The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey review

On Saturday, 15 December 2012, Janice and I met Beruk A., Thomas K.Y. & Kai-Yin H., Ken G., Josh C. & Sara F., and Robin H. at the AMC Loews Boston Common to see The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. We all enjoyed Peter Jackson’s latest adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic fantasy novels.

Boston showing of The Hobbit
The gang for An Unexpected Journey

I’ll try to avoid plot/script “spoilers,” but if you haven’t yet read the original book, do so! An Unexpected Journey follows eponymous Hobbit Bilbo Baggins as he evolves from a retiring country gentleman in the Shire to become an adventurer alongside 12 Dwarves and the wizard Gandalf. On the way to the Lonely Mountain, they encounter warg-riding Goblins, Elves, Trolls, and more, all harkening back to the Norse tales that Tolkien studied and loved.

Director Jackson and company fold in plot threads from the appendices of The Lord of the Ringsexpanding many scenes and characters. Since Jackson filmed more than four hours’ worth of footage for each installment of the previous trilogy, it should come as no surprise that he expanded on The Hobbit. I have fond memories of a marathon screening of the first trilogy’s extended editions in New York City with cast members present, so I am perhaps the target audience.

Dinner for 14
That’s what Bilbo Baggins hates!

The tone of the prequel is close to that of “LotR,” but with a bit more humor, as in the book, and slightly less violence — but maybe still too much for young children. I was pleased to hear much of Tolkien’s language in An Unexpected Journey, including a few songs and poems (some of us still remember the Rankin-Bass animated attempt). As a longtime Tolkien fan, this helped balance out the newer additions to the story.

One of the strongest components of An Unexpected Journey was the cast. It was nice to see familiar faces again, including Ian Holm as the older Bilbo and Elijah Wood as young Frodo in a framing scene. Of course, it’s now difficult to imagine mischievous Gandalf without picturing Ian McKellen, and Hugo Weaving and Cate Blanchett are back as regal Elves Elrond and Galadriel, respectively.

Fans of British genre television and movies should recognize many of the actors, at least by name. Martin Freeman is ever the befuddled Englishman, whether it’s in The Office, Shaun of the Dead, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Sherlockand now as young Bilbo in The Hobbit. But as Gandalf notes, he’s more clever, hardy, and ethical than meets the eye.

Martin Freeman as young Bilbo Baggins
Bilbo Baggins, the bravest little Hobbit of them all

Even with a three-hour runtime, we get to know only a few of the Dwarves in The Hobbit, but Robin Hood‘s Richard Armitage stands out as honorable Thorin Oakenshield, and Being Human‘s hunky Aidan Turner as young Dwarf Kili might be a rival for the affections of fans of Orlando Bloom’s Legolas. Jekyll‘s James Nesbitt has some sympathetic moments as Bofur, and Ken Stott is sagacious as older Dwarf Balin.

Dozen Dwarves
Far over the Misty Mountains cold….

Doctor Who‘s Sylvester McCoy is the twitter-pated (literally) wizard Radagast the Brown. Those playing the villains are just as experienced. Andy Serkis, now also second-unit director for The Hobbit, is a delight as the nasty Gollum. Comedian Barry Humphries, best known as Dame Edna, is unrecognizable as the Great Goblin, while Spartacus‘ Manu Bennet is fearsome as Orc leader Azog.

It was also nice to see familiar Middle Earth locations, such as Bilbo’s comfy estate of Bag End in Hobbiton and Elrond’s Last Homely House in Rivendell. Jackson also shows us Dwarf cities in their full glory and violent decline, a Goblin town beneath the Misty Mountains, and the depths of Mirkwood. All of the architecture, costumes, and props are again excellent.

Many critics have taken issue with the movie’s length and editing, and I agree that they could have been tighter. Still, trimming a few sequences of Bilbo and company hiking or computer-enhanced battle scenes wouldn’t make An Unexpected Journey much shorter, and I’m glad that so many character moments and scenes from the book made it into the film. The flow of the story from scene to scene could have been smoother — reminding me of both tabletop and computer role-playing games — and I hope it will improve in later chapters of this new trilogy.

Unlike practical visual effects and makeup, the storm giants and the aforementioned Azog and Goblin king do look computer-generated, unlike the expressive but still realistic Gollum or Trolls. I think that comparisons to Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, even if they’re accurate, reflect “nerd rage” more than a fair critique. I didn’t see the movie in 3-D, IMAX, or high frame rate formats, so I’ll leave that to other reviewers to describe. Howard Shore’s latest soundtrack was also good, and it alluded to the soaring themes of Lord of the Rings.

Overall, I’d give The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, which is rated PG-13 for violence, an 8 out of 10, four out of five stars, or a B+/A-. For me, that’s about on par with The Two Towers, if not as satisfying as The Fellowship of the Ring or Return of the King. Compared with most other fantasy films, I’d still recommend the The Hobbit and remind moviegoers that it has been a generation since we’ve had so many to choose from.

Most of the trailers we saw before The Hobbit were for science fiction flicks rather than fantasies. Both Tom Cruise’s Oblivion and Will Smith’s After Earth post-apocalyptic visions had cool hardware but seemingly predictable plots. Romantic zombie comedy (when did you think you’d see those together?) Warm Bodies looked mildly amusing.

I’m most looking forward to kaiju vs. giant robots in Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim and to Star Trek: Into Darkness, even if I have reservations about how the latter again relies on a villain-driven story involving mass destruction and threats to the starship Enterprise. Man of Steel looked rather dark for a Superman film. Still, genre film fans have a lot to look forward to in 2013!

After the movie, we went to the Rock Bottom Brewery for a late lunch. On Sunday, Janice and I attended “A Celtic Christmas Sojourn” at the Cutler Majestic Theatre in Boston. I hope that all your holidays are happy!