A Totally Biased Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

The return trip to Middle Earth is one well worth taking

It’s an interesting idea to feel like something transcends what it really is. Take, for example, the Olympics. It’s really just a bunch of games. But, every four years, the entire world watches those athletes compete and entire nations rally to support those people. Divers, sprinters, curlers… An entire nation cheers on someone who brushes the ice behind a sliding stone. I mean, really? It’s become a complete and utter phenomenon.

Case in point, the greatest of all trilogies ever made, the ORIGINAL trilogy and ORIGINAL franchise, the one that spawned every trilogy and franchise made since: The Lord of the Rings. Just a set of movies. But, honestly, so much more than that. With the release of The Lord of the Rings: the Fellowship of the Ring, the world was swept up, changed, went crazy and was made new with what many believe to be the greatest fantasy films ever made. They’re certainly the most epic, a fact that few would argue. From elves, dwarves, orcs, goblins, trolls, halflings… It had it all. It was every D&D nerds wet dream brought to life. A world so fully-realized, Peter Jackson told his crew and the talented artists at WETA Workshop and WETA Digital that they weren’t making fantasy films. He said, “this place existed. Middle Earth was a real place. They made everything, carpets, tables, chairs, mugs, everything. We aren’t making a fantasy film. We’re making a historical film. We’ve found all these pieces and artifacts they made and are using them to create these films. That’s how we need to think and feel while we make these films. It needs to feel real, not like a fantasy.” The sentiment worked, and Lord of the Rings, as you already know, became one of the greatest megahit blockbuster series of all-time, with Return of the King winning all 11 of the Academy Awards it was nominated for. Peter Jackson had made it. He’d made the greatest and most successful film trilogy of all-time.

Now? He’s out to top himself with a new one: The Hobbit franchise. And this first installment, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, makes a very solid case for him doing so.

As was previously explained by the Prologue in The Fellowship of the Ring, The One Ring came to Bilbo while he was off on an adventure. This movie, and the two ensuing sequels, are all about that journey, and fleshed out considerably by the extensive appendices Tolkien himself created. Bilbo Baggins is a Hobbit of some repute: he’s hardly ever late, and lives in a relatively luxurious estate. That is, until, becoming acquainted with Gandalf the Grey. Gandalf is searching for a burglar to accompany a troop of 13 dwarves, all driven from their mountain kingdom of Erebor by a fearsome, invincible dragon named Smaug, who’s horded the incalculable amount of treasure they had amassed all to himself. Hence, their need for a burglar. Bilbo’s swept up and whisked off on his grand adventure, the same one he makes numerous mentions to and writes his book about in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. It’s a simple, effective story, and the original introduction to Middle Earth that Tolkien had penned as a bed-time story for his children.

This simplicity works both tremendously in the films favor, and also as the singular crutch of the story: since it’s not quite about the end of the world and a terrible, evil doomsday like the Lord of the Rings trilogy was, the film simply doesn’t have the same gravitas that the originals did. The entire world doesn’t hinge on the success of failure of their plight, and whether or not you agree with it, they’re just out to take back their bank. Not as emotionally investing as Sauron enslaving and destroying the world, is it?

As promised, though, this also works in the films favor, since the “only-semi-serious” tone of the story, as opposed to the “super-cereal” tone of the original franchise, gives the dialogue and characters MUCH more space for another element that Lord of the Rings always lacked: humor. It’s a dimension the films were always, always lacking, and the addition of it here really adds a lot to the high-fantasy formula. Witty, well-written, logical dialogue and funny, almost slap-stick moments give the film a pretty tremendous lift and a much lighter nature than any of the previous trilogy. Martin Freeman, especially, as Bilbo displays a mastery of comedic timing in a performance that, I dare say, could be the performance of a lifetime. This role may redefine his entire career, and for good reason. From the awkward, robotic steps he takes when searching his own home for the invasive dwarves, to the time he takes to reply to Gollum’s proposal, he is pitch-perfect. Of particular note to his performance, as well, is the aspect of his character being appropriately “swept up” in the adventure, where he’s really just along for the ride. It isn’t until, naturally, the very end of the story that he begins to feel like an active participant in the story or the quest, which feels natural and logical for the character. Hat’s off to Fran Walsh and Phillipa Boyens for their work, again.

He isn’t the only one, however, as Sir Ian McKellen turns in another masterful performance as everyone’s favorite wizard, Gandalf the Grey, making him instantly likable but always mysterious and intriguing. In fact, there are hardly any sore spots in the casting, and any flaws or blemishes are the results of the characters themselves rather than their portrayals. And if there are any characters that suffer, it is, undoubtedly, the 13 dwarves partaking in the adventure. It’s just a simple fact that there can’t be 13 equally important main characters in a story like this. Fortunately, though, as is the standard for the film, the ones that matter are done exceptionally well, with notable praise to Thorin Oakenshield, whose gruff, unpleasant demeanor sets him apart from the, generally, fun-loving, gregarious, and chipper bunch. The only other dwarf with much dialogue is Balin (as in Gimli’s cousin), who stands as mentor and close friend to Thorin, and whose performance is more than good enough to bear mentioning. And, lest we forget, it goes without saying that Andy Serkis‘ return as Gollum is easily the best role in the film. Serkis is wholly triumphant, and so successful that he completely steals every scene he appears in. Never before has a CGI-character been portrayed so masterfully and so effortlessly. Despite Serkis’ face never appearing on-screen, he easily turns in the film’s best performance, bar none.

Jackson makes a lot of the “right” decisions in terms of what he leaves for the two future installments, The Desolation of Smaug and There and Back Again, both due out next year. For instance, Smaug is never shown in his entirety, and is mostly just a shadow or  even less than that and simply implied. The dark force taking refuge in Mirkwood is never shown outright, and in both instances, it builds anticipation for the next installment. Either that, or he’s gypped us into spending more money. Take your pick. For my cash, though, I think he made the correct choices in developing the story and including certain things from the appendices.

The special effects, and notably the 3-D, are all very good, and while I’ve read in other reviews that some people had problems with some of the strictly CGI-characters, I found none of them distracting or otherwise unconvincing. Some of the designs simply couldn’t have been achieved through conventional means, and I applaud both PJ for entrusting WETA with the task of creating the memorable characters, as well as WETA for their ability to pull it off so convincingly. I’d also like to take some time to discuss the 3-D aspect of the film, which I found to be very effective and a lot of fun. It didn’t seem to dim the picture quality too much, and although I think the film is entirely watchable without, I didn’t find it distracting to the eye, which is more than I can say for about 90% of 3-D movies these days. Regarding the other aspects of the production, returning composer Howard Shore‘s work hits the usual notes of fantasy and action, with strong themes throughout. And although I would’ve liked to hear more songs out of the book, I was happy with the songs I did hear, and felt they fit naturally into the story and setting, without turning the film into a musical.

A grade

Another ambitious trilogy by Jackson is off to an incredible start.

Middle Earth is as interesting and enthralling a place as ever: stellar production design enhances what we’ve already come to know and love, and elevates the setting to more than just an idea. Middle Earth feels as real as any place we’ve ever seen in a film, thanks largely in part to Jackson’s design team and his own stellar imagination. And although the story itself falters because of its own less-than-serious tone at times, it’s elevated because of it at every other turn. The casting for the denizens of Middle Earth is impeccable as ever, and the return journey’s to the wondrous land are already two of my most anticipated films of the next year. The action set pieces alone would make this film easy to recommend, but there isn’t action simply for the sake of action, as Jackson works diligently to bring Tolkien’s pages to life, and the set piece sequences offer up interesting and new dimension that seem almost unfamiliar to the Middle Earth universe, but fit more comfortably because of the added humor and, sometimes, less-serious nature. The film benefits from wonderful characters, terrific, well-delivered and acted dialogue, and the usual sort of tremendous, imaginative action Jackson’s able to conjure. And like Gandalf, it feels as though Jackson’s best tricks are yet to come, despite how good this film really is.

If anything, it’s just a little sad to think we may never see Gollum on-screen again…

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