'The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey'
When the film projector rolls and the sprawling vistas of Middle-earth spill across the screen, it’s as if we’ve never left. Yet the opening sequence throws us into new settings that further the history of Tolkien’s kingdom. The moment The Hobbit begins, we’re transported into the rich halls of the dwarves, the Mediterranean-esque town of Dale and the desolate country ravaged by Smaug, the pillaging dragon. Then, finally, the familiar territory of Bag End in cozy old Hobbiton lets you exhale.
I don’t think I’ll need to convince many readers to see The Hobbit. Chances are, you made up your mind to see the next Tolkien epic the moment the Twitter feeds whispered of another film venture. My job will be more like a travel guide as you trek back to Middle-earth via Peter Jackson and his New Zealand crew.
For fans of the book, you will at times loathe and venerate this script like Sméagol and his alter ego, Gollum. Jackson is faithful to the journey and backstory of the dragon decimating the dwarven kingdom of Erebor. Much of the dialogue is taken directly from the text, as well. Having read the book several times, I was prepared for changes and, like Bilbo, just went along for the adventure.
In some ways, this film feels broader than the journey of the Fellowship, possibly because the Ringwraiths were so hot on the hairy hobbit feet that you barely had time to take in the scenery. In The Hobbit, the pace is slow at first, and the green hills and forests become characters themselves as the company wends its way across Western Middle-earth.
If the first quarter of the movie feels slower-paced, Jackson must have thought he needed to make up for it in a hurry. Once the first battle with trolls begins, the “out of the frying pan, into the fire” chapter title seems to fit the entire rest of the film. From goblins to multiple skirmishes with orcs, the evil creatures are out in force—a prelude to the darkness creeping back into the world that will consume the Rings trilogy. Throughout the film, connections begin that pull these stories together such that the term "prequel" seems too basic. This is not just a pre-history but a saga of its own (literally, thanks to Jackson stretching it to three films).
If you see the film in 3D, be ready for the gritty, almost tangible movement. The film was shot in 48 frames per second, so the effect is like a motion simulator ride at times.
As cheesy as the dwarves seemed in previews, in the film, the camaraderie works, odd hair and all. After the initial over-the-top introduction of the dwarven party, the group becomes an entertaining lot, and you even start to recognize the 13 of them as individuals with distinct personalities. Richard Armitage, a surprisingly unknown powerhouse, owns the role of Thorin, the dwarf leader. Another screen-stealer is Martin Freeman—it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role of Bilbo than this unassuming Brit. Middle-earth wouldn’t be complete without Ian McKellen as Gandalf, still as feisty a wizard as ever—if not more, since this story is set in an earlier time, with his younger self.
Aside from the dwarves, much of the cast is refurbished, with additional scenes with Galadriel and Saruman, Frodo and Bilbo the elder. Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy), the wizard with bird droppings in his hair, was a character a little too quirky to enjoy, but his addition to the story will have purists reeling for another reason. Movie buffs only will appreciate the explanation of the cryptic clues about the Necromancer.
It’s easy to take a fine-toothed comb and pluck out all the additions to the text and the overwhelming similarities between the Rings films and The Hobbit, but you’re still left with an amazing piece of artistry. The digital and special effects that go into this franchise, plus the score, costumes and attention to detail in every set make the movie beautiful to watch.
This film is exhilarating from beginning to end, either from the action or the delight of being back in the hobbit hole in Bag End. Seeing young Bilbo stumble his way across battlefields and find a strange ring that changes the world is an everyman journey that resonates, whether you’re a Tolkien geek or not.