“All good stories deserve embellishment.”
The above line of dialogue may come from Gandalf the Grey in the new film The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, but it it might as well be delivered by the film’s director and co-writer, Peter Jackson. Jackson has taken J.R.R. Tolkien’s quaint 310-page adventure book and adapted it into three blockbuster films, each expected to run nearly 3 hours in length. It’s easy for fans of the book to be cynical about this decision to embellish such a treasured piece of literature, especially when the motivations appear to be driven more by profit potential than creativity. This mindset (along with a mostly negative response to the higher frame rate; more on that later) can lead a moviegoer to walk in to The Hobbit with a great amount of pessimism.
For anybody with an open mind, however, these negative feelings should evaporate within the first few minutes of the film when an important realization sets in: this is not J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, but Peter Jackson’s. It is big and loud and long and damn if it isn’t a whole lot of fun. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey works better when viewed as a follow-up to Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy than when viewed as a direct adaptation of Tolkien’s work. It puts us right back in the familiar cinematic universe that was so wonderfully established in those films from a decade ago and jump starts a new adventure that mirrors (sometimes too closely) the journey taken by Frodo and company. For those viewers whose experience with Jackson’s original trilogy was a positive one, this is a more than welcome return.
After an obligatory prologue where we learn how a dragon named Smaug evicted a Dwarf race from their mountainous home, the film takes us to a familiar place: Bilbo Baggins’ hillside cottage where he (Ian Holm) and his nephew Frodo (Elijah Wood) are preparing for a long-expected party. The sets, costumes, and even Howard Shore’s score take the audience right back to the opening of Fellowship of the Ring, before the scene shifts and introduces the new cast. The younger Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) is trying to patiently enjoy his solitude before Gandalf (Ian McKellan) and a host of Dwarves unexpectedly arrive at his home to plan their mission to recapture their mountain from Smaug. Hesitant at first, Bilbo finally convinces himself to join the dwarves on the titular journey.
Jackson continues upping the nostalgia (if it’s possible to have nostalgia for a series that is only a decade old) by giving us a company of dwarves that closely mirrors the fellowship in The Lord of the Rings. There is the leader dwarf who is destined to be King, a bow-wielding dwarf, a few battle hungry dwarves, and a few dwarves who think with their stomach instead of their brain. Their journey has them stopping in the elf city of Rivendell, walking alongside mountains while they face ominous weather, and being rescued by eagles from the edge of the precipice. We have seen all of these things before in Jackson’s previous trilogy, but somehow the impact is not diminished in the slightest. There are moments that seem like shot for shot replicas from the original films like Gandalf’s awkward stumbling in the tiny Hobbit hole that seem like Jackson is actually winking at the audience, but always playfully and never smug.
The main reason it is so easy to get swept up in this adventure is because Jackson is a masterful craftsman and he assembles much of the same creative team that worked on The Lord of the Rings. Cinematographer Andrew Lesnie returns with his fluid camera that explores the sets of Hobbiton and elsewhere in Middle Earth with a giddy enthusiasm, as if it is the first time. Despite the fact that much of the sets are CGI and there was heavy use of green screen, there are enough actual set pieces to make this world feel real and Dan Hennah’s superb production design helps make us feel like we are right alongside the characters on-screen.
Ultimately, The Hobbit is a story about growing up and finding what “home” really means. Martin Freeman is superbly cast as Bilbo, delivering a masterclass in playing the childlike adult who must discover his inner bravery. Despite the fact that much time is spent setting up the dwarves’ quest to find their homeland, this is ultimately Bilbo’s story and Jackson and Freeman are the right people to tell it. Richard Armitage is also a pleasant surprise as Thorin Oakenshield (stand-in for Viggo Mortensen’s Aragorn). He is stately and heroic, but also flawed as we see in his compulsive actions in one of the film’s final scenes. From the first installment, it is clear that he is likely going to have as rich of an arc as Bilbo.
There are certainly flaws in Jackson’s first film, but it never felt unnecessarily long. Being brought back to his vision of Middle Earth for a new, yet familiar adventure was enough to dissolve any cynicism I had going in. If this is the new tentpole franchise, we could do a lot worse.
Bottom Line: Open your mind and your memory and you will have a lot of fun with Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.
NOTE ABOUT FRAME RATE: I saw The Hobbit in the much talked about 48 frames per second and unfortunately I have to side with the haters of the new format. It makes the 3-D and big action scenes look slightly better, but Jackson did not do enough with the 3-D elements to make it worth the inflated ticket price. The stationary scenes or interior shots looked like a BBC production of The Hobbit instead of a theatrical film. Avoid at all costs.