As a critic, I think it is an important part of the job to recognize your biases and to make your readership aware of the same. So, before we get down to the nitty gritty of reviewing The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, let me make a few confessions. Confession number one: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring was the movie that got me into movies in the first place. If that movie doesn't happen, who knows if I am taking the time to write this right now. Confession Number Two: I ran laps around the living room, fists pumping, screaming like a maniac when Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King completed its Oscar sweep in 2003. Confession number 3: I consider JRR Tolkien to be THE great writer of our time and The Lord of the Rings trilogy to be the finest films, well, ever. With those three confessions on the table then, it is here that I will attempt to review The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey as unbiasedly as I possibly can.
Just like the novels, The Hobbit is quite a different animal from The Lord of the Rings both stylistically and in terms of narrative goals. Whereas the Lord of the Rings is a pretty simple quest on an apocalyptic scale (destroy this ring or the world will come to an end), The Hobbit is a story about an equally simple quest with much smaller stakes (reclaim the dwarves home or...?). There is no world-changing power waiting to be unleashed if the dwarves, Gandalf, and Bilbo Baggins fail in their attempts to remove Smaug the terrible from the dwarves' home of Erebor like there was if Sauron were to regain the ring in The Lord of the Rings; there would simply be a pissed off dragon and thirteen burnt to the crisp dwarves. What this does is to make the initial chapter in The Hobbit a more light-hearted and intimate tale than the films that came before it. This is not a film about saving the world through great battles, but one about a character taken from the comforts of his home and as the title would suggest his unexpected journey into a dangerous adventure.
Filled with action and humor in equal doses this is a much more lighthearted endeavor than The Lord of the Rings trilogy, full of physical sight gags, witty one-liners, and even a song or three. There are also references to the trilogy to come, including the appearance of some of the fans' favorite characters in glorified cameos. Some of these moments work better than others. The appearance of Gollum, for instance, is far and away the scene of the year and one of the most hilarious and intense scenes of all time, on par with anything in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Gollum's reaction as he loses the ring shows the incredible advancement that CGI has undergone in the last ten years while also representing Andy Serkis' finest moment in the series to date. In that one moment is shown the pain of the character Gollum as well as what makes Bilbo Baggins the most interesting of the hobbit characters. Likewise, Christopher Lee's appearance as the duplicitous Saruman is a welcome one. Elrond, however, is seemingly as useless as he usually is with actor Hugo Weaving once again given nothing of real significance to do.
The film, while certainly tying itself to The Lord of the Rings trilogy in any way that it can including a story structure that is nearly identical to that of The Fellowship of the Ring and especially so in the constant guiding hand of Ian McKellan's wonderful Gandalf the Grey, it also presents several new ideas to the story of Middle Earth. The gang of dwarves, for one, helps to bring life to a race of people that in the prior films had been used mainly as a comedic sounding board. While the group of thirteen dwarves in the film are certainly used to comedic effect through things like their ridiculous beards or dining manner, they also help portray a picture of a hard-working and noble people on par in creativity with the design of any of the Elves or men in the past films. Erebor, the dwarves home, is especially majestic and one can only hope that we see more of it as the films progress. The makeup and costuming work here is extraordinary, as are any of the other technical elements on display including the once again immaculate cinematography and a film score that will have you humming for weeks after you leave the theater. Full of many of the trilogy's original themes as well as some brilliant new compositions, Howard Shore's score is every bit an equal to his prior entries.
While the dwarves are great, just as in the novel, they can be difficult to keep track of at times and are at others seemingly only there to fill in as battle extras whenever called upon. This is not true of all the dwarves as the main trio of Thorin, Dwalin, and Balin are certainly fleshed out in great detail, but is the case for many of the background dwarves who could be considered fun in some spots and entirely superfluous in others. Thorin is a good protagonist, if not quite an Aragorn, certainly better than most fictional heroes and one that holds great promise as the story continues onward.
Although the dwarves are one way in which the film separates itself from The Lord of the Rings, it is in the character of Bilbo Baggins that this is fully achieved. Bilbo is not Frodo, not even close, and that is a wonderful thing. Gone is the whiny, beleaguered hobbit, and in his place is a character playing a fish out of water, that while placed in a world that is hard to understand initially, dives in and acts as heroically as any of the other characters when called upon to do so. Martin Freeman is the perfect fit as Bilbo and it is hard to imagine anyone else delivering as he has here, filling Bilbo with grace, wonderful humor, and a sense of wonder that fits the story beautifully. His reactions to all of the craziness around him is half the fun of the film and reminds the viewer how they felt being introduced to Middle Earth in the first place. Bilbo is this film's soul and lifeblood and as he becomes more adventurous and courageous, so too does the film, amping up in intensity and becoming the great film that it always seemed capable of.
Just as great as Freeman, if perhaps more familiar is Ian McKellan as Gandalf. Obviously the sole owner of this role by now, McKellan steps back into the all too comfortable boots and makes it seem like he has never left Middle Earth. This is the role that he was born to play and as always he plays it perfectly. Just as funny as he ever was and even more awesome in battle, Gandalf is alive and better than ever and it is just fantastic that there are two other films coming with him in them.
Where these two and several scenes in the film would seem right at home in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, including the aforementioned bit with Gollum as well as almost the entire final hour, not everything goes smoothly. The orcs and goblins in the film with one exception are ugly and anonymous CG creations that do not have the same character of those found in the original trilogy. While Azog is certainly a worthy villain and a nice addition to the story by Peter Jackson and co as a central antagonist for Thorin, the rest are boring, lifeless entities at the best of time and hideously flawed at others. The worst offender is the Goblin King, who should have been one of the more frightening entires in the series, but who is instead one of its most laughable in execution.
Problematic also is the film's middle. While both the opening and conclusion feel swift and jam packed with terrific action, comedy, and layer upon layer of attention to detail, the middle seems uncomfortably long and perhaps padded in an effort to include everything from the original novel and some things that were not in it in the first place. This is all on Peter Jackson who decided to create three films instead of one or two and who obviously needed to fill time. This is a decision that is hard to judge at the moment since we have not seen the final two chapters and since some plot payoffs are obviously on the horizon, but at the moment it is one of mixed results. For instance, any of the material added that addresses the Necromancer is brilliant and will certainly have an even greater payoff in the next two films. Likewise, the extra character development will certainly help future events seem more personal than they do in the novel. However, there are sequences that could certainly have been trimmed or altered in order to keep the film moving and not bog down as it does in its middle. Feeling at times like Jackson's King Kong, this is a movie that no matter how beautifully done, certainly has some bloat. There are amazing moments throughout the film and some of the best are the quiet moments between characters that didn't exist in the novel, but there are also sequences that go on for too long and seem to be there only to try and mirror The Lord of the Rings for scope.
When The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey doesn't try to be The Lord of the Rings and rather becomes the brisk adventure that Tolkien intended, it works and is clearly one of the finest films of the year. In those moments when Jackson succumbs to his lesser instincts, however, it seems to drift slightly from Middle Earth into a Narnia or Skull island existence. Like the Fellowship of the Ring in 2001 this is a film that is difficult to judge because it is obviously only the first two and a half hours of a much larger affair. As it stands, while perhaps not as magical as The Fellowship of the Ring or as epic as The Return of the King, it soars at least as high as The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, and that unlike its title character is no small thing.