The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey Review (Spoilers)

Well fellow nerds, the last big nerd movie of 2012 is upon us. Peter Jackson and co’s return to the world of Middle-earth, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is now out in theaters. And while it’s not the best of the series, it is still a worthy entry into the Tolkien cinematic universe.

The film opens with a prologue narrated by old Bilbo (Ian Holm reprising his role in the original trilogy). In it he recounts how the evil dragon Smaug attacked the dwarf kingdom of Erebor inside the Lonely Mountain and claimed all of its treasure as his own. As a result the dwarves who lived there are displaced, becoming homeless nomads working wherever they can to make a living. We are also introduced to the human city of Dale, which is also ravaged by Smaug’s attack as it lies just outside the gates of Erebor. Dale will come into play more in the next two films I imagine as it is not talked about again.

As Bilbo finishes his prologue we get a chance to see he and Frodo (Elijah Wood) interact. It’s kind of a superfluous scene but it acts as connective tissue to the Lord of the Rings trilogy. We are then sent back 60 years to a younger Bilbo (Martin Freeman). As he sits outside his hobbit hole smoking his pipe, Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) turns up to say hello. Their interaction is straight out of the book and wonderfully enacted by Freeman and McKellen. Gandalf leaves Bilbo flustered with his roundabout way of talking, but not before printing a strange mark on the door of his hobbit hole. Later that night as Bilbo is about to eat his dinner, dwarf after dwarf after dwarf begins to show up at his door. Before he knows it, Bilbo is hosting a meeting for 13 dwarves and a wizard. What he doesn’t know is why, but he soon finds out.

The leader, Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) explains the dwarves’ plan to take back Erebor from the dragon Smaug. He and Gandalf also inform Bilbo that they need him to be their burglar. Bilbo is none too thrilled at the prospect of risking life and limb to help the dwarves win back their treasure. Eventually however, Bilbo does join them as his adventurous “Tookish” side is able to win out over his conservative “Baggins” side.

After leaving the Shire we see our heroes brave trolls, orcs, and wargs, among other dangers. They are also hunted by a new character that does not appear in the book, an orc named Azog (Manu Bennett). He and Thorin have a treacherous history. There is also a stop in Rivendell where we see Elrond (Hugo Weaving), and Galadriel (Cate Blanchett). And of course, we get to see the fateful meeting between Bilbo and Gollum (Andy Serkis).

There is also a subplot involving Gandalf’s wizard colleague Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy) who is investigating an evil presence known only as the Necromancer (Benedict Cumberbatch). That I assume will also be further explored in the next two films.

Jackson has once again put together a wonderful cast. Martin Freeman is the perfect Bilbo, not only does he look like a younger Ian Holm, but he’s also funny, interesting and relatable. He’s also heroic without it feeling forced or unearned. If you’ve seen him in the BBC’s Sherlock, you already know he’s a fantastic actor. It’s probably unnecessary to even mention how great McKellen is as he is always fantastic in anything he’s in, particularly as Gandalf. Richard Armitage is also a solid addition. I would still take Viggo any day, but Armitage plays the heroic would be king well.

There are so many dwarves that only a few really are given a chance to stand out. Balin (Ken Stott) and Dwalin (Graham McTavish) both get a few more lines than the others as do Fili (Dean O’Gorman) and Kili (Aiden Turner). They all do fine though.

Serkis is as wonderful as ever, making Gollum creepy, funny, awkward, unsettling, and, dare I say it, endearing at times. Sylvester McCoy’s Radagast is a bit of an old kook which works well. We don’t spend a lot of time with him but it’s plain to see he is a welcome addition as well.

Other notable cast members include Blanchett and Weaving, as well as the great Christopher Lee who reprises his role as Saruman the White. This is a big cast to be sure and overall they do a fantastic job bringing the characters of Tolkien’s universe to life.

The script by Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Guillermo del Toro is also well done, considering it has so much to do. The pacing isn’t perfect but it’s not so bad that it’s not enjoyable. The film does starts out a bit slow and some of the scenes in the film feel forced, particularly the council between Gandalf, Galadriel, Elrond, and Saruman; but I think that in the end after all three movies it will work out. Jackson and co are in their element here, and if anything we should be giving them the benefit of the doubt.

Their script does include a lot of great elements from the book including a lot of the songs. I always thought it would be weird to include them but Jackson and his writing team has made it work. I also enjoyed Gandalf’s bit about Bilbo’s ancestor Bullroarer which is an entire paragraph lifted right out of the book.

The one major gripe I have with the film is an overuse of CG. There are times when I was taken out of the movie by a cheap looking warg or an orc that could have easily been an extra wearing makeup. The worst instance of this is the completely CG Azog. He’s meant to be a major villain with a grudge against Thorin but because he is CG and speaks only in orc he never feels very threatening. It’s a shame because Gollum turned out so well. They would have been much better off casting a bodybuilder and putting makeup on him.

As a whole The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a good film. The problem many people will have with it is that it’s not a great film. It doesn’t reach the heights that The Fellowship of the Ring did. The pacing is a bit wonky and the CG is overbearing. However, there is a lot of interesting stuff going on here story wise. I am very interested to see what other additions and story changes await us in the next two movies and I have complete confidence that Peter Jackson will pull it off. The performances are also fantastic and a lot of the CG does work. It’s also very faithful to the novel and that’s a good thing so far. We’ll just have to wait and see. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

  • Chris Davis

    Nice review Luke. Saw this last night at midnight sober…so that was a different experience. Definitely got a lot out of it though. Things I really agree with you on; Azog as CG should have been an actor and the pacing did seem weird at time (though I didn’t think that council meeting felt forced). I really didn’t think that the opening scene with the the original Bilbo was necessary though. It was nice to have the back story on Smaug, but it definitely could have been done different. We don’t need a connection to LOTR because this takes place before all that. Leave it out I say.

    The main gripe I heard after the movie was the phrase “That wasn’t like LOTR at all” and I say ‘GOOD, it shouldn’t be. LOTR is a darker story and like somewhere I read today said, ‘The Hobbit is like a bed time adventure story and should be light hearted, mystical, and brighter; whereas LOTR is more historical tone.’ I thought that pretty much nailed it and if someone goes into the movie knowing that then I think they will enjoy it much more.

  • Luke Soin

    Thanks! Yeah I didn’t think about it being enough like LOTR or not but that makes sense. It is a different story. I definitely appreciated the lighthearted humor that was going on throughout the film. And I really don’t understand why they thought Azog should be CG. Like his hook hand could have easily been a green sleeve on an actor that they replaced later you know? Weird, weird choice.