The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Movie Review)

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey movie poster

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

There’s always some risk to writing sequels (or prequels) of beloved stories, but The Hobbit already ran into those pitfalls as a book. Fellowship of the Ring opened up with retroactive changes to The Hobbit in order to change The Ring from a fun magic trinket into a force of corruption. By making a movie with a full understanding of Tolkien’s entire repertoire, Peter Jackson has the unique opportunity to fix the existing problems. However, he also has to deal with the fact that The Hobbit is intended as lighter fare than Lord of the Rings. In this, he half-succeeds.

The problem is that after his previous trilogy, Jackson now has the budget and experience to make a movie even more stunning and epic than Lord of the Rings on every level. As fan service, it’s wonderful, but it doesn’t always feel appropriate to the story. We see so many stunning vistas that the journey Bilbo and company take to the Misty Mountains feels longer than the entire trip to Mordor we saw before. The underground goblin kingdom is an excellent work of design and CGI, but it feels wrong that it outshines the machinations of the actual Dark Lord from the previous movies. And the fight to escape that kingdom is action-packed and well-choreographed, but the attempt of twelve Dwarves to run away just can’t feel as epic as the clashes of armies at Helm’s Deep or Minas Tirith. It’s almost confusing to see something hit all the cues perfectly without feeling like a big deal.

Those pieces are still a lot of fun, though, and Jackson does show elsewhere that he appreciate’s The Hobbit’s role. The action feels a little more fast-paced and cartoony, while the more everyday scenes (such as the dinner that introduces the Dwarves) are a joy to watch. Actor Martin Freeman has a great handle on the character of Bilbo, and his reluctant hero act works well. By the end of this trilogy, Bilbo may be a more popular Hobbit than Frodo.

Yes, of course The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is just part of a trilogy. In addition to dealing with the different demands of this story, Jackson also had to deal with an industry that has changed in the years since his Lord of the Rings movies. Remember when Fellowship came out, and all the fan outrage was about the things he’d had to cut out in order to fit it into a single long movie? Well, now everyone is talking about the things he added to make the much shorter Hobbit into a full trilogy. Sometimes, he simply pads out scenes or adds flashbacks. The history of the Dwarves before the story starts is fully shown, and it adds a framing sequence tying this into Frodo and the other movies. Gandalf’s barely-mentioned concerns about a gathering evil are now fully explored, with many completely new scenes that nonetheless do fit into Tolkien’s story cleanly. For the most part, these additions do feel appropriate, and help the story fit into the more epic style that Jackson wants to tell. The Dwarves now have distinct personalities, and their stubbornness and enmity with the Elves is given more attention. This should give weight to the later parts of the story.

Some parts feel very padded, though. Several unneeded minutes are given over to the giants that cause the storm in the Misty Mountains, and an additional plot about a vengeful Orc leader hunting them down feels more like generic fantasy than something Tolkien would have written. That’s not the only part that feels as if it were run through the Hollywood action machine: When the company flees up trees to escape pursuit, they are now precariously positioned next to a ravine, and end up climbing back down to fight anyway.

I think that three movies is pushing it, but there definitely would have been enough material here to give The Hobbit an excellent two-part story. At three, though, each weakened one will still be worth seeing, and that is probably a better result from the corporate point of view. It’s too bad, but I can’t get very upset about it. Fifteen years ago, I never would have dared hope that The Hobbit would be treated this well.

Grade: B-

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