REVIEW: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey [2012]

Score: 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 169 minutes | Release Date: December 14th, 2012 (USA)
Studio: Warner Bros.
Director(s): Peter Jackson
Writer(s): Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson & Guillermo del Toro /
J.R.R. Tolkien (novel The Hobbit)

“Home is now behind you”

It’s hard to return to Middle Earth without thinking about Randal Graves from Clerks II and his defense of Star Wars possessing as its cornerstone the fact Peter Jackson‘s film version of J.R.R. Tolkien‘s Lord of the Rings trilogy was all a bunch of people walking. He’s not wrong. What the generalization misses, however, is just how integral the gorgeous landscapes of New Zealand play in creating this fantastical world. We accept the long treks across mountains and through trees because it breathes life into something fans have only ever imagined could exist. Jackson did the books justice, yes, but he also brought dreams to life in a way that touched the hearts of audiences and critics internationally. So, simply bringing us back should be enough to recapture that magic no matter the result.

Although, one could argue this is exactly what the DVDs are for. Why not just re-watch Frodo and Samwise’s adventures into Mordor if you really want to see Middle Earth again? Why must we be given a new, potentially bloated trilogy out of Tolkien’s first novel The Hobbit when it is shorter than any one of the LOTR entries alone? Unfortunately the answer is probably money. Yes, Jackson loves this universe and his passion cannot be contained, but you had to wonder about creative purpose after co-writer Guillermo del Toro stepped away from the director’s chair. Here he spends all this time helping to develop the story, art direct creatures, and rev up to try and mimic past success and then he walks away. I’d love to have seen what he could have done.

Instead The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is more or less the same from Jackson in what amounts to a remake of The Fellowship of the Ring. This isn’t a bad thing—push comes to shove, Fellowship was probably my favorite of the original films—but can it be argued that he should have left it alone? Personally, I don’t care. I’m a fan of the literature and having the opportunity to see it on the big screen is a treat no matter what critics will say about it being long, boring, or redundant. The others were overlong too, but they were hailed as genius because they hadn’t been done before. Can we really hate The Hobbit for being too much like itself? Creedence Clearwater Revival shouldn’t be able to sue former songwriter John Fogarty because his solo work sounds like him.

The parallels are in Tolkien’s source material. Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) gets recruited by Gandalf the Gray (Ian McKellen), joins a band of fighters, and hopes to defeat a dark and powerful enemy. Like Frodo (Elijah Wood) he leaves the Shire, visits Elrond (Hugo Weaving) at Rivendell, and finds himself embroiled in a climactic fight that could risk the life of a leader from his pack. Rather than looking ahead to eventually vanquish Sauron, however, Bilbo and his dwarf compatriots look to slay the dragon Smaug who has taken up residence at the dwarves’ former home, the Lonely Mountain. There are orcs, goblins, elves, and stone giants; there’s the original introduction to the evilly insane Gollum (Andy Serkis) and his precious; and the little Halfling who had never left his residence at Bag End slowly becomes a hero.

Jackson, del Toro, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens remain true in their adaptation as well as the visually identity of what we saw a decade ago. My screening was unfortunately not in 48fps, so I can’t weigh in on that debate, but the computer effects are once more unlike anything we’ve ever seen. Gollum is more fluid and polished, the fight scenes—and there are many—come at you with a kinetic fervor that may actually be too breakneck, and any flourishes to the Kiwi landscapes are seamlessly integrated. From the opening prologue telling of how Smaug took the dwarf kingdom to the slimy goblin cave lair to the bright light of Rivendell, The Hobbit is gorgeous to behold. And while a couple dwarves like Fili (Dean O’Gorman) and Kili (Aidan Turner) look human, the make-up is stellar too.

Wood, Ian Holm, Christopher Lee, and Cate Blanchett all return whether they should or shouldn’t in context to the text; new allies arrive in the form of eccentric wizard Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy) and brave pack leader Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage); and formidable foes like Manu Bennett‘s Azog the Orc help keep things interesting since Smaug himself won’t officially arrive until the next installment. It’s a wealth of characters to help bridge the trilogies as well as define their world. And a background subplot concerning Sauron’s rise from the ashes to become the fearsome adversary he will later on is a fantastically subtle addition. Treat this film as exposition for the others if you like; it’s still effective despite this inherent, prequel crutch.

In the end, rather than a pure blockbuster spectacle like before, The Hobbit is a lot of fan service for a lot of money. Would I be saying this ten years ago if it came out first? No. The fact it’s being released fourth hurts it if for no other reason than we’ve become numb to the artistry. It’s still just as good, throwing in a ton of humor to off-set its oftentimes weird pacing from battle to battle without a chance to catch one’s breath. Familiarity will hurt it with casual viewers and help with diehards. People like me can’t be disappointed because it is everything we’d expect it to be. I’m probably going easy on it as a result of this, but I don’t care. Middle Earth is back—that promise was fulfilled.

It won’t be in my top ten and it shouldn’t be up for any year-end awards besides technical categories, but The Hobbit is still an action extravaganza that transports you into fantasy. Light at times and pitch black in others, the true darkness of the book is still to come and I can’t wait for The Desolation of Smaug to give it form. I just pray stretching it into three films doesn’t prove to be a mistake.

[1] (L-r) WILLIAM KIRCHER as Bifur, GRAHAM McTAVISH as Dwalin, MARTIN FREEMAN as Bilbo Baggins, JAMES NESBITT as Bofur and JOHN CALLEN as Oin in the fantasy adventure “THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY,” a production of New Line Cinema and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures (MGM), released by Warner Bros. Pictures and MGM. Photo by James Fisher
[2] IAN McKELLEN as the Wizard Gandalf the Grey in the fantasy adventure “THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY,” a production of New Line Cinema and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures (MGM), released by Warner Bros. Pictures and MGM. Photo by Mark Pokorny
[3] Gollum, performed by ANDY SERKIS in the fantasy adventure “THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY,” a production of New Line Cinema and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures (MGM), released by Warner Bros. Pictures and MGM. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

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