I took the day off today, and caught the morning showing of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey at my local theater (where you can get in for five bucks at shows before 11 AM). I’ve been nervous about this film, not sure it could possibly live up to the Lord of the Rings trilogy, even with Peter Jackson and his team in charge. The last Peter Jackson film I saw was King Kong, which was awful primarily because it was excessively overlong. So you can imagine my fear at The Hobbit – a lighthearted children’s story less than 1/4 the length of The Lord of the Rings, being turned into another trilogy nine hours or so long.
So I played it safe: figured I’d invest five dollars in the film, seeing it in 2D, and could always go back to see the iMax and/or the 48 FPS versions, if I liked it. Well, let’s just say that the good folks at Regal Cinemas will be getting plenty of money from me this month, for I’ll be back, at least twice more.
This is not really a review of the movie; it’s more of a fan-boy appreciation. As a Tolkien lover since my teen years and an enthusiastic lover of the film trilogy, I’m not even going to pretend the kind of critical distance necessary to really review the film. If you want my feelings in a nutshell, here it is: I was worried that the film would disappoint me. And while it’s not perfect, it’s more than just good enough. So I can enthusiastically say, “go see it!”
Now, if you want a bit more detail about why the film converted me from a skeptic back to a believer, here’s a quick rundown. Please note that this list does contain spoilers, so continue reading only if that’s okay with you.
1. It felt like a family reunion. The film takes us back to Middle-New Zealand-Earth, with gorgeous location shots (including some recognizable landmarks) and revisiting the comfortable splendors of Hobbiton and Rivendell. But the real treat is seeing familiar faces, chiefly Ian McKellan as Gandalf and Andy Serkis digitized as Gollum. Brief appearances by LOTR alums Ian Holm, Elijah Wood, Cate Blanchett, and Christopher Lee are charming, and never detract from the story arc, even though they represent deviations from Tolkien’s text. Galadriel’s appearance at Rivendell was the most contrived bit, but Cate Blanchett is so radiant and the interplay between her and McKellan’s Gandalf so pleasing, that I am willing to forgive a brief weakness in the narrative.
2. The “extra material” works. Jackson and his co-writers mined the Tolkien corpus for the rich backstory (or backstories) that give the film its supersized running time. Critics have sniffed that some of it is episodic, and that’s true enough — after all, the screenwriters are trying to uphold Tolkien’s basic narrative, so the inserted material does feel, well, inserted. But it works. Radagast’s encounter with the Necromancer provides insight into two of the most interesting oblique characters in Middle Earth, so I was happy to go along for the ride. And thankfully, the film is so well-paced that it doesn’t feel like the 166 minutes it is.
3. Gollum and Bilbo’s encounter is rendered well. The emotional heart of this film, especially in relation to the Lord of the Rings, is the encounter between the bumbling, humble titular Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, and the mysterious cave-dweller, Gollum. It’s a pivotal moment when Bilbo gains some much-needed self-confidence, and also chances upon the ring that will play such a significant role in the later trilogy. Thankfully, Andy Serkis is as brilliant as ever as the scarily pathetic creature, and Martin Freeman ably fills Ian Holm’s shoes as the “thief” Baggins.
4. The Dwarves sing. Not a lot, and not particularly well. But I was disappointed at how much of Tolkiens’ lyrics didn’t make it into the film version of The Lord of the Rings, so it was a treat to have some of the songs from The Hobbit show up this time around.
5. Radagast is goofy but endearing. We know in the books that Saruman contemptuously dismisses his fellow Wizard Radagast the Brown as a fool; so Jackson and Company played up that angle, making Radagast into a stereotypical nature-loving fluff-bunny. But when he’s not inviting birds to build nests under his hat or nursing poisoned hedgehogs back to life, he stands up to the Witch-King of Angmar and helps Gandalf and company escape from marauding orcs. Verdict: like Gandalf himself, there’s more to this silly wizard than first meets the eyes.
7. The Great Eagles sequence is gorgeous. This movie basically covers the first six chapters of the original novel. Chapter six ends with Bilbo, Gandalf and the Dwarves saved from attacking goblins and their demon-wolves (the Wargs) by Great Eagles rescuing the party from trees they have climbed. Although the Great Eagles appear in The Lord of the Rings (most notably rescuing Sam and Frodo from Mount Doom after the ring is destroyed), the huge birds get more screen time than ever in the new film. Set against the splendor of the New Zealand (er, Middle Earth) wilderness, it makes for simply gorgeous cinematography.
8. This first installment ends on a satisfying emotional note. The narrative tension of this film concerns Bilbo, the bumbling Hobbit, trying to fit in with a band of Dwarves who are launching an apparently quixotic campaign to defeat a dragon that made a lair out of their ancestral home. The Dwarves aren’t sure having a Hobbit along is a very good idea, and Bilbo, meanwhile, simply gets more and more homesick. But when Bilbo’s ambivalence suddenly helps him to identify with the Dwarves (and vice versa) it sets the stage for his own heroic action — and a wonderful, conciliatory response from the Dwarf king. And just as the movie adaptation of The Fellowship of the Ring ends with Frodo and Sam gazing off at Mordor in the distance, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey ends with the party’s first glimpse of Erebor, the Lonely Mountain — the object of their quest.
9. It leaves you wanting more. Actually, glimpsing Erebor from a distance is not the very last shot. Jackson offers just a tease of a glimpse into what awaits the party when the get to the Lonely Mountain: Smaug, the fearsome dragon. Ending with a close-up of the Dragon’s eye (and thus evoking Sauron, the “evil eye” of The Lord of the Rings), we see just enough to leave us — at least, this viewer — hungry for more.
So there you go. If you haven’t seen The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey yet, go. Because you’ll want to go more than once.