2012-12-13

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey – A Fun Return To Middle Earth

by Yo Snyder

After the resounding success of The Lord of the Rings, both critically and commercially, it seemed only natural that The Hobbit would soon be adapted for the big screen as well, perhaps followed by other works from Tolkien, such as some of the tales from The Similarion.
However, as the years crawled by, there was little to no progress in
getting any of that done. The hopes of fans everywhere finally seemed to
bear some fruit when it was announced that Guillermo del Toro was going
to direct, but eventually that too stalled, and with some financial
issues at the studios, it started to seem like what was a no-brianer
prequel might never actually make it to the big screen. Eventually,
however, much to fans delight, Peter Jackson stepped in and took it upon
himself to get The Hobbit made. Even then, the production didn’t
move forward without its hiccups and controversies. Two movies became
three; for the shortest book? Surely not. And what’s all this 48 frames
per second talk? Well, the time has finally arrived, and just less than a
decade after The Lord of the Rings ended, we know get to see how it all began in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.
Despite everything that’s gone on during the production of this film,
only one thing matters now; is it worthy of the Lord of the Rings
legacy? Did Peter Jackson do it again and deliver what fans have been
hoping for?

I can confidently say that the answer to all those questions is yes. The Hobbit
feels and looks very much like it belongs in the Lord of the Rings
universe. In fact,  watching it makes it hard to believe it’s been
almost ten years, for it feels like hardly any time at all has passed in
Middle Earth. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a
comfortable, fun and worthwhile return to that realm that so captured
our imaginations a decade ago. However, I should also say that even
though it is familiar, it’s also not quite the same. The Hobbit doesn’t quite reach the lofty heights of The Lord of the Rings. Some see that as saying this movie isn’t any good. Let me be clear, I’m not
saying that, this is a very good movie. It’s just not quite as great as
the previous films. Part of that is due to the subject of the book
itself. This isn’t a soaring quest to save the world, the ultimate
battle between good and evil, light and dark, hope and despair or
anything like that. The Hobbit is more a bedtime story of adventure and fun. It’s a more lighthearted and slight story, and the movie reflects that tone. The Hobbit isn’t as grandiose as The Lord of the Rings, nor should it be for neither was the book.

The
other issue is (and Peter Jackson even said this was one of the reasons
he was reluctant to return as a director to this franchise because he
didn’t want to compete with himself) we’ve already seen this before. The Fellowship of the Ring
and its sequels were revelations; we’d never quite seen anything like
them before and weren’t quite sure what to expect. Well, now we know.
There’s isn’t quite that same “wow” factor that comes from seeing
something new. Indeed, many of the beats and rhythms of An Unexpected Journey
follow closely to those of that first LotR film, sometimes almost to a
fault; like it’s trying too hard to feel Lord of the Ringsy. I love the
Lord of the Rings movies, but they don’t have quite the same impact on
me watching them over again on blu-ray as they did the first time I saw
them on the big screen. Often times that’s how I felt about this movie;
it’s really good, but nothing I haven’t seen before. 

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
is more light-hearted and fun-filled movie than the other trilogy, and
rightfully so. There are many more moments of humor, and whole tone is
much lighter than the LotR. Martin Freeman brings a delightful fussiness
to the young Bilbo Baggins who’s thrust out of his front door,
reluctantly, on an adventure. Ian McKellen slips comfortably back into
the role of Gandalf the Grey, and he’s a bit more enjoyable here without
the weight of the impending doom of the entire world on his shoulders.
The dwarves make for a merry company and provide much of the humor in
the film, but it’s easy to lose track of who’s who, with Richard
Armitage’s Thorin Oakshield being the main one we really get to know.
Fair warning, this character isn’t quite the same as the one in the
book, he’s obviously more of a fill for Aragon, but it works well for
the film and I didn’t really mind any of the minor changes. And then, of
course, there’s Gollum. He arrives rather late in the film, but it’s
still a thrill to see him once again and a delight to finally see his
and Bilbo’s game of riddles and to see how Bilbo came to own the ring
that would cause so much trouble later on. This is probably one of the
best scenes of the movie, and rightfully so. 

Now, when I say this
more of a light-hearted affair, that doesn’t come at the complete
expense of gravitas and foreboding. Peter Jackson and company have often
said they’ve woven in other parts of this story that were covered by
Tolkien in his appendices, and they add an ominous threat on the horizon
to the events of the movie. It’s actually an example of how to do a
prequel well, creating ties to the previous trilogy without over doing
it (which unfortunately this movie borders on doing early on). Still,
this film isn’t anywhere near as dark or scary as the others, and will
probably play as more kid-friendly, though I’d still take the PG-13
rating seriously as there are some scary and violent moments.

One
of my favorite moments in the film is when Bilbo, as he struggles to
decide if he should leave his comfortable hobbit hole, all that he is
familiar with and knows well, to go out into the unknown asks Gandalf,
“Can you promise that I’ll come back?” Gandalf responds quite honestly,
“No, and if you return, you may not come back the same as when you
left.” In the end, Bilbo ultimately decides to go, despite that ominous
proclamation, which is a bold choice for any hobbit, or any of us. The
truth is, Jesus promises us pretty much the same when we decide to
follow him; if we go, we won’t come back the same. I think that’s why so
many have trouble choosing to truly follow him. We like our hobbit
holes. We like what’s comfortable and familiar. We like things the way
they are. That’s not so bad, is it? What Jesus tells us is it may not be
so bad, but it’s not the best, it’s not what we were created for, and
ultimately, it won’t be enough. The truth is God’s love can be kind of
scary because he may love us just the way we are, but he loves us too
much to leave us the way we are. To follow Christ is to have Gandalf
push you out on the road to you-know-not-where, but you can be assured
of this, the reward at the end will be well worth the unexpected
journey.

There are a few nit-picks I have with this movie. For
one, I was kind of bummed with all of the CG creatures. They don’t look
bad or anything, but it doesn’t have quite the same gritty, realistic
feel that the orcs and goblins had in the original trilogy when they
were often done with practical effects and prosthetics. Plus, and this
may have been a result of seeing it in the high frame rate, there were a
few, a very few, times when the CG effects didn’t really seem to
belong. They just looked out of place. Most of the time this isn’t an
issue and you don’t even notice, which makes those times when you do all
the more glaring. Finally, An Unexpected Journey runs a bit too
long. It doesn’t meander or get off track or anything, but there’s so
much included here it’s hard to believe this would ever warrant an
“extended edition”; I can’t imagine what might have been left out.
Finally, I wanted to see more of the dragon. This isn’t really a gripe,
more of the result of a really good tease. We never really get a good
glimpse of Smaug, but Jackson teases him so well that you are a bit
frustrated that you don’t get to see more because what you do glimpse is
just so cool. 

Those very minor issues aside, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
is one of those rare prequels that’s actually worthwhile and pretty
darn good. It doesn’t quite over-do trying to tie things together
(though it comes close), it captures the spirit of the other films
without feeling like a parody of them, and all around is just a fun,
enjoyable return to Middle Earth that meets (but doesn’t quite exceed)
expectations. I’m not entirely sold on this needing to be a trilogy, it
feels like two movies would have been plenty, but it’s clear that it’s
in good hands. Jackson needn’t have worried about competing with
himself. He doesn’t outdo himself with The Hobbit, but he also
doesn’t disappoint, and I’m just happy to have Christmas vacation in
Middle Earth to look forward to for the new couple years.

Score: 5 of 7 – Good, but not great, yet definitely worth seeing. You may even want to check it out in the 48fps 3D version, as that’s a different experience. Not as dark or gritty as the other LotR films, but parents still need to consider the PG-13 rating. There are violent battles, beheadings, and scary creatures.