Review – The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

After so spectacularly scaling his own personal Mount Doom with his revered Lord of the Rings trilogy, could Peter Jackson somehow capture lightning in a bottle again with this second epic excursion into Middle Earth?

From the moment Rings was wrapped, Jackson was being called upon to sprinkle that same magic on J.R.R Tolkien’s earlier, much leaner children’s book The Hobbit.

The Hobbit

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey – very good, but not without its faults

The New Zealander originally wanted Guillermo del Toro to direct, but after the Mexican horror maestro left the project (he’s down as a co-writer), Jackson took it upon himself to oversee the mammoth undertaking. While it would have been fascinating to see Del Toro’s vision realised on screen, Jackson’s pedigree was irrefutable.

That The Lord of the Rings was made as a trilogy made perfect sense – three books, three films. However, when it emerged that Jackson was turning The Hobbit into not two, but three movies eyebrows were raised and questions asked as to whether this was a bridge too far. Now that An Unexpected Journey is finally here in all its many guises (3D, Imax, 24 or 48 frames per second, take your pick) does it succeed? Yes, but with reservations.

An Unexpected Journey walks a similar path to Fellowship of the Ring; a CGI-heavy prologue lays out the stakes, a hobbit is chosen to go on an adventure, a small band of diminutive people is forged and a life or death quest begins to achieve something bigger than all of them.

Watching An Unexpected Journey is akin to slipping on a well-worn pair of slippers; the restless, swooping camerwork, the stirring Howard Shore score and the jaw-dropping New Zealand locations (seriously, Jackson is a one-man NZ Tourism Board) are all present and accounted for and when the Shire appears on screen it’s like being reuinted with an old friend after a decade apart.

However, even old friends can get annoying as Jackson languishes in the Shire for what seems like an eternity. To be fair, a major reason for this is to introduce us to the 13-strong company of dwarves, led by the heroic Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), who come calling at the home of hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) at the request of the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen). Bilbo is urged by Gandalf to join the dwarves on a perilous journey to reclaim their home and treasure from the dragon Smaug and, after much toing and froing belatedly embraces the opportunity.

Bilbo (Martin Freeman) reluctantly hosts a gang of dwarves in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Bilbo (Martin Freeman) reluctantly hosts a group of dwarves in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

This overly-prolonged first act smacks of indulgence on Jackson’s part and has you wondering if three films really was a sensible idea. But once the gathering hit the road the film finally moves up the gears until a breathless last hour that promises much for next year’s The Desolation of Smaug.

As with his Rings trilogy, Jackson proves he’s no slouch when it comes to the big set pieces. The  stone giant battle in which Bilbo and co unwittingly become a part of is genuinely thrilling and underlines the dangers inherent on their quest, while the dwarves’ and Gandalf’s dizzyingly elaborate escape from the Great Goblin’s cave lair (amusingly voiced by Barry Humphries) and his sizeable CGI army is reminiscent of, though not as impressive as the Mines of Moria/Balrog scene from Fellowship.

However, An Unexpected Journey‘s finest spectacle is saved for the game of riddles between an uneasy Bilbo and the pathetic, wretched Gollum; a masterclass in building tension that pivots the whole film and is the hobbit’s true turning point. The wonderful Andy Serkis dons the motion-capture suit once more to reprise his role as Sméagol/Gollum, whose split personality is equal parts humourous, childlike and disturbing , not least of which when he realises his “precious” ring has been stolen.

Gollum (Andy Serkis) is the star of the show in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Gollum (Andy Serkis) is the star of the show in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

The moment when Bilbo, invisible after wearing the ring, holds a sword to the unknowing Gollum’s throat and exercises mercy is really something. It’s at this point that Jackson’s faith in Freeman must have paid off. Freeman, previously best known for his TV work in The Office and Sherlock, shows his acting chops by conveying pity, disgust and humanity in a single look and affirming that this little hobbit is the part he was born to play. Bilbo is our Everyman and Freeman delivers just the right mix of self-doubt, wonder and fortitude.

McKellen is clearly having the time of his life revisiting the mischievous and good-hearted wizard and it’s good to see Christoper Lee and Cate Blachett reprising their roles as, respectively, Saruman and Galadriel; however, Ken Stott’s Balin and James Nesbitt’s Bofur are the only dwarves to make any major impact, while Armitage has yet to fully convince as this tale’s rugged hero in the way Viggo Mortensen managed with Aragorn.

An Unexpected Journey is very good, but it’s not without its faults and fails to match the heights of Fellowship. For many that will be more than enough, but Jackson still has some work to do if he hopes this trilogy will earn its place in cinema’s valhalla alongside his previous fantasy epic.

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16 comments

  1. Nostra · December 14, 2012

    This does closely match my feelings about it. In which format did you watch it?

    • threerowsback · December 14, 2012

      I watched it in Imax 3D, but at 24fps instead of 48. I thought the 3D, as usual, was pointless. I’ll try to watch it again in 48fps out of interest, although I’ve heard lots of negative feedback on it.

      • Nostra · December 14, 2012

        Yeah, not everyone seems to like it. Personally I had to get used to it, but do see the potential and did enjoy the new format.

      • threerowsback · December 14, 2012

        I’ve heard good and bad things about 48fps. Jackson should be congratulated for trying something new, although the jury will be out as to whether it catches on. I will reserve judgement until I’ve seen it with my own eyes.

  2. Terry Malloy's Pigeon Coop · December 14, 2012

    Great review. I enjoyed it but it felt like one long prologue, a set up for what’s to come, which I guess it is. Totally agree that the Gollum scene stole the show, it added the perfect change of pace.

    • threerowsback · December 14, 2012

      Thanks for the compliment. The Riddles in the Dark scene was the best thing in it by some distance; it really lifted the film. While Fellowship of the Ring felt like its own film, this did seriously drag in places. I found it ironic that while Jackson had to drop some major bits from LOTR for the sake of time, he’s been allowed to indulge himself here to the extent that he’s chucking in loads of extra stuff.

      • Terry Malloy's Pigeon Coop · December 14, 2012

        Yeah this struggled to stand alone as a film whereas all of the LOTR films did, but I guess that comes from adapting one book as opposed to three. It seems to be the done thing now to try and spread films out over more films than necessary and I’m a little worried that three films is too much for The Hobbit.

      • threerowsback · December 14, 2012

        So am I, although I am intrigued as to what the second chapter will be. To be fair to Jackson he normally pulls it off so I’ll keep my fingers crossed. There’s a lot of goodwill towards him; here’s hoping he doesn’t drop the ball.

  3. The Northern Plights · December 14, 2012

    When your own imagination is just too rubbish…there is always Tolkien!

    I have re-posted this on a Swedish site, expect more Scandinavian traffic!

    ~The Dippylomat esq.

  4. insiderhedge · December 14, 2012

    Reblogged this on Parrot Reviews.

  5. Tim The Film Guy · December 28, 2012

    Personally I think its a good start, and I am really happy he didn’t pull a Lucas on this film series 😀

    • Three Rows Back · December 28, 2012

      Jackson is a proper director, while Lucas is an accountant (all be it a very wealthy one). ‘Could do better’ is my impression of The Hobbit Part A even though it has moments that rival LOTR. Someone needs to take Jackson to one side and persuade him not to indulge himself; if he can do that this trilogy could become something great.

      • Tim The Film Guy · December 28, 2012

        Well I am guessing The second will include the big ass battle with smaug, the third will be the battle of the five armies. Those two have a far greater story and narrative to play with. The first film covers about the first 50 pages of the book from what I can tell. The next is going to be fantastic, Fingers crossed 😀

      • Three Rows Back · December 28, 2012

        Absolutely. No-one wants Jackson and The Hobbit series to succeed more than I. Fingers crossed indeed!

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