The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey Review


The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey could certainly afford to lose a few pounds, but it’s nonetheless an enjoyable reintroduction to Middle Earth. The world depicted here is different from that of director Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy—it’s fluffier, much more light-hearted—but certain characters, tropes, and Howard Shore’s sweeping score are all familiar in wonderful ways.

After a brief prologue set just hours before The Fellowship of the Ring kicks off, we flashback 60 years and meet a much younger, more innocent Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman). His friend, the wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen), asks Bilbo if he wants to have an adventure. This complacent hobbit rejects the proposition outright, but Gandalf isn’t one to take no for an answer. He invites his companions to Bilbo’s house to outline the details of this adventure. Bilbo, flustered by the influx of wacky (and hungry) dwarves, declines again. But he has a change of heart when the sun comes up, and just like that, his life-changing adventure begins.

The dwarves, led by the displaced king Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), are seeking to reclaim their kingdom and treasure buried deep within the Lonely Mountain. The dragon Smaug scattered their people when it laid siege to the mountain and claimed the treasure for itself. But with a wizard in their corner and a hobbit as their secret weapon, Thorin feels the time is right to move on Smaug and the mountain.

The film nearly loses you with almost an hour of exposition, undercooked humor, and not one, but two musical numbers. However, once our heroes begin encountering real danger—orcs, trolls, goblins, and a very creepy mountain-dwelling creature that seems to be schizophrenic—it’s quite fun. There’s nothing new here. The battles all follow the LOTR formula to a T—heroes come out swinging, villains take the advantage, hope is lost before another hero makes an out-of-nowhere save. But it’s a tried and true formula, and coupled with the spectacle that comes with the territory, fans of Jackson’s last Middle Earth series won’t be too disappointed.

The worst creative decision isn’t even one that occurs on screen, frankly, but it’s one that needs to be pointed out. The choice to split J.R.R. Tolkien’s book into multiple films doomed at least An Unexpected Journey to feeling minor at best, unnecessary at worst. There aren’t any stakes here; The film is ultimately about setting up future adventures and establishing Bilbo as a reluctant hero. It’s a little like The Matrix Reloaded in this respect. An Unexpected Journey is a chapter in something much larger, and if what follows works, viewers might have warmer feelings about this film. If Jackson pulls a The Matrix Revolutions on us, this one—as pleasant as it might be on its own—will be relegated to the dustbin of film history.

What does the film do right, you ask? First and foremost, Gollum. Andy Serkis once again gives a sensational motion-capture performance, and though the end result of his encounter with Bilbo is never in doubt, it’s the one moment in the film when you’ll genuinely be on the edge of your seat.

Martin Freeman and Ian McKellen also give admirable performances. The former nails the film’s more comedic moments, and his natural personality is gentle enough to sell us on Bilbo’s transformation. The latter, meanwhile, is as steady a presence as he was in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. He doesn’t have any big moments, but just having Gandalf there for so much of the film is reassuring.

The action scenes work on the whole, though there aren’t any moments that’ll steal your breath away. Again, if you’re willing to go with this film, you’ll likely take it more as a sign that Jackson is building to something, rather than a sign that he’s run out of ideas. That said, there’s some cool character design here, and the special effects pass muster. (Note: I saw the film in non-IMAX 3-D, 24 fps. The 3-D is fine—nothing great, nothing terrible.)

If The Lord of the Rings didn’t steal your heart, you really should stay far, far away from this film. You feel all three hours of the bloated running time. And though I can’t seem to shake the feeling of disappointment, I can recognize that this film was never going to be on par with the trilogy that preceded it—at least not on its own. So we wait, for in another year, we’ll have an idea of what this series’ legacy will ultimately be.

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