I also must say from the getgo that if Peter Jackson and his fellow scribes on this movie's screenplay keep up their vibe, that they will have no problem whatsoever filling out the next two films of the trilogy with a healthy balance of action and Tolkien-ish fluff. Maybe we should lobby Jackson to prepare for work on a three-part adaptation of The Silmarillion as his next project. Then we can have nine movies about the history of Middle-Earth sitting on the Blu-ray shelf. But I digress...
M'lady Kristen and I caught The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey yesterday afternoon, on a normal-sized screen (there's no proper IMAX screen in the immediate vicinity) and in time-honored 2D. And not in that newfangled 48 FPS either (I'm getting reports from all over the place that the higher framerate really can and does induce severe headaches, but that in IMAX 3D it's supposed to be better somehow). In other words, I experienced An Unexpected Journey in much the same way as I did The Lord of the Rings trilogy on the big screen a decade ago. I note this in case the reader might wonder how I think The Hobbit so far is jibing with those three movies.
The short and sweet of it is: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is how a prequel should be produced. This movie blends and meshes so seamlessly with The Lord of the Rings that one might easily think Peter Jackson shot all of these movies simultaneously. The only thing that obviously sticks out is Martin Freeman as the younger Bilbo Baggins. Ian Holm for a number of reasons did not return to play Bilbo for the bulk of the story. But it is sweet delight to see Holm come back as Bilbo on the eve of his 111th birthday party along with Elijah Wood as Frodo. Those two look so unaged at all that one wonders if they have had the One Ring all along.
But Martin Freeman as Bilbo sixty years before The Lord of the Rings: I totally bought into his portrayal of the hobbit who notoriously goes running off (to the chagrin of his sensible neighbors) after Gandalf and the dwarves for an adventure beyond the borders of Bag End.
The narrative proper begins with Bilbo recounting the story of Erebor: the Lonely Mountain on the far side of Mirkwood Forest, over the forbidding peaks of the Misty Mountains. The greatest of the dwarven kingdoms of Middle-Earth (so renowned in fact that Men and Elves alike paid homage to King Thror), Erebor produces both fabulous riches and unsurpassed craftsmanship. But it's not to last. The wealth of the Kingdom Under the Mountain draws the lustful eye of the dragon Smaug, who devastates Erebor and the nearby city of Dale. Keen eyes will spot, among the Dwarven refugees fleeing Erebor, the first-ever Dwarf women to be depicted at all in any work inspired by J.R.R. Tolkien's mythology. A detail with no direct bearing on the story, but an altogether brash and bold one all the same. And we don't get a good look at Smaug just yet: at this point in the trilogy he's more like an indomitable force of nature: a tip of wing here and end of tail there is the only glimpse of the living beast turning Erebor and Dale into a smoking ruin.
Several decades later we find Bilbo smoking his pipeweed and bidding a "Good morning" to Gandalf (Ian McKellen), in the scene straight out of novel. It was exactly how I imagined it more than twenty years ago when I first read The Hobbit. But that's just the appetizer for an even grander spectacle: the thirteen Dwarves who arrive for an unexpected party that night at Bilbo's home. I bet little kids watching this movie will be hideously tempted to throw dinnerware, dishes and bowls around the kitchen (parents, take note!).
Well, if you've read The Hobbit, you'll know pretty much what to expect story-wise from here on out. But that's not all there is to The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey: Jackson and his team of writers (Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and contributions from Guillermo del Toro) also filled out the story with a considerable amount of lore from across the width and breadth of Tolkien's legendarium. Gandalf at one point mentions how there are five wizards in all, even mentioning the infamously-mysterious Blue Wizards (though Gandalf remarks that he can't remember their names). We get to see Radagast the Brown (wonderfully played by Sylvester McCoy, AKA the Seventh Doctor from Doctor Who): a fellow wizard who has "gone nature boy", roaming across Wilderland in a sleigh pulled by rabbits a'la Mad Santa. When the party arrives at Rivendell we are once again presented with Elrond and Galadriel (Hugo Weaving and Cate Blanchett, respectively, from the previous trilogy). And though I knew he was in there somewhere, it nevertheless was an honest shock to behold Christopher Lee once more as Saruman. Again I ask: HOW do all these people look like they've not gotten any older in ten years' time?? Great makeup I know, but still...
Ian McKellen as Gandalf is the most welcome reprisal from the earlier trilogy. And I thought that this time around, McKellen brought notably more humor and action prowess to a role already rich with the burdens of wisdom and gravitas. Indeed, at times McKellen's Gandalf the Grey comes across as more eager and able to fight in battle than does the reborn Gandalf the White from The Two Towers and The Return of the King.
Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and his gang of homeless but hearty Dwarves are fun to watch, regardless of their circumstance. I think my favorite of the bunch is Bofur (James Nesbitt): not just an honest and up-front Dwarf, but also the one wearing the coolest-looking hat. I want one of those!
And then there is Andy Serkis as Gollum. Serkis (who also gets a Second Unit Direction credit in this film) has lost nothing and in fact seems to have gotten even better at playing the fallen hobbit-kin. More than anything else in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Serkis' Gollum is the "flip-side" of the same coin that we'll see again in The Lord of the Rings. If Gollum was wretched and loathsome in that trilogy, he is no less here... but ridden throughout with a tragic and even saddened nature. There is little wonder why Bilbo ultimately shows pity and stays his hand from slaying Gollum. But even knowing that well beforehand, I was almost giddy about seeing Bilbo taking the quick and easy path. "It would have saved everyone a lot of trouble", Kristen said later. But then, Gollum would not have played - as Gandalf believed he would - the role he did in The Lord of the Rings. This is also the most convincing by far that we've seen Gollum: as much as we were persuaded of his on-screen appearance in The Two Towers and The Return of the King, WETA's crack effects team has made him even more persuasive for The Hobbit.
Some are saying that The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey could use with "some fat trimmed off". I'll have to say that I agree somewhat with that. The scene with the mountain trolls (who first "appeared" in The Fellowship of the Ring seems especially longer than necessary. There are other sequences that I wish had been more elaborated upon. A shot in the first trailer for The Hobbit of Bilbo looking at the shattered pieces of Narsil, the sword that cut the ring from Sauron's hand at the end of the Second Age, has tantalized me for a year but for whatever reason wasn't included in the theatrical cut. That would have been a terrific way to tie The Hobbit's intimate tale with the grander epic spanning the eons of Middle-Earth history. Maybe that'll make the extended version Peter Jackson has promised will get released on Blu-ray.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is considerably brighter than The Lord of the Rings, in terms of both cinematography and story. The Shire even looks more hopeful and optimistic than it does when we first see it in The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien's The Hobbit was primarily a children's story, and to that Jackson and his team hold true. It is certainly a fitting segue into The Lord of the Rings, but it's also one that is far more conscionable about its intended audience (though the adults will no doubt love it too!).
It would not have been a proper Middle-Earth saga helmed by Peter Jackson without the compositional talents of Howard Shore. I bought the soundtrack CD three days before the movie was released and already had been listening to it like crazy ("Song of the Lonely Mountain" especially) but hearing his score accentuating the film on the big screen was an even richer experience. The "Erebor" theme fits in well with the others Shore had already composed, many of which return from The Lord of the Rings. The "Concerning Hobbits" bit plays throughout, but also listen for the "One Ring" motif. Especially juxtaposed with the goings-on at Dol Guldur.
I'm just realizing that this is the first time on this blog that I've reviewed a Peter Jackson movie set in Middle-Earth. I wrote a review of The Fellowship of the Ring for another site the day that movie came out in 2001. A lot has happened since that time, both in the world beyond my own door (sadly, not a round one) and in my personal life. Watching The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey left me feeling the most optimistic, upbeat and cheerful about adventures yet to come than any movie I can recall watching in the past few years.
And it's just getting started...
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey gets this blogger's most abundawonderfully HIGHEST possible recommendation! However you see it (and I might check it out in IMAX 3D 48 FPS at some point), do not miss its theatrical run. This really is a movie to enjoy at least once with a proper audience.
Come back next year for a review of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug!