An Unexpected Journey Was An Unexpected Hit… At Least For Me

Long have I been a Tolkien fan. I absolutely love high fantasy. Some people can’t get into a completely new world and completely new rules and it doesn’t work for them, but it totally does for me. I love the extensive detail that Tolkien put into his universe, and it was not lost on the Hobbit. Peter Jackson’s first installment of the three parter of the Hobbit in An Unexpected Journey may seem like a little too much for most people, after all making three movies of a >300 page book is a little absurd, but I have absolutely no problem with it.

Of course, the main concern is that the Hobbit is a “children’s book” and was marketed as such for so many years that this may seem grandiose. Reviews will say that this was an attempt to turn a “simple story” into an epic. The first mistake I see in this statement is the use of the word simple. Anyone who has even delved into the world Tolkien has created will know that nothing, nothing is ever simple. It’s like saying the story of A Christmas Carol is simply a story about redemption. One does not simply call Tolkien (or Dickens, for that matter) simple. Granted, not everyone is as in love with the lore as I am, and the Hobbit is no where near as intense as the Lord of the Rings series is, but the point is that the Hobbit is not just a simple children’s book and it shouldn’t be discredited for being epic. This is just like how Harry Potter is not just for children, The Chronicles of Narnia is not just for children, and Twilight is not just for pre-teens. In fact, I seem to remember Tolkien saying he regretted putting the Hobbit down as a children’s book since people don’t seem to take it as seriously under that genre; Jackson definitely didn’t do that. The Hobbit is essentially an adventure. And in this day and age, making anything short of an epic film would create a campy movie. This is the type of story that a child would imagine in their heads being told to them.

The movie starts in a perfect framed narrative of Bilbo talking to Frodo, the day before the his birthday party, the same party that precludes the first three movies of the longer series. I really liked the way that they did this, it created a very familiar “story telling” effect that you feel through out the book. The narrative in the book is very much like having your favorite uncle telling you a story that he knows you will love. In this effect, Jackson is telling us a story that we know and love in the way that we love it.  His beautiful panning scenery shots mixed with his marvelous CGI make it seem like we never left Middle Earth. The actors themselves, for the most part, don’t seem to have aged a day despite the 10 year gap from The Return of the King. Bilbo’s own reflection of himself played by Martin Freeman is the best. Freeman plays a very believable Bilbo, the child of a respectable Baggins and an adventurous Took. After spending the past month studying The Hobbit in my Folklore class it was hard not to analyze this film and fall in love with it even more. The characterization of the dwarves seemed a little cartoonish at the beginning, all seemingly round, bearded, and hungry (with the exception of Thorin Oakenshield played by Richard Armitage and a strangely attractive Kili played by Aidan Turner); but in the scenes of the massive Dwarven halls, it is hard to see the dwarves as anything but majestic. I think the social implications we have of tall being a positive and short being a negative create a general feeling that dwarves aren’t loved as much. The scenes with the dwarves in The Hobbit changed that for me, they were just as epic as the Men and certainly more likable than the Mirkwood elves.

Characterization was very important, and I think the personality of Thorin was properly changed in order to fit the feel of the movie. I had always seen a more serious side to Thorin in the chapters in the book, but it was hidden under layers of a children’s book. It is not hard, for someone to read Thorin’s history, to understand where his character comes from. He is a man who has lost everything. First he loses his home in Ereborn, his grandfather the King of the land, his kingdom, he loses his father in an attempt to reclaim Moria, and he fails to kill Azog the Pale Elf. Nothing he does is not understandable. His mistrust of the elves is natural, they betrayed him. His initial mistrust of Bilbo is a part of his personality. His bravery, his leadership skills are all a part of his character and understandably so. Bilbo is very much the same. Everything he does is explained. I loved the scenes of Gandalf pushing him out of the door and egging on his Took side. Gandalf’s very worry is that he will be too comfortable in life, and Bilbo has almost completely fallen into that rut. His own bravery and wit comes shining through during his adventure, as well as his compassion. It is that compassion that allows his newphew Frodo into destroying the ring. In one of the most well filmed scenes of the movie, Bilbo stares into the eyes of Gollum contemplating killing him. I could almost hear Frodo saying that it was a pity Bilbo hadn’t killed him when he had the chance. This pity, this compassion he feels for Gollum is one of the winning qualities of a hobbit. They are not cold blooded killers, and especially someone like Bilbo, they just can’t be. They are naturally innocent and good, and something about them is reflected in us, as the audience. The mercy he shows Gollum is what ultimately allows Frodo to destroy the ring.

The only part that I found even a little too whimsical for my taste was the depiction of Radagast, who seemed to have fallen out from a children’s book. Although his character was fine, stylistically I found him to be almost too much of a nature lover, at some points I questioned his legitimacy as much as Sauron does. Eclipsing any faults I could have found in the movie was the perfect soundtrack by Howard Shore and Niel Flinn’s creation of the Song of the Lonely Mountain. It is known that each group/character has their own theme music that is played whenever they are on screen or whenever they are arriving into a scene, and nothing was better than the tune of The Lonely Mountains. It tied perfectly into the film, able to be both epic and heart wrenching.

Technically the film disappointed me a little. The FPS shot at 48 was too high and created a rather soap-opera-esque feeling during the film. I didn’t get a chance to see it in Imax 3D yet, but the regular 3D only went so far with me. I find 3D movies unnecessarily dark and that is partially why they don’t appeal to me. These things, however, were minor and did not take away from the film. And edit: since the advanced screening was in 3D, I saw it again tonight in 2D and it was definitely the better of the two. Personally I found the epic full scale battles and the roaming scenery to be beautiful, and it seemed even better without the 3D. The dwarven cities were very reminiscent of the dwermer cities in Skyrim or the dwarven city from Dragon Age. The soundtrack is completely reminiscent of the original trilogy and is a perfect way to bring the audience back to middle earth. Those who are long time Tolkien fans will be excited to see the trilogy play out. An Unexpected Journey ends quite early in terms of the book and teases fans who know what will happen in the sequential films. Bilbo ends the film quite ironically stating “Hopefully the worst is behind us.” How wrong you are Bilbo. We will still enjoy your trip, even if you might not for a while.

Final Grade: A, Tolkien and Jackson can’t do wrong. Skip the 3D unless you have a personal goal to see every movie you can in it. The film was shot for 3D but it does nothing for it, but definitely something to see on the big screen.