The Hobbit has been a long time coming. After countless problems getting the Hobbit film adaptation off the ground, the prequel to the unrivaled Lord of the Rings trilogy is finally here. But after a decade’s worth of anticipation, does The Hobbit live up to its own legacy?
An Unexpected Journey is the first part of this now-three part adaptation for the big screen. Many have questioned how The Hobbit, a much shorter book than The Lord of the Rings, can span an entire trilogy. But people often forget just how much is going on in The Hobbit, it’s simply that its more child-friendly tone meant a lot happened a lot faster than it did in Rings.
Peter Jackson has once again brought Middle-Earth to beautiful life, and by bringing The Hobbit more in tone with Lord of the Rings (not to mention using material Tolkien wrote in the appendices of his books), he has proven that this prequel trilogy is more than justified.
So let’s just make this simple. Those worried that The Hobbit would be the new Phantom Menace, there is no need to worry. If you loved The Lord of the Rings trilogy, then The Hobbit will be a very welcoming return to this world of Hobbits and wizards. The only concern goes to those who found the lengthy running time of Lord of the Rings to be hard on their bladders. The Hobbit is, like its predecessors, three hours in length. It’s probably good to know that going in so you’re prepared to adjust your seat every now and again.
The great news is that you might not even realize An Unexpected Journey is three hours long. It may take a little bit for Bilbo to get out his door and begin his (unexpected) journey (I personally don’t mind, as it emphasizes his being a reluctant hero). But once Bilbo sets off with Gandalf and his band of Dwarves, the movie is one fantastic moment after another. Whether its epic battle sequences, stunning visual effects, or its timeless story, once The Hobbit takes hold of you it doesn’t let go until the very last moment (which very much leaves you craving the next entry post-haste).
The story opens with the elderly Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) beginning work on the book of his great adventure of his youth, the very same book which he is to pass down to his nephew Frodo (Elijah Wood). After this nostalgia-inducing opening, we travel back to the events of the book, when a younger Bilbo (Martin Freeman) is visited by the wandering wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen).
The grey wizard wishes to recruit Bilbo into an adventure lead by Thoring Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), a Dwarf prince from the kingdom of Erebor. The company also consists of a band of twelve additional Dwarves: Balin, Dwalin, Fili, Kili, Oin, Gloin, Ori, Dori, Nori, Bifur, Bofur and Bombur (Ken Stott, Graham McTavish, Dean O’Gorman, Aidan Turner, John Callen, Peter Hambleton, Adam Brown, Mark Hadlow, Jed Brophy, William Kircher, James Nesbitt and Stephen Hunter, respectively).
The Dwarves and Gandalf are to take part on a request to reclaim their lost kingdom from the dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch), who has long since occupied the once-proud mountain kingdom. Gandalf believes Bilbo will prove to be an integral part to this adventure, despite the reluctance of the Dwarves (and the Hobbit himself). Bilbo of course eventually does set out from the comfort of home for the adventure, after which The Hobbit never lets up.
Along with the ultimate goal of the dragon and his horde of treasure, there are other storylines going on throughout the adventure. The vengeful Orc chieftain Azog is in constant pursuit of Thorin and company, Gandalf’s fellow wizard Radagast the Brown (Slyvester McCoy) discovers a rising threat of “The Necromancer” (also Benedict Cumberbatch), and Bilbo has a game of riddles with Gollum (Andy Serkis) in an encounter that proves to be the film’s most impactful moment. Simply put, An Unexpected Journey is the biggest and most satisfying fantasy epic since Return of the King.
While the beautiful visual effects and music (once again composed by Howard Shore) once again create Middle-Earth in all its beauty, it’s the performances of the actors who really bring it to life. Martin Freeman makes for the perfect Bilbo, both reluctantly brave and heroically simple. Ian McKellen’s Gandalf remains the best sagely character in cinema, Richard Armitage gives a commanding presence as Thorin Oakenshield, and Andy Serkis’ Gollum is still the greatest and most believable motion-captured performance ever.
Other characters from the Lord of the Rings trilogy return, along with Gandalf, Gollum, Bilbo and Frodo, other returning faces include Elrond, Galadriel and Saruman the White (Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchette and Christopher Lee, respectively), who not only bring back wonderful memories of The Lord of the Rings, but give performances (albiet smaller ones) that help make Middle-Earth that much more captivating.
If you’re concerned over the performances of Thorin’s band of Dwarves, I think it’s safe to say that, although most of them only have so much to work with (they are a large group, after all), each one is a unique presence. Balin, for example, is the aged and experienced warrior, Bombur is the comical glutton, Fili and Kili are the pretty boys, and Bifur has an axe logged in his head, leaving his speech incomprehensible. Hopefully the Dwarves can be fleshed out a little more in the sequels, but Peter Jackson and the respective actors had a lot to work with, and I feel they succeeded in making each Dwarf stand out in one way or another.
Being the first part of the trilogy, it naturally has the same duty to establish (and re-establish) the majority of elements of the story, characters and world that Fellowship of the Ring had. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a terrific reintroduction to the world of Middle-Earth, though it may not be quite on the same level as The Lord of the Rings.
This is an unfair comparison, however, as currently we can only judge this first chapter of The Hobbit against the entirety of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. It may seem to take a while for Bilbo to get out his door (to those who aren’t as absorbed in Middle-Earth as I am, anyway), but then again, it took Frodo a good while before he left Bag-End in Fellowship of the Ring.
So while An Unexpected Journey may not be as great as The Lord of the Rings, it is an opening act that is perhaps comparable to that of its predecessor. The Hobbit still has two movies to become as legendary as The Lord of the Rings, but even by its own merits, An Unexpected Journey is precious nonetheless. Bring on The Desolation of Smaug.
“I’m looking for someone to share in an adventure!”
A very, very, VERY high ’9′ mind you.