‘The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey’

In The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey Martin Freeman's Hobbit faces new terrorsSo back to Middle-earth it is in the company of Peter Jackson and his wizardly cohorts from “The Lord of the Rings” sagas. And thank the gods of Middle-earth that after all the legal wrangling Jackson did emerge as the new journey’s leader.

It would be hard to imagine any other captain. The sole exception would be Guillermo Del Toro, whose name remains in the screenplay credits along with Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Jackson.

As written by master fable-maker J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” takes place 60 years earlier than the tale told in “LOTR.” But on film it feels like 60 years later.

Shooting in 3D at 48 frames per second for release in what Warner Bros. calls High Frame Rate 3D, as well as other formats (including Imax which sounds forbidding), Jackson and his team achieve a sparkling cinematic quality much better than the earlier movie series.

Martdin Freeman as Hobbit Bilbo Baggins confronts his fearsWhether in the sunny land of the Hobbit’s beloved Shire or the dark places of Goblin tunnels and dense forests, the scenes have a crispness that allows you to see the tiniest details. The 3D only adds to the other-worldliness of these magical places.

Then too the story feels not so dark and militaristic as “LOTR,” not so Wagnerian, in other words. For sure there are pitched battles between Dwarves and deformed Orcs or hideous Goblins. But at least for the first film of this projected trilogy, Jackson emphases fun and comedy.

Wild slides into caves, pell-mell chases, absurd cliffhangers and other such “thrill-rides” in 3D give the film its playfulness. And the title character of the Hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) has such childlike wonder in his face that even when sinister threats arise —and they often do — these incarnations of evil fail to dampen the film’s boisterous spirit.

There may be a problem with the many producers and companies —along with Jackson’s wiling agreement, of course, — trying to extend a novel into three movies. Some padding and annoying byplay tax the film but fans probably won’t much mind.

Bilbo Baggins sets the tale down on paper many years later — Ian Holm returns as Old Bilbo — presumably to be read by Frodo (Elijah Wood, again one of many role reprisals from the previous series).

Since the loss of their Kingdom of Erebot to the terrifying Dragon Smaug, the Dwarves and their handsome leader, Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), have been reduced to a wandering tribe.

Cate Blanchett bids goodbye to Ian McKellen in The HobbitBilbo relates that one day he is approached by the Wizard Gandalf the Grey (again Ian McKellen) to join him, Thorin and a ragtag company of 13 Dwarves to reclaim what is rightfully theirs.

This is all done in a lengthy comic sequence of “drop-ins” at his comfortable Hobbit Hole where the Dwarves consume all that is in his pantry. The sequence goes on a tad too long and even includes a musical number.

It’s never entirely clear why Gandalf feels the quest needs a Hobbit. (Bilbo will be their burglar despite no demonstrable abilities in that direction.) Nor why Bilbo ultimately accepts the offer other than for the adventure.

Such is the nature of this quest, however, that this feels like reason enough. Then, seemingly, the company is stalked the moment it sets foot outside the Shire.

The treacherous lands traveled through host increasingly menacing and wretched creatures — Goblins, Orcs, Wargs and a curiously fascinating confrontation between Bilbo and Gollum (Andy Serkis) beside an underground lake where the duel takes place with wits rather than weapons.

The totality of the movie-magic here from CGI and motion-capture characters voiced and embodied vigorously by actors to the work of hundreds of costume, makeup, hair and prosthetic artists creates a Middle-earth superior to the triumph that was “LOTR.”

New Zealand’s varied landscapes contribute. There is something so inherently wild and unsettling about these that you are never surprised by the complicated and malevolent creatures that pop up.

Ian McKellen as Wizard Gandalf looks for enemies in The HobbitJackson and cinematographer Andrew Lesnie blend all the effects into a whole that is pure fantasy yet realistically so. Even with 3D glasses on, which necessarily darkens the image, the dusks are glorious and the dawns magical.

“LOTR” composer Howard Shore contributes another score that is big and bold yet never trumps the action. Rather his fulsome symphonic sound quickens the pulse and steadies the nerves.

To carp, the cliffhangers often feel forced. Granted if Bilbo is relating this tale years later, his survival is a given. And if two more films are to follow, the Dwarves will come through at least the first film relatively unharmed.

Yet Jackson puts them at death’s door so frequently with last-minute rescues beyond miraculous — a term that takes on a qualified meaning in such fantastic environments — that the heroes never seem in any real danger even as an ax is about to come down or a ferocious creature about to close its jaws.

One sequence where treacherous mountains come alive to do battle as poor, tiny Dwarves cling to their dark, craggy shapes feels extraneous, belonging almost to a different movie and unrelated to the quest.

Personal appearances by characters from previous films such as Christopher Lee’s Saruman, Hugo Weaving as Elrond and Cate Blanchett’s ethereally beautiful Galadriel are perhaps a tad self-congratulatory as well.

On the other hand, this confab of wizards does give the film a needed gravity and purpose and helps fill in many narrative blanks for viewers.

If missteps these be, they are minor ones. It’s always difficult to question things in a film when more is to come. What may seem extraneous may prove vital by the third film.

Let’s put it this way: The previous film series never made me want to read Tolkien; the new one does. The mythology comes alive more, for me at least, and the characters feel more down to (Middle-)earth.

Opens: December 14, 2011 (Warner Bros.)
Production companies: New Line Cinema and MGM Pictures present a Wingnut Films production
Cast: Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Ken Stott, Graham McTavish, William Kircher, James Nesbitt, Stephen Hunter, Dean O’Gorman, Aidan Turner, John Callen, Ian Hom Elijah Wood, Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett, Andy Serkis
Director: Peter Jackson
Screenwriters: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, Guillermo Del Toro
Based on the novel by: J.R.R. Tolkien
Producers: Carolynne Cunningham, Zane Weiner, Fran Walsh, Peter Jackson
Executive producers: Alan Horn, Toby Emmerich, Ken Kamins, Carolyn Blackwood
Director of photography: Andrew Lesnie
Production designer: Dan Hennah
Music: Howard Shore
Costume designers: Ann Taylor, Richard Taylor, Bob Buck
Editor: Jabez Olssen
No rating, 169 minutes


  1. illiterate reviewer #4 says

    This is the fourth review I’ve read in anticipation of the release and the fourth by a reviewer who has never read the source material. How do you become any sort of art or media critic without reading anything by Tolkien? The only book that sold more copies in the 20th century than LOTR is the King James Bible and keep in mind they used to put copies of the Bible in hotel rooms and LOTR wasn’t published until last the halfway point of the century. But these glorified bloggers insult the intelligence of the target audience with their glaring ignorance and render their own writing a complete waste of time. If you aren’t a fan of fantasy literature don’t review films which are adaptations of fantasy literature, what a concept…. That is the same illiterate nonsense as I’m sure my parents were subjected to forty years ago by staff writers ‘reviewing’ Cuckoo’s Nest who had no idea the central character wasn’t McMurphy in the book and complained about the Indian.

    In addition the first trilogy was every bit as groundbreaking technically as Gone With the Wind or Citizen Kane, and while it certainly wasn’t perfect it was a very respectful interpretation of the most read, most beloved epic novel of last hundred years and a labour of love. This isn’t a clique and it isn’t a small group of geeks, its over 500,000,000 books sold and $3,000,000,000 gross revenue for the films.

    Don’t review things you don’t understand, there is a whole world of mindless distractions out there that I’m sure you would enjoy much more.

    • Kirk Honeycutt says

      I feel this needs a response even though the comment implies that anyone who hasn’t read LOTR is not only incapable of being a critic in any artistic field but only enjoys “mindless distractions.” It is also implied that a person who has not read Tolkien but has read, say, Shakespeare, the Bible, Hemingway, Faulkner, Flaubert, Mailer, Fitzgerald, Maugham, Conrad, Melville, Dickens, Greek and Roman classics and countless other masterpieces of Western literature is “illiterate.” One wonders what Tolkien, an English literature professor, would have made of such an assertion.

      The point is no professional film critic feels obliged to read the original source material for all films he or she reviews. So many movies are based on novels, short stories, articles, plays, comic books, even boardgames that the sheer impracticality of this would put any critic out of business. The fact that this reader has read four reviews of “The Hobbit” and not a single critic has read the source material would demonstrate that I’m not alone in this approach.

      More importantly, the work under review here was not a novel by Tolkien but Peter Jackson’s adaptation of that novel. How does it work as a movie? I thought it worked very well but others may differ.

      I base this opinion — which is all any review ever is — not on a novel I may have read a dozen years ago but on watching thousands of films, dating from the very first films made in the late 19th century until now, the 12th year of the 21st century. My expertise is not in a particular genre such as science-fiction or fantasy but the entire spectrum of cinema.

      I have certainly seen enough films and have enough grasp of film history to know that you will find few if any historians or critics who would call either “Citizen Kane” or “Gone With the Wind” a technically groundbreaking film.

      “Citizen Kane” is certainly one of the most auspicious movie directing debuts but none of the film’s techniques can be called new. Welles’ cameraman, Gregg Toland, taught him most of the camera tricks if that is what the reader calls “groundbreaking.”

      As for “GWTW,” most historians and critics would not call this one of the better movies released in that watershed year of 1939. Other than being arguably the fullest expression of the three-strip Technicolor process at that time, how is it groundbreaking?

      WIth three to five directors (accounts differ) and at least two cameramen — the great Lee Garmes was fired by Selznick half way through — the film has tonal inconsistencies and all kinds of lapses. It is also a thoroughly racist film but that’s another matter.

      Bottom line: A critic needs a thorough and profound grasp of cinema genres and history as well as the critical faculties to analyze films. Cinema is a literature onto itself.

      I do not find much knowledge of either cinema literature or history by those critics and bloggers devoted to fantasy, sic-fi or comic book films. Indeed some mainstream trade and consumer critics have a deeper understanding of these elements than most of the fantasy fans I encounter. (But not always, of course.) This to me is the real illiteracy, which pervades the blogosphere. It’s not a matter of whether or not you’ve read a particular writer. It’s a matter of whether or not you can read films.

      By the way, I have read “Cuckoo’s Nest” and McMurphy is the protagonist. Chief Bromden is the narrator, which is not the same thing.

  2. says

    Great that 3D technology marches on, but I’m still underwhelmed. The local theater wanted an extra $4 per ticket for 3D, ugh. Sure the 3D Hobbit looked good, but it would have looked good in 2D as well. And that’s far too long to wear those stupid glasses.

    Sooner this 3D technology goes away the better. … And, yes, I go way back, but my 20-year-old son felt the same way, even stronger.

    BTW, I read all four Tolkien books as a youth and they were magnificent. I remember shedding a few tears at the end because my time in that world was over. … That said, I can’t imagine why anyone would need to read the books to review the movies. The vast majority of people who see the Hobbit haven’t read the book (too bad), so it may actually be an advantage.

    • Kirk Honeycutt says

      I agree that $4 is too steep even tho this is one case where the 3D makes a difference albeit a minor one. The studios and theater chains paid too much money to install the technology for this to go away any time soon. Which is not to say that it won’t eventually. Thanks for the comments!