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Movie Review: The Hobbit Part 1: An Unexpected Journey

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey Tolkien Peter Jackson Martin Freeman Bilbo Baggins with Sting

By turning J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit – a children’s book that spawned The Lord of the Rings – into its own film trilogy, director Peter Jackson has made three Misty Mountains out of one hobbit hill. The Hobbit Part 1: An Unexpected Journey suffers from a script trying to do too many things at once, and some strong acting performances are dwarfed (pardon the pun) by a lack of cohesion in the plot.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey takes a band of 13 dwarves on a quest to retake their ancestral home from the dragon who has taken up residence there. Led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and accompanied by the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen), they are set up with a hobbit named Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and sent on their way.

Tolkien’s book gets them to the end of their story in under 200 pages; Peter Jackson plans to get them there in 9 cinematic hours. For those following along at home, Part 1 takes the story up to the party’s rescue by the eagles on the other side of the Misty Mountains.

Jackson seems so gleeful to be back in Middle-Earth that his source takes a back seat to his previous achievements.

For fans of Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, he seems to have inserted absolutely every cast member who agreed to come back. Ian McKellen is once again splendid as Gandalf; Hugo Weaving is back as Elrond, and it’s great to see octogenarian Christopher Lee come out to play Saruman again.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey Gandalf with Elrond holding Glamdring in Rivendell

LOTR alums Gandalf (Ian McKellen) with Elrond (Hugo Weaving).

Andy Serkis is frightening and sympathetic all at once as Gollum. Elijah Wood’s return as Frodo is cute, but unnecessary. Cate Blanchett is a fantastic elf queen, but her Galadriel doesn’t need to be in this story. Jackson is clearly a stickler for continuity, but he doesn’t do much to show us something we haven’t seen before. He’s so clearly established his version of Middle-Earth that the most interesting parts are the areas he’s only now filling in.

The real success of this film is its new lead. Martin Freeman’s Bilbo Baggins is too awkward and polite to say no to anything. He manages to be uncomfortable and homesick without being a whiner, and there’s an underlying strength to him that really carries the film. He’s supposed to be the center of this story, and Freeman is up to that challenge.

Too bad the story strays from Bilbo far too often.

An Unexpected Journey is a flabby shadow of The Lord of the Rings, overstuffed with extra bits of footage and links to the trilogy that only bog it down for a three-hour running time that could have easily been trimmed to two. It’s appalling to know that they’ve stretched this story into two more films, with even more filler subplots crammed in to get it up to the proper size.

There is so much to this film that is absolutely needless. There’s a meandering intro from old Bilbo (Ian Holm), who is trying to write while a young Frodo (Elijah Wood) pokes around Bag End. Compare this doddering start to the grand opening of The Fellowship of the Ring, with its haunting score, Cate Blanchett voiceover and quick summary of the backstory, and it’s clear Peter Jackson has been given too much leash with this second crack at Middle-Earth.

The movie smacks of a director too much in love with his source material, and it’s positively brimming with fan service moments. Jackson unabashedly recycles camera angles and bits of dialogue to the point where it goes beyond the occasional wink at the audience and becomes more of a sharp jab in the ribs: “Remember when Gandalf hit his head on the chandelier? That’s still funny, right?”

That said, Jackson also makes numerous departures from the source text that serve only to muddle the tone of the film. Tolkien’s novel was meant for children; it had a lot more humour and a lot less morality than his later books. Jackson appears to struggle with that difference as he tries to marry the epic scale of The Lord of the Rings with the ridiculousness of 13 loud, hungry dwarves showing up uninvited for a house party. He tries to make the story larger than it needs to be.

One of the biggest changes to Tolkien’s source text is that Jackson has essentially grafted on other bits of the Middle-Earth story to create a prequel for Sauron’s rise. He draws from The Lord of the Rings appendix to create a subplot for Gandalf and his fellow wizards Saruman and Radagast (Sylvester McCoy). Sauron and his Ringwraiths are gathering themselves in Mirkwood, and Radagast – who we do not see in the novel – is the first one to warn his allies. It’s tough to take him seriously, though, as he drives a sled drawn by rabbits and he quite literally has white bird shit plastered to the side of his face the entire time.

Radagast the Brown the Hobbit an Unexpected Journey Tolkien Peter Jackson Sylvester McCoy

Note the white mess on his face.

The Hobbit wasn’t written as an intentional prequel to what The Lord of the Rings became. It simply didn’t have the grand scope of good versus evil that the later books had. The Hobbit is an adventure tale about a mild-mannered person who discovers new strengths in himself when he is put in extraordinary situations. The Hobbit is about Bilbo. By forcing the Sauron plot onto it – and by inserting an Orc nemesis for Thorin to square off with at the film’s climax – Jackson is creating too many threads to tie up. Obviously they will be tied up by the third film, but this first one should be able to stand on its own feet.

Jackson may be reliving his LOTR heyday, but there’s little evidence he’s grown since then in An Unexpected Journey.

Nevertheless, this is an enjoyable return to the magical and picturesque Middle-Earth. It doesn’t hit the high notes or plumb emotional depths the way it’s predecessors did, but it’s absolutely worth seeing.

3.5 out of 5 stars

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