Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

I haven’t read The Hobbit, JRR Tolkien’s first book on Middle Earth in at least three decades. I have read The Lord of the Rings at least a half dozen times. Frankly, The Hobbit is simply a far less compelling book: relatively slim and oriented toward children. It would have been a great book to read with my father at age eight or so once I was past the Dr. Seuss years, but not so much as an adult.

Unsurprisingly, movie producers skipped right to the Lord of the Rings trilogy. That The Hobbit was turned into a movie at all was due to the success of the three rings movies and Peter Jackson’s eventual willingness to both direct and produce the movie. The movie? I misspoke. The Hobbit (as a movie) will become a trilogy of its own. This will involve a lot of padding and stuffing it with materials from the appendices and other source material developed later by Tolkien in The Silmarillion, plus undoubtedly some poetic license. There is plenty of the latter in this first of The Hobbit movies: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

Jackson must have gotten the note: don’t mess with the formula. To make this movie as palatable as possible to fans of the Rings movies, the same music that framed the Rings movies is used, with the exception of one new tune. Also, as long as you are not messing with formula, why not invite back much of the cast from the Rings movies? That’s not to say that they are all back, at least not yet. Gandalf at least is central to The Hobbit book, and Elrond had an ancillary part, but rest assured the white wizard Saruman was not in the book, or the elven queen Galadriel or Radagast, a wizard of the forest, who was only alluded to in the Rings books. Frodo is back as well Ian Holm as the elder Bilbo, both only briefly at the start of the movie. There is no sign of Sam, Aragorn, Legolas, Boromir or the rest, although there are two movies to go. My bet is Peter Jackson will find a way to slip them in somewhere.

For all practical purposes, Thorin is Aragorn in this movie. The resemblance is so striking that I initially mistook Richard Armitage for Viggo Mortensen, as he uses the same poses as Aragorn and even holds his sword the same way. Aragorn was the dispossessed King of Gondor. Thorin is the dispossessed dwarf king under the mountain. Both have major challenges. Aragorn has to summon the will to be king and defeat Sauron. Thorin has to reclaim his kingdom and kill the dragon Smaug. Aragorn is one prominent member of a fellowship. Thorin is the leader of thirteen dwarves. Bilbo Baggins enters the picture at the start of this movie as the dwarves converge on the Shire and because the wizard Gandalf chooses Bilbo as their burglar, a duty the homebound Bilbo does not seem to eager to take on.

Oh, but it’s great to be in the Shire, which is eternally peaceful and bucolic, and in particular it’s great to be back in Bag End, Bilbo’s home, even if it is quickly taken over by dwarves who monopolize both conversation and his pantry. Martin Freeman, who I first knew as John Watson in the BBC’s latest series Sherlock, plays a younger Bilbo. It is clear that he studied Ian Holm’s interpretation because much of his acting here is imitating Ian Holm. Nonetheless Freeman proves an apt choice for Bilbo and brings just the right mixture of sincerity and naivety to the role.

Ian McKellen (Gandalf) looks ten years older, which he is, but actually does a more satisfying job of portraying the wizard than he did in the Rings movies. You might say he has fully mastered the part now, and he does so effortlessly and to delightful effect. Otherwise those brought back from the Rings movies don’t look any older, including Cate Blanchett as Lady Galadriel, Hugo Weaving as Elrond and Ian Holm as Bilbo. Holm actually looks younger, if that is possible, and Blanchett doesn’t look aged a day, which is good if you are portraying an immortal elf.

As for the dwarves, they don’t all look as weathered as Gimli did in the Rings movies. Thorin in particular looks more human than dwarf, which is good because we have to relate to someone in the movie and there are no parts for actual humans. They all make a memorable introduction at Bag End near the start of the movie where poor Bilbo plays unexpected host to all thirteen of them, plus wizard. Jackson earns the big money in these early scenes, because their exposition unfolds so comically and seamlessly. It is unlikely that any other director could have pulled it off. And Freeman is just so excellent as the befuddled Bilbo. His casting was inspired.

This earlier version of Middle Earth is older and a bit more fun than the one we saw in the Rings movies. That was one of the problems with the original movies: Middle Earth was changing, but not so much in The Hobbit, except giant spiders are inhabiting the Greenwood, trolls have come down from the mountains, and orcs are on the warpath. Jackson seems determined to integrate it with the Rings movies and to portray a Middle Earth that is subtly changing for the worse. As for the dwarves that Bilbo belatedly joins as its burglar, it’s hard for them to go a day without some hair-raising adventure: trolls, orcs and stone giants are just some of the perils they have to encounter. There is also, deep in the Misty Mountains, a peculiar creature called Gollum that Bilbo must encounter for the first time. It’s peculiar but pleasurable to encounter Gollum again. He should be thoroughly unlikeable, but Andy Serkis does such a good job of portraying him that you look forward to the encounter.

The movie feels quite padded, but in a good way. Middle Earth is a huge tapestry. In the Rings movies Jackson had to be very selective about what to show of Middle Earth. Finally he has a chance to imbue us wholly in Middle Earth. Probably half an hour could have been trimmed from the movie at no appreciable loss, except for us Tolkien-heads for who these movies were really made, and there are millions of us. We can’t get enough!

So parts feel formulaic, but also in a good way. The dwarves and Bilbo escape all sorts of improbable disasters. Jackson has wholly mastered adventure movies and we get lots of rickety catwalks, collapsing bridges and drops from crazy heights. Middle Earth is dazzling, more so than in the Rings movies, and it is a comfortable place in spite of all its perils. It’s quite a pleasure to walk in Rivendell again and although meetings with characters like Saruman and Lady Galadriel seem quite contrived, you won’t care. Middle Earth has never felt quite so homey.

Good job, Peter Jackson and crew. I’m not sure how you will pad out this slim book into three three-hour movies, but if the other two are as good as the first, we Tolkien addicts are going to be happy. Meanwhile Peter Jackson, how about starting preproduction for The Silmarillion? Thanks.

3.4 on my four-point scale. A good time for all.

[xrr rating=3.4/4]

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