The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
What It Is
“I’m looking for someone to share in an adventure,” announces Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) at the start of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. The giant wizard looms over Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), whom he’s come to visit in the Shire, while the hobbit, pipe clamped firmly in his teeth, peeps back up at him. Oh no, Bilbo insists, he’s not the right choice for this invitation, because in his eyes, adventures are “nasty, disturbing, uncomfortable things. They make you late for dinner.”
As reluctant as he sounds, Bilbo will, of course, end up being late for dinner, as he does indeed go on the adventure Gandalf here proposes. It begins as a quest in the name of Thorin (Richard Armitage), a dwarf king whose land and legacy were taken from him and his fellow dwarves years ago by a fire-breathing dragon named Smaug, who now keeps watch over the former dwarves’ home, the kingdom Erebor, including a castle whose basement remains piled high with gold. As Peter Jackson’s new movie begins, Gandalf is helping Thorin to assemble a company of 12 other dwarves, plus the hobbit, to go tramping through green forests and vast fields and over mountains in order to recover what’s been lost.
If this premise sounds familiar, it means you haven’t forgotten the plots of all three of Jackson’s Lord the Rings films, for which the new one serves as a prequel, set 60 years in the past (actually, it’s the beginning of a prequel, the first of another three films based on J. R. R. Tolkien’s very long and much beloved novel, The Hobbit). The familiar structure also means that not so much in this film is news: like the hobbit Frodo (Elijah Wood) and his fellowship before, Frodo’s uncle Bilbo and his fellow questers will endure hardships, discover surprises, and form bonds; they will also learn they are capable of more and less than they imagine at first.
By the end of the film’s 170 minutes’ running time, however, they will not be much more distinguished from each other than they are during their initial rambunctious gathering in Bilbo’s home, where they eat his fish and cheese and cakes, sing a song about cleaning up Bilbo’s kitchen, and then set forth on their ponies the next morning, raring to take on any dangers they might find. As they ride along woodsy paths or rocky cliffs, they all look pretty much alike, even as their fellows remark their wide girths or blustery temperaments. They meet some elves (including, from the Lord of the Rings movies, Galadriel [Cate Blanchett] and Elrond [Hugo Weaving]) and also a number of less friendly Middle-Earthers, trolls and goblins and monstrous-wolf-riding orcs, in particular one pale orc called Azog (Manu Bennett), holding a grudge against Thorin for once chopping off his massive orc-y arm (which he has replaced, you come to see, with a brute iron rod and claw stuck through his elbow).
As much menace as the very large and muscular Azog embodies, he’s only one of several CGIed creatures who populate the film, and really, he’s not nearly so compelling as the most famous CGIed creature ever, Gollum (here again played beautifully and inventively by Andy Serkis). When Bilbo encounters the erstwhile hobbit, now miserable Gollum in the latter’s watery cave — almost two hours into the film — they’re separated from the others, which means they spend a bit of time in a type of conversation, that is, among Bilbo, Gollum, and the nice, big-blue-eyed Gollum’s ever-present Other Gollum, the mean one with eyes narrowed into slits. Bilbo does his best not to lose their contest of riddles (for losing means he’ll be eaten by Gollum). When Bilbo accidentally comes up with the Precious (the ring that Gollum loves too well, in this film and the three before), they part ways, Gollum left alone and so very sad, and Bilbo rededicated to his dwarfy fellowship.
Why It’s Fun
Gollum is ceaselessly brilliant. Mystifying and funny, sad and wildly entertaining, a unique and wondrous character — a former hobbit, now ripped loose from his community, utterly alone, and condemned to arguing with himself forever — he’s here again breathtaking and wholly entertaining, what with his range of expressions, his talking to himself, and his wonderfully strange reformulations of English syntax.
Bilbo is a lovely hero, frequently self-effacing but also reasonably frightened or cranky. Freeman is a terrific choice to play him, a little lumpy of face and extraordinarily warm and appealing, even when the plot slows to a crawl.
For all the pre-opening discussion and debate about Jackson’s use of a new filming technology — that is, shooting with 3D cameras at 48 frames per second, opposed to the usual 24 frames per second — the effect is only distracting briefly. A few minutes into the film, and you may forget it, except that it makes the dark scenes still look incredibly sharp.
Who’s Going To Love It
Fans of the Lord of the Rings multiple franchises, extending from books to comics to movies to toys (and now, oh dear, a Hobbit Menu at Denny’s) will be thrilled to revisit old friends and explore new locations in Middle-Earth. They will also be pleased to see Freeman as the younger Bilbo Baggins (the older version famously played by Ian Holmes in the LOTR trilogy, and also for a few minutes at the start of this film, as he sets up the flashback structure).
Fans of that franchise will either be delighted or dissatisfied by the sameness of the plot. Likewise, newcomers may either marvel at the imaginative monsters — the lumbering ugly trolls and the numerous ugly goblins, as well as the fiercely aggressive orcs — or feel they’re too much like other monsters in other movies.
What To Be Aware Of
The early attacks by the dragon are noisy and formidable, as dwarves run and scream and some wind up dead, amid flames and explosions. It’s like a wartime scene, with only one gargantuan and — for the time being, mostly unseen — attack vessel, the dragon, swooping and crashing overhead.
The film includes some ferocious battle scenes, not so much bloody as loud and violent, and featuring several beheadings; in one instance, Azog slices off Thorin’s father’s head and tosses it at the dwarf’s feet, igniting his longtime enmity, as you might imagine.
Some scenes in the dark — whether in the nighttime woods or in Gollum’s vast and watery cave — are a bit scary for younger viewers; some noises and shadows are designed to make you jump or worry.
In the early scene in Bilbo’s home, the dwarves eat a lot (and sloppily), smoke pipes, and drink alcohol, including Gandalf’s favorite, red wine. They behave as if they’re slightly intoxicated, and engage in a burping contest.
Some dwarves tease Bilbo by scaring him (warning that the orcs are “throat cutters” who attack in the night) and call each other names, including “clod-head.”
Thorin is for some time unconvinced that Bilbo is a worthy addition to their group, and so he says some mean things about him; when Bilbo proves himself not only witty and wise (in his naïve hobbity way), but also incredibly courageous and generous, Thorin apologizes, with a big hug that neatly illustrates how good it can be to admit you’re wrong and make new friends.
Middle-Earth remains a very boys-oriented world, where said boys fight and frown and have great fun together. While Galadriel glows and nods astutely, she’s the only girl with a speaking part here, and that is most certainly a disappointment.
5 out of 10
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Directors: Peter Jackson
Cast: Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, James Nesbitt, Ken Stott, Sylvester McCoy, Barry Humphries, Cate Blanchett, Ian Holm, Christopher Lee, Hugo Weaving, Elijah Wood, Andy Serkis, Aidan Turner
Studio: Warner Bros.
US General Release: December 14, 2012
UK General Release: December 13, 2012