to “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring,” but this is not his story. It is his uncle Bilbo’s adventure. The elderly Bilbo is scene briefly, played by the returning Ian Holm, before we flash back in time 60 years. Martin Freeman, who plays the younger Bilbo, could easily have screwed this up, playing the role so drastically different as to be completely unbelievable in the role. This never happens, and instead we accept him as Bilbo as easily as fans of “Sherlock” accept him as John Watson. Perhaps one of the most impressive things about “The Lord of the Rings” was the completely believable CGI used to create the character of Gollum (Andy Serkis). But, that was a decade ago, and CGI technology has become even more advanced. It shows when Bilbo confronts Gollum in the classic “Riddles in the Dark” scene. By the 2020’s, I imagine that this technology will be so finely tuned that we may see long gone actors returning to headline new movies from beyond the grave.

One of the things that is harder translate from page to screen (at least for me) are the deeds and personalities of the individual Dwarves, complicated by their similar sounding names. There are some who are more easily recognizable than others. For example, there is Balin (Ken Stott), whom we know from the events of “The Lord of the Rings” is destined to survive “The Hobbit” only to be killed in battle some time in-between the two trilogies. The most distinguished of all the company is easily their leader, Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage). Thorin can in some ways be compared to Aragorn, one of the principle heroes of “The Lord of the Rings.” Like Aragorn, Thorin is a warrior, a natural born leader and heir to a throne that has been without a proper king for a long time. Unlike his counterpart, Thorin is driven by both vengeance and greed, and his relationship with the Elves could not be any more different from that of Aragorn’s. Of all the new actors in the cast, I think I am impressed by Richard Armitage most of all.

What I take issue with in “An Unexpected Journey” does not create a terribly long list, but these have been consistent “problems” I’ve been having with the movie every time I see it. Each problem is connected to one another in some way. As I have mentioned already, the fact that the Dwarves names are so similar is a doozy to keep straight all on its own, but the fact that most aren’t given enough time to properly develop their personalities is impossible to ignore. Also sticking out is how we are introduced to the Dwarves. I hate to keep drawing comparisons to “The Lord of the Rings,” but this one is necessary. When the Fellowship was introduced, each individual both distinguished and endeared themselves to us. The Dwarves do neither of these things the first time Bilbo meets them. Unbeknownst to Master Baggins, Gandalf has invited the lot of them into Bilbo’s home, where they raid his pantry without asking and make up condescending songs about him. This can all be attributed to the idea that the Dwarves are the basis for what “Star Trek” calls Klingons, and they do actually clean up after themselves (astounding, considering the mess they make), but it’s an odd way to introduce your heroes nonetheless.

Finally, the pacing is a problem. Armed with the knowledge that “The Hobbit” was originally conceived as a two-part film experience that was later expanded into a trilogy, I couldn’t shake the feeling that a certain amount of padding might be going on. Early on, there is nothing wrong with the speed at which the story is moving along. Right around the point where Thorin and the Dwarves escape from the Goblins is where the movie starts to run out of steam, until it finally reaches a place where it can stop and leave a teaser for Movie #2. While there is mostly nothing critically wrong with “An Unexpected Journey,” there are enough chinks in its armor that there is definite room for improvement. I hope to find that improvement in “The Desolation of Smaug,” set to hit theaters tomorrow. With all the next chapter has to offer, including two roles for the great Benedict Cumberbatch (Holmes to Freeman’s Watson in “Sherlock”), I can’t imagine anything less. My final conclusion on “An Unexpected Journey” is that, although a fine movie worth revisiting, it is as Bilbo once said, “thin, like butter scraped over too much bread.”

  1. jackconner says:

    Nice write-up! I too was very frustrated by H1. Hopefully H2 will put things back on track.

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