The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
It’s Going to Be a Long One

It has been nine years since director Peter Jackson’s epic Lord of the Rings trilogy concluded, an accomplishment that stands as one of the greatest achievements in the history of cinema.  Given the trilogy’s success, it was only a matter of time before that trilogy’s literature prequel, the much beloved The Hobbit, arrived in theaters.  Delayed by, among other things, legal trouble, the tale of Bilbo Baggins has finally arrived in theaters; at least, part of it has.  In a curious decision, Jackson has decided to tell the three hundred page story in three parts, each part epic in its own right.  The first film in the new trilogy has been titled The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and it comes in at just under three hours.

The Hobbit takes place sixty years before the events portrayed in The Lord of the Rings.  The unlikely hero of the tale is Bilbo Baggins, a Hobbit played briefly by Ian Holm in the original films.  Holm returns here as he sits down to write of his adventure that he will eventually pass on to the first film’s protagonist, his kinsman Frodo.  The movie then flashes back to Bilbo’s younger years when he is approached by the wizard Gandalf.  Gandalf invites Bilbo on an adventure that will take him far away to the Lonely Mountain, where he will help a baker’s dozen of Dwarves reclaim their home and their fortune that is currently being guarded over by the evil dragon Smaug.  Bilbo first refuses to undertake such a foolish mission, but has a sudden change of heart when he awakes the next morning.

Martin Freeman as Bilbo in The Hobbit: An Unexpected JourneyIn this first chapter of the adventure, Bilbo and his companions encounter three giant (but childish) trolls who wish to eat them for supper, caverns full of foul-smelling goblins, and a peculiar old wizard who warns them of the existence of a frightening figure known as the Necromancer.  While all this is all going on, they are being pursued across the countryside by a gang of Orcs led by Azog, a vicious character who seeks to settle a score with the leader of the dwarves, Thorin Oakenshield.  Bilbo also finds himself face to face with the creature Gollum, and it is then that he first comes into contact with that one ring that would rule them all and be the crux of the original trilogy.

That scene with Gollum is perhaps the most famous part of the book and definitely is the key piece that ties this new film trilogy together with the original trilogy.  Perhaps it is just a victim of high expectations, but something about the scene just didn’t quite work.  Gollum looks great and is again played well in motion-capture by Andy Serkis, but the interaction between him and Bilbo felt stale and lacked the appropriate level of intensity.  The scene comes down to a game of riddles between the two, but the soundtrack, particularly the patterns of Gollum’s speech, made it difficult to distinguish the dialogue, which is certainly an important element to a battle of wits.

Other scenes that felt flat were those involving characters that returned from the original trilogy, even though they didn’t actually appear in the book of The Hobbit.  There is a long dialogue scene between Gandalf and Elrond (who was in the book), Galadriel, and Saruman (who weren’t) that felt unnecessary.  The interaction at the beginning between Bilbo and Frodo, who also wasn’t in the book, also feels like it could have been left out.  These scenes accomplish little but to help Jackson stretch his little story into three long parts, a decision that might ultimately become the new trilogy’s downfall depending on how these subplots play out in the next couple of films.

That’s not to say that The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is not without its great moments.  The battle between the stone giants was impressive to watch and the escape from the goblin lair was exciting, even if it did feel like something you’d find in a video game adventure.  The dwarves are also fun characters, each with their own unique personalities.  Jackson also does a good job of integrating the songs that the dwarves sing in the book into the film version.  In fact, maybe the most inspirational filmmaking choice he made in this first film was taking a beautifully rendered interpretation of one of those songs and using it as the basis for the movie’s epic score, a score this writer still has in his head two days after seeing the movie.

The epic, sweeping shots of the Middle-earth landscape are also back giving the film that feeling of grand scale that made the original trilogy so impressive.  Still, one has to wonder how we have seen so much of the landscape of Middle-earth and yet never flown over a golf course.  After all, Gandalf does admit to the existence of the sport, both in the book and in the movie.

The grand scale of the film is undermined a bit by some of the potty humor that invades the movie.  The Hobbit has often been thought of as more of a kids book than the actual Lord of the Rings trilogy, so it is no surprise that Jackson does infuse the movie with some childish humor and characters, but the balance between kids movie and epic adventure is a hard one to keep.

It’s hard to judge the product as a whole at this point because we have only seen a third of the story and there is still a lot of exciting stuff to come.  The dragon Smaug may be the most exciting element yet to come and this first film does tease us with just enough of his presence to make our mouths water for the second film like a troll who’s got a dwarf on his spit.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is rated PG-13 for “extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence and frightening images.”  Those who have seen the original trilogy (and who hasn’t?) will know exactly what to expect here.

Courtesy of a local publicist, Jeff attended a promotional screening of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.