You all knew this was coming. The other night, I saw The Hobbit, and oh my Tolkien was it everything I had dreamed it would be and more. I cannot overstate to you, dear reader, how fantastic this film truly was. Now, you will see some Tolkien purist types grousing over certain things, on the internet, where they like to dwell, and I will address that. But let me preface this review by saying that they are mostly full of shit and that nothing should encumber your enjoyment of this film besides making the mistake of seeing it in 2D (more on that later). This isn’t exactly spoilery, but in order to best preserve the experience you should certainly go see the film yourself before reading this review. You should certainly just go see it ANYWAY. Go, now. I’ll wait.
Back? Okay, good. So I mean, wow. This is the movie we’ve been waiting for since Return of the King stunned us all with its brilliance back in 2003. And it’s been a long, long wait. We’ve been shelved and put on hold and switched directors and announced trilogies and the anticipation has, for a lot of people, created massive expectations. Myself included. But I am not lying to you when I say that The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey fully meets and exceeds these expectations- often in ways you never imagined.
Let’s talk about acting. Not only do you have a fantastic core cast, including Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Aidan Turner, and of course Sir Ian McKellen, but you also have a fantastic host of auxiliary characters and, perhaps equally as importantly, many reprisals by actors playing their characters from the Lord of the Rings. You better believe that we get Elijah Wood (Frodo), Ian Holm (Old Bilbo), Christopher Lee (Saruman), Hugo Weaving (Elrond), Cate Blanchett (Galadriel), and naturally the ever-creepy Andy Serkis as Gollum.
The quality is there too. In a movie such as this, with such a massive core group, it can often become difficult to tell the twelve different dwarves apart when the action is focused on Bilbo, the main character. But each of the dwarves have personality enough (not to mention a unique and fetching beard) that distinguishing them does not take too much trouble, even if you’ve never read the books.
Some folks complained about how somber and brooding Thorin is in the film, but these people must not be remembering their Hobbit quite right. Thorin, exiled dwarven prince, is very taciturn throughout the novel, especially in regards to his mistrust of Bilbo’s abilities. The movie dealt with this very heart-warmingly during one of the final scenes. There were a lot of feels.
But the real kicker is the story, naturally. That is, after all, what the movie’s all about. And it’s magnificent. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Jackson puts his own unique spin on it- including a frame narrative involving an older Bilbo recounting his adventure to Frodo, and some extra business with the White Council and Radagast both. Which naturally got some complaint, so let me deal with that:
The extra scenes do not feel forced, they do not feel like filler to stretch the film out, and Radagast is not, despite what some say, Jar Jar Binks. While he certainly functions as a form of comic relief, his portrayal is not contrary to any depiction that we see of him via Tolkien (which are sadly few and far between). We know that Radagast is seen as the weakest of the Istari, and is disdained by Saruman (who actually had Radagast forced on him back in Valinor as a charge, he never even wanted to come). We know that only Gandalf respects Radagast, and this is made very clear in the film.
So why include him? Why give him screentime? Well first, I think it actually is to please the hardcore LotR fans who were disappointed with his exclusion from Fellowship of the Ring. He was excluded then to avoid confusing audiences- you must remember that a story as ambitious as The Lord of the Rings in film form was basically unheard of. Audiences were very different then, and most had not read the books at this point. Now, through the vast popularity of the films, Peter Jackson is free to experiment a bit, knowing that his audience is, overall, more informed than it was a decade ago.
But it’s also to tie things together. The White Council, and their nemesis, the Necromancer, are a key part of the story. They are in the book, too, it’s just that the action happened off screen. Jackson needed a way to tie it into the on-screen action, and Radagast was that way. While simultaneously exploring why the Brown wizard would not be included in the councils of the Wise, Radagast is used to unearth the threat of the Necromancer. And his rabbit sleigh, like some demented Santa Claus, gave us many a chuckle.
Besides these wizardly inclusions, everything else is essentially as it should be. And that’s saying something. But of course, there will always be that small minority of people who can’t appreciate anything unless it’s a 1:1 copy, which is both dreadfully boring and not at all appropriate when switching mediums. So let me take a minute to address those people, specifically:
Tolkien was never happy with The Hobbit, specifically with the way it fit into the larger context of the Middle Earth canon. He had never planned for The Hobbit to take place in the world that he had slowly been shaping in his head, and the desire for a sequel, which was totally unplanned, made it harder again to mesh everything together the way that he wanted. He went back and edited the text multiple times, something virtually unheard of these days, all with the intent of trying to make The Hobbit serve as a better prequel to The Lord of the Rings. Being a canon snob about Tolkien is something that can only be done ironically, because Tolkien was the opposite in regards to his own work.
So basically, Jackson is picking up where Tolkien left off. The changes that he’s made to the material help to place The Hobbit in the larger context of Middle Earth and The Lord of the Rings, rather than just as a clever children’s tale, as it originated.
Interestingly, though, Jackson does a bang-up job of preserving some of the silliness of the original. There are some funny moments, especially in the segments with Gollum and the Goblin King, both who were of the more over-the-top variety in the original book. But he also manages to preserve the epic tone he was looking for- we see Gollum’s struggle for sanity and the control of the ring, as well as the Goblin King and Azog’s desire for vengeance against Thorin.
Speaking of Azog: Some of you might be wondering where the hell that came from. He was supposed to die in the Battle of Azanulbizar originally, but Jackson decided to resurrect him for the film. Why? Convenience. Because the book is now stretched over three films, Smaug, the primary antagonist, had to be kept under wraps until his time comes. In the Lord of the Rings, the Nazgul and the Eye both served as constant reminders of the threat facing Frodo. The tension was very real. In order to create the same tension in The Hobbit, Jackson manufactured our orc pack and their leader, creating a foe for our company along the way to Smaug.
Cinematography was dead-on. Shots were fast and often at extreme angles or movements, but they were easy to follow and generally added to the experience. There was some motion blur experienced when I saw it, but apparently this is because the film plays in 48 FPS, or twice as many frames per second as a regular film. We saw it in 2D instead of 3D because I have a natural mistrust of 3D due to gimmicks, price bloating, and headaches. Apparently this was the wrong thing to do, as thanks to Jackson’s wizardry, the film is actually more easily viewable in 3D. Go figure. If 3D wasn’t your first choice it’s definitely something to consider.
The music was excellent, as was to be expected. It’s a lovely mix of new themes and old favorites (Rivendell and The Shire will both give you the warm ‘n fuzzies when their themes begin to play), and Howard Shore certainly makes the most of it. His music was integral in creating the epic tone of The Lord of the Rings, and he works to similar effect for The Hobbit. I don’t know if it’s a soundtrack I’d listen to independently, but it certainly works in the context of the film.
Overall, it’s a masterwork. It will be the fastest 2 hours and 45 minutes of your life. You’ll leave the theater begging for next December. Peter Jackson has struck again, and he’s begun a new trilogy that will fuel our collective consciousness for years to come.