As with so many others before me, I was (and am) a big fan of the Middle Earth world written and created by the great J.R.R Tolkien. Whether it would be “The Lord of the Rings”, “The Hobbit”, “The Children of Hurin” or “The Simerillian”, the world of Middle Earth has been nothing sort of brilliant; equally so was Peter Jackson’s masterful film trilogy. For many, Peter Jackson’s trilogy is the “Star Wars” of this generation, and joins the ranks of one of the greatest sets of films ever made. So, like so many I was beyond thrilled when it was announced “The Hobbit” would be adapted for the big screen and Peter Jackson would return to the director’s chair after Guillermo Del Toro dropped out of production. Just before the film’s release though it was announced that the Hobbit would be more than just a two part adventure (as originally intended), instead it would be a brand new trilogy.
“The Hobbit” a trilogy? A simple adventure, children’s fairy tale, clocking in at just around 300 pages long, stretched to three, almost three hour fantasy epic films? Suffice it to say there would be many doubters and I was among them in that camp. I didn’t think there would be enough material to justify a three film series. Yet I remained optimistic reading about some of the changes that would be occurring in the adaptation process, and a thought clicked in my head, this might just work. I went opening weekend with my father to experience the return to Middle Earth and the first installment, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” was an unexpected success! “An Unexpected Journey” had me engaged from beginning to end, with excellent casting, terrific storytelling, pulse pounding action set pieces and achieving close to the same feelings I felt when I first watched “Fellowship of the Ring”, sheer fun and wonder.
“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” opens up on an older Bilbo Baggins (played by Ian Holm) sitting down writing of his adventures as a young man, as he and Frodo wait for the arrival of Gandalf for Bilbo’s birthday. Bilbo used to be like any other hobbit. Not concerned with the outside world, and lived very much within the realm of the Shire. Yet as that young man, Bilbo (played by Martin Freeman) is approached one day by the great wizard Gandalf the Grey, “to share in an adventure”. Bilbo learns about a group of Dwarves looking to reclaim their homeland under the Lonely Mountain called Erebor. Bilbo hesitant at first, agrees to help them take back the home that was stolen from them by the dragon Smaug.
For a story that doesn’t have much material to start with, “An Unexpected Journey” is packed full of story. The narrative takes it’s time building up the events of the story while also never keeping the pace in gridlock. It does take about 40 minutes for Bilbo and company to leave the shire but never once before that was I craving for him to leave or finding myself getting bored. We get a lot of back story on the grudge between Dwarves and Elves, and a fun introduction to all the dwarves in Bilbo’s home; and what would a fantasy film be, if not for the grand epic opening showing the destruction of Erebor and Smaug’s arrival.
Even though a great majority of this opening is devoted to the dinner party with the dwarves in Bilbo’s house, some may think that doesn’t sound interesting at all. Yet Peter Jackson is able to create a fun energetic tone that would fall flat in the hands of less capable directors. He uses the dialogue and the eccentric personalities of the dwarves to keep audiences engaged and amused, and also give us time to get to know the dwarves. Some will standout better than others, being 13 dwarves, it’s hard to create 13 unique and different looking personalities. In “Fellowship of the Ring”, you had several different races and so each character was easy to tell apart, while “The Hobbit” is a little backed up against the wall dealing with 13 dwarves.
Once we’re off on the adventure the film doesn’t disappoint. Memorable moments from the book, like the troll sequence are showcased in dramatic and entertaining form while the film continues to develop its characters like the prince (and rightful king of Erebor, and leader of the Dwarves kin), Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage). Thorin carries a life of burden in his past and is actually quite a tragic figure. Thorin is actually one of the most interesting characters we’ve seen in the Peter Jackson’s films in general (in both sets of trilogies).
After the Rivendell sequence (which expands a lot of Middle Earth mythology for the series) from beginning to end it is nothing but excitement and sheer spectacle. We make our way to Goblin Town, where our heroes are taken captive, and Bilbo stumbles across Gollum for the first time. This stand out scene from the novel “Riddles in the Dark”, brings back the great Andy Serkis to the role Gollum as they engage in an epic game of Riddles. You could argue that this is the starting point for all that is to come for the later “Lord of the Rings” story. Bilbo comes across the one ring to rule them all, it’s the point where Bilbo must decide to either kill or spare Gollum. This back and forth conversation is as thrilling as any action set piece that Jackson throws at us.
The movie ends on a thrilling rousing moment with a confrontation between Azog (the leader of the Orc Army) and Thorin and company comes to blows on the edge of a mountain. The two enemies have a long history towards one another, and you can feel the bitterness; the hatred between these two characters as the movie was building to this confrontation. It’s a thrilling sequence that gets your blood flowing and heart pumping as Howard Shore’s amazing score pounds away. Jackson does a great job at building up characters in this movie, so when the big moments come, it feels wholly satisfying.
So is this as perfect as a “Lord of the Rings” film? Well not quite. As good as the story is, it was fighting an uphill battle from the very beginning; with the book, “The Hobbit”, not being nearly as good as “Lord of the Rings”. That’s not to say the book was poor, on the contrary, the original “Hobbit” novel is above excellent and is nothing short of classic; yet that doesn’t mean it’s story is as rich as “The Lord of the Rings” either. In “Rings” the fate of Middle Earth is at stake, here it’s about reclaiming a home land in a pretty straight forward adventure. Peter Jackson and his crew do add many new elements from other works of Middle Earth to create a much more richer narrative (the Necromancer subplot for example) but still it won’t touch “Lord of the Rings” nor should it be expected too. This is not necessarily a flaw but it does help hinder it from being as good as the past series but it does come pretty damn close.
Some of the flaws that do come into the play is sometimes the action scenes do get a little over the top, and also a little too much CGI from time to time. The special effects are great but sometimes Jackson floods the screen with too much of it. “Lord of the Rings”, I think balanced visual effects and practical effects much better.
Obviously one of the biggest aspects that fans of the original trilogy loved is the extended cuts of the movies, that clocked over 200 minutes long apiece. So how is the extended cut here? Well it doesn’t add as much rich new material that the original cuts did and only clocks in at 183 minutes long. Which is only about a little less than 20 minutes longer than the original cut. Is the new material worth it? It is, yet it isn’t anything mind-blowing. While the new Rivendell scenes add nothing new, the extended beginning does help develop the relationship between dwarves and elves even further. It’s not amazing and is mostly for diehard, but I enjoyed the new cut even if it isn’t too much different from the theatrical cut.
“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” was an incredible experience in Middle Earth. The action scenes were heart stopping, the casting was pitch perfect, and Jackson’s direction was impeccable. I was still a little unconvinced about a trilogy however this was a great start.