Twenty years ago, Peter Jackson gained worldwide acclaim after finishing off his magnum opus, The Lord of The Rings Trilogy. In simple terms it is probably one of the best books to film adaptations of all time, probably about as good as most fans of the material could hope for from a film series. The films are truly epic in scale. The music, the locations, the cast, everything. The films built on and pioneered new VFX technology, creating some incredible CGI characters like Gollum, who still to this day stand as a testament to the skill and dedication of everyone involved in bringing Tolkien’s world to life on the silver screen. Ten years later, he returned to the world of Middle Earth in the hopes of doing it all again and he certainly made a series of high-budget epic movies, but did he reach the same standard of quality as those original films? Maybe, so thank you for joining me as I review the first film in the trilogy, The Hobbit, An Unexpected Journey.
In order to paint the clearest picture, I have broken the film down into categories I have deemed most important. Now, let us start at the beginning with the story.
The Hobbit centers around Bilbo Baggins of The Shire, a hobbit, as he joins The Company of Thorin Oakenshield on his quest to reclaim their lost mountain home of Erebor. The film follows the first six chapters of Tolkien’s story, from The Shire all the way up to the company’s first meeting with Azog the Defiler, after their harrowing adventure in Goblin Town. Along the way we learn about Thorin’s past and why he has set out on this quest, the company faces dangerous enemies such as; trolls, goblins, and orcs, they spend some time with the elves of Rivendell and Radagast The Brown, a fellow wizard to Gandalf The Grey and Bilbo learns that despite his small size he can achieve great things and that he has value. It’s a pretty entertaining adventure overall, however, it’s far from perfect.
The film opens with a long monologue from Bilbo as he writes the history of Erebor, we even get a cameo from Elijah Wood as Frodo Baggins. Aside from the long intro I really enjoyed the first forty-five minutes of the film, the dinner sequence with the Dwarves introductions is entertaining and the stage is set neatly for adventure. During the dinner is where we see two of the film’s several musical numbers, the highlight being the misty mountains cold, Richard Armitage, and the Dwarf cast kill it in a haunting yet beautiful song. Once all the preamble is out of the way and Bilbo has been convinced to join the quest the movie really starts. Pretty soon though we’re shown more flashbacks to characters’ history, it’s like three in the first hour and a half, and that’s a big problem for me as it’s all for stuff that feels pretty unnecessary or that could be better explored through creative exposition and character moments. Instead, what we get is someone telling a story, we see the events and then everyone looks a bit grave and the story continues. I do like the action shown in these scenes but it just slows the pacing, the opening where we learn of Smaug’s destruction of Erebor is the most interesting to watch because we never see the dragon fully which was a great choice.
Another example of a pointless flashback is when we encounter Radagast the Brown, we first meet him after he is mentioned by Gandalf and get a scene of him discovering a new disturbance in the forest, this was good stuff. What was not so good was that when the company finally meets him after their encounter with the trolls, is that we are then treated to another flashback of the rest of Radagasts side adventure, which ultimately sets up no real stakes for this movie. He could have just told them what he learned off the screen and we already have enough context from his introductory scene. After this, we’ve whisked away to Rivendell following a benny hill-esque chase sequence with a pack of Orcs. In Rivendell we, unfortunately, see the Dwarves bathing naked in a fully CGI scene that’s entirely unimportant, the animation is weird and unsettling, just decided to mention it cause it’s odd, really odd.
The Rivendell sequence though is pretty solid, I enjoyed seeing Hugo Weaving as Elrond and he assists the Dwarves with reading their ancient runes, I liked this scene cause I’m a fan of any wacky magical mystery stuff, and the moonlight to read the runes was cool! The minor appearances from Galadriel and Saruman go in the same bag as the Radagast scenes, I get that they set up future events and they probably took place in the timeline, but they feel a little redundant to the narrative at hand except to explain why Gandalf doesn’t leave Rivendell with the rest of the company. Once The Company leaves Rivendell, they get caught up in a fight between some rock giants, it’s unimportant and I get into it in the action section.
After this they find a cave and we get an excellent character moment between Bilbo and Bofur, Bilbo has decided to leave the company as he feels useless and unappreciated. Bofur played wonderfully by James Nesbit tries to talk him down, it’s a wholesome scene that helps establish how the Dwarves are feeling about their position as well as Bilbo’s feelings, Martin Freeman is just great. Before getting a chance to leave though the company is set upon by goblins and is taken to Goblin Town. Bilbo is separated from the party. The Goblin King’s song is entertaining and he is suitably grotesque despite some wonky visuals. But the real meat of this whole sequence is the meeting between Bilbo and Gollum. I’m not saying they could have cut the entire Goblin-town sequence to spend more time with Gollum, just that it feels so secondary to the riddles in the dark scene that it may as well not be there except for showing us what the Dwarves are getting up to. Because the game of riddles is wonderful, Andy Serkis proves he has not lost any steam in the years since last playing Gollum and delivers an unnerving performance for the tormented villain. The depiction of Bilbo’s pity for Gollum after he escapes with the ring is spot on and you wind up feeling quite sad for him, I wish he had more screen time.
A few scenes in the movie gave us glimpses of the “villain” Azog the Defiler, he’s just not very interesting, so when we get to the film’s climax with him it’s not exactly exciting. He corners the Dwarves in some trees and Gandalf uses clever fire magic to protect them. Bilbo’s arc comes around here and the payoff isn’t bad, he stands up to the Orcs and saves Thorin, Gandalf summons the eagles and they get away. Thorin’s arc is really odd, he’s just mean to Bilbo the entire movie but then after Bilbo saves him, he decides he’s the best guy ever. The film ends on a hopeful note as they’re much closer to their goal. We then get a final scene showing Smaug awakening and that’s that.
The story is not bad by any stretch, but it’s frustrating how much it deviates from the main course to set up future events that aren’t really important to the story at hand even in this trilogy.
In this section, I will break down the characters and give my thoughts on how they fared in the film.
Bilbo Baggins is the saving grace of this movie, I can get frustrated with so many choices the director and studio made, but casting Martin Freeman was not one of those bad choices, he shines as Bilbo in every scene he’s in. Freeman brings so much character and heart to Bilbo, it just makes me wish the film spent less time with what felt like two or three plot lines and more time just hanging out with Bilbo. His arc of self-discovery and finding his worth both to himself and the company is pretty heart-warming.
The Dwarves are up next, I’ve grouped them together cause they’re just not that interesting. Fili, Dwalin, Bifur, Bombur, Ori, Nori, Dori, Oin and Gloin. In case you forgot immediately after watching the film those are the names of the Dwarves that are not Balin, Bofur, Thorin, and Kili. Kili gets a special mention here because he is “the hot one” which is more character than the rest get. As for Balin, well he is wise and has a big white beard so you remember him, though he still for some reason distrusts Elrond despite being the voice of reason in the group. Bofur was probably my favorite Dwarf, he has a great heart-to-heart with Bilbo that is integral to his arc. So, he is a very good supporting cast member.
Thorin looks badass, talks badass, and is badass, but is sadly just kind of mean-spirited and unlikeable for much of the film. Thorin is meant to be very distrusting of Bilbo which I get, but as most of the others besides Gandalf and Bofur are, he doesn’t really stand out in that regard. He does have the most backstory of all the characters, with the most clearly defined goals, but he is carried by the fact that the wonderful Richard Armitage plays him, who I love.
Gandalf is Gandalf, he’s wise, calming, and genuinely awesome when he needs to be, as with the lord of the rings films his magic is not as open and, in your face, and is of a much more subtle nature. Sir Ian Mckellan does an excellent job and it’s always wonderful seeing him in this role.
Elrond does not have a very big role but I decided to mention it cause he has an impact on the adventure, if you’ve seen Lord of the Rings, he’s about what you’d expect, commanding and cool, with a helping of frustration at the dwarves shenanigans. Galadriel and Saruman both make appearances and they’re good, nothing to write home about.
Gollum. Holy shit Andy Serkis is perfection. The highlight of the film by far is Bilbos meeting with Gollum and their game of riddles in the dark. Andy Serkis never fails to deliver the goods and he is in excellent form in this scene, Gollum is also one of the better digital characters in the film. Just an outstanding character and work of art that I’m always happy to see more of.
Azog, feels like he should be the boss fight for this movie but ends up sticking around for parts 2 and 3, overstaying his welcome. Azog is responsible for the murder of Thorin’s father and that’s about his only claim to fame, he’s not very intimidating cause his design is a bit off and he doesn’t interact enough with the main characters for us to care. Azog also only speaks orcish, which means he tends to just grunt and growl his way through scenes, wasting Manu Benett’s talents as an actor. But of course, he should speak orcish as he’s an orc, but it just makes for fairly unengaging dialogue scenes whenever he’s on screen.
That wraps it up for characters, mostly I found them to be fine but nothing to write home about and definitely lacking when compared to Lord of the Rings, aside from the few really great standouts of course. Next up I absolutely have to discuss the film’s music, cause yeah, it’s great!
Howard Shore’s score is excellent, as with Lord of The Rings he brings his A game and delivers a suitable score for these new characters, that manages to stand on its own. There is one strange moment though where the theme for the elves of Lothlorien plays but for the elves of Rivendell. I can only assume that Shore did not make this decision and it was studio mandated because otherwise, he’s so careful and thoughtful with musical choices. The company’s theme being an orchestral epic take on the Misty Mountains song was genius and once again serves to make scenes of characters walking through wilderness look exciting, he captures the sense of adventure perfectly. The new music the film has to offer is overall great and captures the magic of Middle Earth, and it’s great hearing old classics like the Shire and Rivendell scores. Next up let’s talk action because I have thoughts…
The action is this film is certainly a product of the era it came out in I think, Lord of The Rings has such well-choreographed action that is very engaging. In An Unexpected Journey that is unfortunately not the case. Most of the action is just super cartoonish and floaty, done mostly with CGI and lacking any real stakes. The Dwarves get tossed around and stand back up easily as if nothing happened at all. It’s not all bad looking though, it’s just kind of nothing spectacular. Which is disappointing when contrasted with what came before. There’s a particularly outrageous sequence where the company is caught in the middle of a fight between several rock giants in a thunderstorm because Dwarves dangerously crossing a mountain range in terrible weather is not enough stakes, they had to throw in rock giants. The whole scene is a bit goofy, as at one point we see one-half of the group apparently crushed, and everyone is shocked and sad, only for them to have miraculously survived. The other notable action scene is the escape from goblin town, which is just as silly, with lots of running around effortlessly carving up CGI orcs as the place crumbles around them, with no real danger or threat to safety. So yeah, I didn’t really love the action, it’s not the worst ever, it’s definitely something that might keep you entertained but it doesn’t hold a candle to what came before.
Effects of practical and digital
The Lord of The Rings films are well known and highly praised for their various incredible digital and practical effects. The films won several awards, such as the Return of The Kings Oscar for Best Visual Effects. An Unexpected Journey was indeed nominated for Best Visual Effects, but aside from Gollum’s appearance, which is admittedly spectacular, I don’t see it. The film doesn’t look bad, but none of the effects hold up as well as The Lord of The Rings. Especially the eagles, maybe it’s rose-colored glasses but I just thought they looked better in the older films and a little fake and plasticky in this one. The Orcs looked excellent which is a win, but then the Goblin King voiced by Barry Humphries looks rubbery and video gamey. There are a lot of digital shots in place of what were once practical, the shire for one is over bright and saturated, losing its homely qualities and instead looking more dreamlike akin to Rivendell. The hair and makeup are wonderful, the Dwarves beards are large and expressive, and well-made. However beardless characters often have a strange smoothness to them which is off-putting. It never looks quite as natural as The Lord of The Rings Films.
Well I feel I’ve been largely negative and I don’t like to be, I love Tolkien and The Lord of The Rings films, but I still have to be honest with myself and how I view this movie. In 2012 I remember really enjoying it and being excited to see what came next, at this point I want to watch the sequels but more so because I want to see what the extended editions have to offer than actually being excited about them. In saying all of that, I had a fun time with this film and I think that for people not so close to the material there might be even more enjoyment to be had. There’s a lot of exciting stuff on screen and as it’s three hours long you definitely get a lot of bang for your buck. It’s fun being back in Tolkien’s world as well, I give The Hobbit an Unexpected Journey 3/5.