The Hobbit:
An Unexpected Journey
directed by Peter Jackson
(Warner Bros., 2012)

If you're looking for a Lord of the Rings fix, you might not get it with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. But the dismay and negativity that initially greeted Peter Jackson's painstakingly crafted effort was premature and frankly somewhat contemptuous, given how hard Jackson worked to remain loyal to the source. It is absolutely a return to Middle Earth, but it also absolutely isn't Lord of the Rings. Understood in those terms, it can perhaps be enjoyed for what it is, as opposed to what it is not.

The film does have its flaws. Crafting a single novel into a three-parter is going to invite negative comparison with the original trilogy. There's also zero character development and the plot is amplified with invented characters and situations not originally in the book, which may annoy loyal fans.

That said, the best thing going for An Unexpected Journey is its incredible production values and the heartfelt acting brought to the screen by everyone involved. There's also the solidity of the story itself. Jackson didn't just turn Tolkien's novel into a trilogy through sheer embellishment. There actually is a great deal of material to work with, a good half of which, at least, is in the movie. The magnified bits, while definitely having an "additive" feel to them, don't detract very much from the essential narrative.

Each actor plays his or her role with conviction. Ian McKellan pretty much is Gandalf incarnate, Martin Freeman makes a perfect Bilbo Baggins, and Andy Serkis had better win a whole bunch of awards for his ongoing brilliance as Gollum. The dwarves are too numerous to keep track of, but they have a Marx Brothers kind of levity that is endearing. The sincerity they all bring compensates for the initial awkwardness of the first 45 minutes, when the story has yet to venture out of the Shire.

The movie takes off about halfway in. There's lots of wandering through hills and being attacked by various awful beings on the way to reclaim the lost dwarf kingdom of Erebor from the dragon Smaug. Overall, despite some narrative clunkiness, An Unexpected Journey is still quite visually amazing, the 48 frames per second adding layers and depths not seen before.

Many iconic moments -- such as Bilbo and Gollum's first meeting, and the finding of the ring itself -- are beautifully done. While thematically simpler than its predecessor, this first installment in a new franchise for the most part blends (almost) seamlessly with the world of Middle Earth, right down to the soundtrack and the presence of familiar elven kings and queens. It's more for kids than adults, but for all that it's still rather immersive and retains its merit as good, escapist fun.

by Mary Harvey
5 January 2013

In some scenes, the dwarves were so silly and cartoon-like, I half-expected them to start whistling while they worked.

But The Hobbit, I kept reminding myself, was written for children, and as such it was never intended to be so dark and gloomy as its literary successor, The Lord of the Rings. LotR director Peter Jackson expertly captured that weighty trilogy on film in years gone by, and I can say happily -- although with some reservations -- that he's done it again with An Unexpected Journey, the first installment of his Hobbit trilogy.

Anyone who's read the books by J.R.R. Tolkien but hasn't kept abreast of the news from Hollywood might be surprised to learn that The Hobbit -- a single book, shorter and lighter than each of the LotR tomes -- is getting the same movie trilogy treatment that Rings got. But let's be honest, Jackson knows this particular gravy train has a limited shelf life, and he'll milk it for every ticket he can sell. So, supplementing the saga of Bilbo Baggins (perfectly portrayed here by British everyman Martin Freeman) with material drawn from the LotR appendices -- as well as his own fertile imagination -- Jackson has expanded the Bilbo tale quite a lot.

That means his journey from the Shire to Lonely Mountain will be heavily padded and interrupted along the way -- with a madcap adventure with Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy), a different sort of wizard; with a council of elves and wizards, where Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and Saruman (Christopher Lee) -- neither of whom appeared in The Hobbit (book) but both of whom have plenty of star power to bring to The Hobbit (film) -- offer their wisdom; with a vendetta by a pale, one-armed orc who really, really hates Doc ... I mean, Thorin. There's also a sequence at the start, where old Bilbo (Ian Holm) and Frodo (Elijah Wood) set the stage by telling us that we're about to hear a tale.

But the primary focus is, as it should be, on Bilbo, on Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) and a baker's dozen of dwarves led by the brooding Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) as they seek to reclaim their lost mountain kingdom from the evil dragon Smaug.

They don't get there, much less back again, in this movie. But they do run afoul plenty of goblins, a handful of trolls and, of course, Gollum (Andy Serkis), whose game of riddles with Bilbo sets up the ring sequence to come.

And there are fights a-plenty, but none with the sorrow or grandeur of Rings; again, this was written for children, so our heroes never really seem to be in much peril, although their foes fall like wheat to a scythe in fast-paced, slapsticky, acrobatic scenes of cartoon violence.

There's no denying, though, that I enjoyed every minute of the film, even though the story heaves itself along in places at the plodding pace of an obese dwarf.

I have mixed feelings about the 48-frames-per-second hoopla, by the way. There's no question the movie is visually stunning -- but so was LotR, which was shown at the old 24-frames rate. Yeah, it looks great, clear as a bell, but is it worth the extra expense? I'm not sold.

Suffice it to say, The Hobbit is no Fellowship of the Ring ... but neither is it The Phantom Menace, so it's ahead of the game so far as movie prequels go.

by Tom Knapp
5 January 2013


Buy it from