In 2003, the third and final installment of The Lord of the Rings trilogy came out. I was… [pause for math]… eleven years old. My parents took my brothers and me out of school (the last day before Christmas vacation) and drove us to the nearest city to see the movie on a massive screen in a Coliseum-style theater. It wasn’t until this past weekend when I was marathon-ing the trilogy that I fully realized that this, the charge of the Rohirrim, pictured below, was the single most stunning thing I have ever seen on the big screen.
Well, here I find myself in a difficult position. I believe that it is impossible for any nerd to explain, coherently, what their favorite nerdy thing meant to them when they were ten. From 2001 (age nine), pretty much until high school, The Lord of the Rings was the defining pop culture feature of my life. As the great Lawrence Fletcher once said, “I’m afraid I’m hopelessly nerdy.”
Needless to say, I was excited, and a little nervous to see The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. I was especially nervous knowing that I was going to have to review it. Well, here goes.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)
The Plot: Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) is a hobbit. He lives a quiet, peaceful life in Hobbiton, in his cozy little hole in the ground. He is not looking for adventure. Unfortunately, Gandalf (Ian McKellen), a wizard, just decided to enlist Bilbo for one. Enter the dwarves: Fili (Dean O’Gorman), Kili (Aidan Turner), Oin (John Callen), Gloin (Peter Hambleton), Dwalin (Graham McTavish), Balin (Ken Scott), Bifur (William Kircher), Bofur (James Nesbitt), Bombur (Stephen Hunter), Dori (Mark Hadlow), Nori (Jed Brophy), Ori (Adam Brown), and the leader of their company, the exceedingly badass, swoon-inducing Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage). The dwarves set out on a quest to reclaim their homeland of Erebor, which was taken from them many years ago by a fearsome dragon named Smaug. As Gandalf explains, he has chosen Bilbo to act as a burglar for the dwarves, one who could sneak past a dragon unseen, where a dwarf could not. The company sets out on their journey, encountering orcs, goblins, trolls, wargs, elves, Gollum, character development, and one or two extraneous action scenes along the way.
So, like pretty much everyone else in the world, I kind of rolled my eyes when I heard that Peter Jackson was somehow making J.R.R. Tolkien’s short children’s book into an epic trilogy. There are some inherent problems with that, and I think chief among them is that Jackson was now making the comparison between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings impossible to avoid. It was already going to be difficult, mind you, but this gesture really cemented things. Why is that a problem? Because The Hobbit is not The Lord of the Rings. Where The Lord of the Rings is an epic journey for the fate of the world, The Hobbit is a fun adventure story about dwarves fightin’ a dragon. The scale of things just isn’t there in the story, so it would be really foolish of Jackson to reach for the same grandeur he achieved with The Lord of the Rings. Fortunately, though, he doesn’t. The stakes are amped up quite a bit from where they are in the book, as Jackson’s added in all this stuff about the return of Sauron (here, Benedict Cumberbatch). However, much as he loves grand scale events, huge battle sequences, and WETA workshops, Peter Jackson is, at heart, good at what he does. He knows the number one rule that every single writer must learn: any problem is as important to the audience as it is to the characters. The fate of the world doesn’t have to be at stake. All we need is one character to be particularly well written, and we get that. New paragraph!
Ladies and gentlemen: Thorin Oakenshield.
Thorin is to The Hobbit what Aragorn is to The Lord of the Rings, except blended with some of the more complex [read: flawed] characters like Theoden and Boromir. Thorin was there when Smaug attacked, he fled the city with everyone else, and that tears him up inside. He stayed with his once-proud population as they moved from place to place trying to find a new home; he fought for them; he worked for them. He got scarring flashbacks for them (flashbacks about Moria!). Finally, after decades, he realized that he couldn’t run anymore. He gathered his people together, delivered what was probably a stirring speech, sent out a call for aid to all the other dwarf civilizations, saying that it was time to take back Erebor… and twelve people volunteered to help him. Only about four of them are actually good for anything, too. One of them literally has no other purpose except to be round. Seriously, he doesn’t even have any lines, I’m pretty sure. But anyway, this is an important moment for Thorin; this is the moment that defines him as a person. What does he do with these volunteers? A lesser, or perhaps more realistic dwarf would have just said, “Ah, to hell with it.” Not Thorin. Instead, he says, and I’m paraphrasing here, “Loyalty, honor, a willing heart. I can ask no more than that. I would take each one of these dwarves over the mightiest army. Why? Because they said yes.” Then this happens:
Despite how awesome he is, Thorin isn’t perfect. He’s slightly arrogant, very stubborn, and doesn’t trust anyone outside of his volunteers; that’s including, but not limited to, every elf on Middle Earth, Gandalf (despite how often he saves the day), and Bilbo (poor guy). Richard Armitage does a superb job as Thorin, balancing all of those conflicting character traits, and fashioning a really stirring performance.
But what about the other characters? Bilbo is the obvious one to talk about. Isn’t his character arc pretty much like Frodo’s? Actually, no. Here’s a good example of how Jackson manages to avoid redundancy. Frodo has his task thrust upon him, and he doesn’t have a lot of say in it (at least not after the Council of Elrond). Bilbo, for reasons he himself is unsure of for quite some time, chooses to go with Thorin. He plunges into a world of violence and fear that he wasn’t anticipating, and sure enough, seriously regrets his decision. All he wants to do is return to the Shire, just like Frodo, except if Frodo doesn’t destroy the ring there won’t be a Shire for him to go back to. That’s never an issue for Bilbo. The Shire is safe. No problem. But it’s through that homesickness that he realizes why he came in the first place. It’s actually a touching moment, so I won’t explicitly state it here.
As for the other characters, I don’t really need to get into Gandalf, because we all know what he’s like. The impressive feat that Jackson pulls off with the other dwarves is that he makes them all individuals. There are, including Thorin, thirteen of them. It’s difficult to balance that many characters and make sure they don’t just kind of merge together. He does a good job, largely depending upon the costume/makeup departments. Balin, Dwalin, Fili, Kili, and Bofur do get some dialogue-based character work. Ori, Nori, Dori, Oin, Gloin, and Bifur all get lines, but are decidedly less important. And, as I mentioned, I’m pretty sure Bombur doesn’t say anything in the entire movie. His only purpose is to be round. While it is fun to watch him try to do things and roll around the countryside, I was actually really disappointed by the fact that Bombur doesn’t say anything. His personality doesn’t go beyond the fact that he’s the fat one. Jackson really missed an opportunity here. It wouldn’t take much, just a couple lines, something to give us an idea of why on earth Bombur decided to come along for the journey. Presumably he would have gotten to eat more if he’d stayed home.
I suppose that’s a good segue into a few things that didn’t work for the movie. A lot of critics have been complaining about the fact that the stakes are low, but the characters take them really seriously. I’ve already talked about that. I know that they’re paid and I’m not, but those critics are bad at their jobs if they fail to understand conflict on a character level. Putting them aside, though, most critics are complaining about how Jackson has elongated the story. He does this in three ways: 1) Fleshing out Bilbo and Thorin as deep characters; 2) Adding stuff from Tolkien’s notes to create more of a connection between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings; 3) Adding action sequences. The first two work really well for the film, the third does not. Some of the extra fight scenes do make sense, and Jackson uses them economically to further the plot or character development. For example, the flashback to Moria, included only in Tolkien’s notes and not in the book, provides both important exposition and strong character development for Thorin, Balin, Fili, and Kili. That’s great. Then he’ll do stuff like the thunder battle, in which two massive rock giants, about the size of mountains, duke it out with each other while the dwarves and Bilbo try not to fall off of things. This scene lasts for a few minutes and literally has no purpose whatsoever. In these cases, Jackson just gets a little indulgent with his CGI.
Speaking of CGI, let’s move on to another problem I had with the film: the overuse of CGI. One of the most incredible things about The Lord of the Rings is that where Peter Jackson knew he could avoid using computers, he did. He built massive sets, employed hundreds of extras, and exhausted his costumes, props, and makeup. Example: every orc we see in The Lord of the Rings outside of a big crowd, is just a dude (or dudette, as the case may be) in makeup. In The Hobbit, they are CGI, and you can tell. All the orcs look so real and, you know, present in The Lord of the Rings. Here, though, they’re really obviously not there, and that does detract from things.
The only other problem I had was with some of the teasers in the film. By that, I refer to some of the things that appear only as tiny elements of this movie that we know will be more important in the sequels. The Hobbit teases us with Benedict Cumberbatch; it teases us even with Lee Pace. Lee Pace! Why would you tease someone with Lee Pace? That’s just super inconsiderate. He appears in one shot, and then he’s gone away until December 2013. Furthermore, Lego really dropped the ball here, they got way ahead of themselves, releasing two sets from Mirkwood, depicting scenes that won’t happen until the next film, but I guess that’s not a problem with the movie and doesn’t really warrant a mention in this review. Yeah, ignore that bit.
I had no problem with the length of the film; for the most part, it seemed justified. The problem is that the whole thing only felt like an introduction. That wasn’t so much an issue with The Lord of the Rings. The Fellowship of the Ring felt like its own movie. It felt like part one of three, an equal part. It also happens to have the best ending in the entire trilogy. An Unexpected Journey feels more like a prelude to greater events than an equal share of the story. Still, one plus side to that is that I’m very much looking forward to part two, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. Cool title, isn’t it?
All in all, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was a success. Jackson missed a few notes and goes over the top a couple times, but he produced a film that, while not ranking next to The Lord of the Rings (so far), is an engaging, exciting adventure story with lots of action, wit, and a few really strong characters. I very much look forward to seeing it again in theaters, and even more to next year, when things are gonna get serious, and we’re finally going to get to see that dragon.