Okay, I’ll admit that I have never actually read J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. I’ve always meant to… it’s been on a shelf in my parents’ bookcase for as long as I can remember. But I’ve just never gotten around to it. It’s a terrible habit, I know. I can’t help it. I procrastinate. Even with this review — I saw The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey last weekend, but I’m only getting around to writing about it now.
I blame the holidays.
Anyway, the point is that I can’t possibly review the film in relation to the novel, so I’m not about to try. Which may actually be a good thing, since adaptations of stuff like Tolkien’s work tend to come under intense scrutiny from die-hard fans (you know who you are, nerds). What I can, and will, do — lucky for you — is talk about the film in relation to movies in general, and Peter Jackson’s previous work specifically.
In case you’re unaware, An Unexpected Journey is the first film in what will be The Hobbit trilogy. The story follows a young Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) as he travels with a younger Gandalf (Ian McKellan) and a group of Dwarves led by Thorin (Richard Armitage) to reclaim their home, Lonely Mountain, from the dragon Smaug.
Let me start by saying that I really enjoyed the film overall. Jackson is a great storyteller, and, even though I may be unfamiliar with it, it’s clear he has a definite grasp of and love for the source material. The film strikes a good balance between drama and action, which makes it easy to forget that An Unexpected Journey clocks in with a run time of nearly three hours.
The cast is great, and the characters are, in general, a lot more likable than those in The Lord of the Rings. I know I’ll probably piss a few people off with what I’m about to say (you know who you are, nerds), but Elijah Wood’s Frodo is one of the least likable protagonists ever; I could never get past the fact that he was just so annoying throughout the entire trilogy. Freeman’s Bilbo is much more fun to watch on screen, and that he doesn’t constantly sport a look of utter terror is a definite plus. Armitage is fantastic as Thorin. He brings a tremendous amount of depth to the character, which makes the audience look forward to watching his development as the trilogy continues. Even McKellan’s Gandalf the Grey is more compelling this time around — with less of a heavy burden to bear, he comes across as somehow stronger, more commanding and more of a friend to the other characters.
Then, of course, there are the effects. Obviously, An Unexpected Journey is stunning to watch. Jackson certainly lives up to expectations set by The Lord of the Rings, although his work in The Hobbit doesn’t have quite the same impact as it did ten years ago. It’s spectacular, but it isn’t really anything we haven’t already seen. And yes, I get that I’m being super nit-picky, but when it comes to a director like Peter Jackson, he’s set the bar pretty damn high.
And since we’re on the subject of nit-picky gripes, here are the rest of mine for An Unexpected Journey:
There is a lot of walking. Just because our protagonists are on a journey doesn’t mean that we should have to see them take every step of it. New Zealand is a beautiful country, but cut to the chase already.
The scene with Gollum (Andy Serkis) could have been half as long. While I can appreciate the importance of the scene in the grand scheme of the story, at some point it just starts to feel like the film is pandering to fans of the CG creature.
But keep in mind that these are minor issues. An Unexpected Journey is a great film with an extremely talented cast. And as a fan of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, I loved being able to geek out on seeing some of the characters as they were before that fateful journey to Mount Doom.
There is nothing quite like hearing a theater full of people hiss at the screen when Saruman (Christopher Lee) shows up.