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  • Year: 2012
  • Director: Peter Jackson
  • Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage

Well, after getting through a lazy cash grab, a tolerable cartoon, and a cheap Russian TV adaptation, here we are at Peter Jackson’s big budget cinematic version of The Hobbit… the first part of three. Let’s get this out of the way, because it seems tedious to constantly repeat the same criticisms everyone else has. Regardless of whose fault it was, a book under 300 pages does not need to be three lengthy movies. That said, it is three movies, so let’s take a look at what we’ve got.

AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY

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We start with Ian Holm reprising his role as Old Bilbo from The Lord of the Rings, writing his story in full for Frodo on the day of his going away. He’s writing this whole story before the first movie? Does he just have nine hours to kill?

Bilbo tells the story of the dwarf kingdom of Erebor, and the great wealth of King Thror.

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I love how lavish the dwarf kingdom looks. It’s excessive, sure, but that’s the whole point. Thror was gradually falling deeper and deeper into greed, so this serves as more than just scenery porn. (And even if it didn’t, it’s just such good scenery porn anyway.)

The dragon Smaug comes and destroys the kingdom and the surrounding town of Dale. Peter Jackson does a great job here of just showing us enough of the dragon without spoiling it. We know the reveal of Smaug will be grandiose when it comes, but we don’t want it yet.

Bilbo finally flashes back to his part in the story, and we’re rolling. Young Bilbo is played by Martin Freeman, and (here’s a phrase I don’t use much) Freeman is absolutely delightful in the role.

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Freeman’s Bilbo Baggins is just so immensely likable. Every moment he’s on screen is a joy to watch, and his performance just oozes charm. He’s kind-hearted, subtly snarky, and always quick on his feet.

Alright, let’s get it out of the way. I know it’s one of the most acclaimed things about both The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings trilogies, but I have a lot of issues with the way Ian McKellen plays Gandalf.

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Tolkien’s Gandalf is a wizard who is incredibly kind and incredibly powerful. He can be your closest ally, but he can also scare you to death. John Huston did a perfect job at playing both sides in The Hobbit cartoon. While I totally buy McKellen’s Gandalf as the kindly old man, his powerful side rarely comes through as, well, powerful. He usually just sounds confused and flustered instead of confident. Take for example, one simple line of dialogue that is used in both the cartoon and the Jackson film—”I am Gandalf, and Gandalf means me.” It’s perhaps not a great line to begin with, but oh my does the cartoon make it memorable.

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We get thunder and lightning, a powerful line read from John Huston, and it kicks right into “Misty Mountains Cold.” It’s a boast and a show of power, but it also makes you want to join the journey that’s to come. There’s a darkness, but also an enormous sense of intrigue.

In the Jackson film, Gandalf delivers the line as if it confuses him, which is odd when he’s the one saying it.

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McKellen seems to play Gandalf as an old man who accidentally stumbled into wizardry, as opposed to a wizard who took the form of an old man. Again, it’s not all bad, but he seems to struggle playing the strong side.

Alright now for the hardest part of adapting The Hobbit into a feature film: Padding into three films, Getting all thirteen dwarves into the thing. In the book, only Thorin is really a well-rounded character—he’s long winded, pompous, and self-serving, but he’s not all bad, and he grows to see that Bilbo’s simple way of life is better by the end. As for the others, we know that Balin is old and kind, Bombur is… fat, (we’re reminded of this a lot), but also one of the only few against the battle at the end, and Dori is strong and tough but ultimately good-hearted. Well, with nine hours of film, we should have plenty of time to get to know the dwarves right? Let’s go through them and see.

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This is Thorin. No I’m not joking. Richard Armitage’s Thorin looks nothing like the aged and weary Thorin of the book, but they had their reasons for wanting a younger-looking Thorin. Although the oft-named Brians Cox and Blessed would have been great as a more traditional Thorin, I really like Armitage. He doesn’t look old, but there’s a depth in his voice that suggests a dwarf who has seen an endless string of tragedy. He’s not long-winded like the Thorin of the book, but much more serious and stoic, and yet it all works. Especially as the films go on, he lightens up considerably and shows a great range of emotion.

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Alright, here we have Balin (L-Ken Stott) and Dwalin (R-Graham McTavish), the brains and brawn of the team respectively. Balin is Thorin’s right hand man, both the oldest and wisest member of the company, and will often act as his voice of reason. Dwalin is a fierce warrior, but also undoubtedly loves his brother and cares about the mission.

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Fili (L-Dean O’ Gorman) and Kili (R-Aidan Turner) are Thorin’s nephews and two of the youngest members of the company. (In the book, they are specifically said to be the youngest, but Ori is the youngest here for some reason) Both are kind-hearted and almost immediately accept Bilbo into the inner-circle, as shown in the early scene with the trolls. Fili is very protective of his younger brother and Kili is a bit more reckless, but both unquestionably have good heads on their shoulders.

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Here are Bombur (L-Stephen Hunter), Bofur (M-James Nesbitt), and Bifur (R-William Kircher). Bofur gets a whole lot of screen time, and James Nesbitt makes the most of every moment. He plays Bofur as the biggest jokester of the group, but also one of Bilbo’s closest friends. One of the best scenes in Unexpected Journey is Bilbo and Bofur’s conversation as Bilbo is considering walking away, and Bofur tells him he’s one of them. Bofur realizes he doesn’t understand Bilbo’s desire for home and wishes him well. The Hobbit is a much smaller story than Lord of the Rings, so it’s only appropriate that these little moments stand out.

Bombur is fat. Yeah, that’s really about it. His beard looks like a string of sausages. That’s gross. Bifur has an axe stuck in his head and can only speak in ancient Dwarvish, which is actually a hilarious idea. I just wish they did more with it over the course of the three films (He may have a few lines here or there, but not much). It at least gets a payoff in the third film.

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These two are Oin (L-John Callen) and Gloin (R-Peter Hamleton). They don’t do much… at all. Gloin is Gimli’s father though, that’s cool. I suppose they’re both gruff.

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Rounding out the pack we have Nori (L-Jed Brophy), Ori (M-Adam Brown), and Dori (R-Mark Hadlow). These three are entirely pointless. I can’t think of one meaningful moment from any of these three over the course of the whole trilogy. They try to play Ori up as the baby of the group, but he’s just annoying. You know, it would help if they just gave these lesser dwarves one characteristic so we remember them. I’m just spit-balling here, but maybe one falls asleep a lot, maybe there’s another who’s just always in a rotten mood, maybe one just can’t get rid of his cold. I don’t know, maybe that’s a terrible idea.

The dwarves sing both the “Blunt the Knives” and “Misty Mountains Cold” songs at Bilbo’s hobbit hole, and they both really fit the mood. The former shows that they enjoy joking around but ultimately would never hurt Bilbo, as all of his dishes come out unharmed. The take on “Misty Mountains Cold” is absolutely haunting, and the melody also lends itself to Howard Shore’s score, which also works wonderfully. A lot of viewers complained that it took the company to long to leave The Shire, but I really enjoy these atmospheric moments. It sets up the dwarves’ story, Bilbo’s character, and the solemnity of their quest.

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Almost immediately after they leave, though, we’re treated to more backstory. See, Thorin hates orcs more than most. WHY DOES THIS MATTER? Why do we need orcs constantly following the company throughout the film and why on earth do we need to tease that Azog the Defiler may be alive?

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Look, we know any time a movie hints that a villain is still alive they are. I understand wanting to give the villains a motivation instead of just “They’re orcs and they’re evil” (Tolkien himself had personal issues with a whole race being depicted as evil), but all we get is that Azog wanted to wipe out all of Thorin’s line. Alright, that’s a goal, but what’s the reason for it? Imagine if in Psycho, it ended with “Well, you see, Norman Bates killed women.” Great, that’s what he did, but why did he do it? We just get “See this orc? He wants to wipe out Thorin’s line.”

Before we get to the trolls, though, we have to meet Radagast the Brown. He actually plays a part early on in The Fellowship of the Ring, but Jackson cut it out for his movie. He does not play a part in The Hobbit (He’s mentioned in passing), but Jackson made him a fairly important supporting character. While the Radagast of the books is definitely a bit of an eccentric, focused more on nature than the real dangers of the world, I never expected him to look this silly.

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Yes, those are bird-droppings in his hair. He also has a sleigh of rabbits which is one of the dumbest things I’ve ever had to type. If you watch the special features on the DVD or Blu-Ray, you can see everyone’s reactions when Peter Jackson pitches “sleigh of rabbits.” They all clearly think he’s joking. While it is unfair on the whole to compare these films to the Star Wars prequels, this is undoubtedly Jackson’s most George Lucas moment.

Radagast has come to warn Gandalf about the Necromancer rising in Dol Guldur who is totally Sauron. Oh sorry, did I spoil that for you? You know, personally, I never thought this was meant to be a surprise to us, but rather show how characters would deal with the resurrection of Sauron. I have no issue with seeing this story from Gandalf’s perspective as well and seeing what he was doing when he left the company. You know who else didn’t have a problem with it? J.R.R TOLKIEN! In Unfinished Tales, you can read Gandalf’s take on the story.

Now there was actually a theory circulating a while back that Azog was in fact dead but had been brought back by the Necromancer, which would be a really cool way to tie the two stories together. Maybe Thorin specifically remembered killing him and when Gandalf saw Azog alive, he knew something truly evil was afoot… but nope, Azog just hadn’t died the first time. How original.

That said, the Necromancer subplot does give us a scene featuring shameless fanservice The Council of the Wise in Rivendell, featuring Hugo Weaving as Elrond, Christopher Lee as Saruman, and Cate Blanchett as Galadriel. Christopher Lee didn’t even record his lines on the same set as the rest of them, instead being digitally added later… and you can’t tell. It’s seamless. As a horror fan, it’s just nice to see more Christopher Lee, especially knowing this was one of his last roles.

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Rivendell looks absolutely marvelous here, and in one of the best moments in the film, we get to see Bilbo looking around and taking it all in. We know that in Lord of the Rings, this is the place he will ultimately retire, so it’s great to see him falling in love with the place. There’s this great little conversation with Elrond where they both exchange snarky remarks, and Elrond tells Bilbo he is welcome to stay as long as he wants.

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While I always found Hugo Weaving a strange choice, at least on paper, for Elrond, I can’t deny he’s brilliant here. In just a few short scenes, we see his power, wisdom, and great kindness. In fact, he brings out the characteristics we should be seeing in Gandalf way better than Gandalf does. The little moments like this in An Unexpected Journey are thoroughly enjoyable and more than make up for the silly ones.

Once the company leaves Rivendell, we get some of Peter Jackson just doing whatever he wants, as the one throwaway line in the book about stone giants becomes a huge game of Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots.

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Alright, this does look kind of cool, and if it had stopped with this, I wouldn’t gripe much… but we then have to tease half of the company dying when they are split up on two moving rocks. You know, I would have liked if Jackson teased us by putting the useless dwarves (Ori, Dori, Nori, Oin, Bifur, and Bombur) on one of the rocks to make us wonder if they’d actually die. There may have actually been drama.

When the company gets taken to Goblintown, the Great Goblin sings this really bizarre song that doesn’t fit at all. It’s kind of like the goblin song from the book, but all the goblins join in as if this thing was rehearsed, and we never see where the instruments are coming from. Maybe it would work in other adaptations, but this film has not earned this kind of weird moment. In the cartoon, the song was a march style song which was dark and imposing, and it worked. Here, it’s awkward.

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The Great Goblin should be bigger than the rest, sure, but he’s a giant here, and what’s going on with his scrotum chin? He’s just such a goofy and overblown character in a movie that makes the other orcs threatening. It’s another George Lucas-esque decision that is just out of place. The escape from Goblintown is a pointless battle sequence with no stakes that can’t decide if it wants to be funny or serious. I’ll admit, I laughed when the Great Goblin’s corpse fell on the dwarves, but I wasn’t proud of it.

That said, the Bilbo and Gollum scene is brilliant. Andy Serkis returns as Gollum, and even the film’s harshest detractors praised this scene.

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Serkis masterfully plays the menacing and sympathetic sides of Gollum, and Martin Freeman plays off him just as well. Across the board, the best scenes in this film are the ones with Bilbo and just one other character—Bilbo and Elrond in Rivendell, Bilbo and Bofur at the mountain pass, Bilbo and Gollum in the riddles competition. The scenes without the titular hobbit tend to suffer—the Goblintown scenes, most of the Azog subplot, random dwarf mischief. I make an exception for the Council of the Wise, because it still feels like something important is going on, and it gives the journey a greater scope, but it’s no surprise that The Hobbit is at its best when The Hobbit is on screen.

The big climax of the film comes when the orcs and wargs chase the company up trees, where they are ultimately saved by eagles. To show Thorin the error of his ways, we have Bilbo saving him from certain death before the eagles swoop down. I feel like Thorin was perhaps supposed to start appreciating Bilbo after the spider incident or perhaps the wood elf escape, but when two movies became three, it had to come earlier. It’s not necessary, but it’s an understandable change. I think the film ends at a nice point either way, and the eagles rescue just looks fantastic.

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You really feel like you’re flying through the air with the characters in this spectacular sequence. Thankfully Jackson doesn’t do something stupid like have one of the orcs jump on an eagle and fight. The eagles drop them off, Thorin accepts Bilbo as a true member of the company, and we follow a thrush all the way to Lonely Mountain where Smaug opens his enormous eye. THE END.

This is a fantastic way to end the movie, and really an example of a sequel hook done right. I really am not a fan of sequel hooks, because I want a movie to wrap up its own story and not just give a “See you next time,” but this movie wraps up one of its central plot conflicts (Running from orcs… they’re at least safe for a while), wraps up one of its central character conflicts (Thorin and Bilbo’s relationship) and still reminds us that there is a greater darkness ahead. Even the idea of following the thrush to the mountain is a little shout-out for book fans. I do kind of wish Azog had been killed here as a way to wrap up that conflict completely, but it’s not that big of a deal.

A lot of the issues that people have with The Hobbit trilogy as a whole do start to pop-up in An Unexpected Journey, but they are definitely downplayed. Bilbo is the main character of this film, but we still have a few too many scenes where he is out of focus. There are a few too many overblown battle scenes, but they aren’t too bad. There are a lot of subplots, but they still mostly all feel important. Let’s check out the final score.

Adaptation (41/50 Points)

It’s a bit overindulgent, and it occasionally focuses on things that don’t really matter, but for the most part, An Unexpected Journey clearly respects its source material (the first third of it at least). It works so well that it almost convinces you that three movies is doable. The added character scenes work, and some of the book’s shorter scenes get a chance to breathe, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse.

Cast (21/25 Points)

In a movie with a lot of good aspects, Martin Freeman is by far the best. I love how he shows that Bilbo is important because he is different from the dwarves, and his snarking is always hilarious. Richard Armitage brings a lot to Thorin’s character, and a lot of the other dwarves make the most of their screen time as well (Bofur in particular.) I do have my issues with Ian McKellen as Gandalf and a few other minor characters, though.

Experience (22/25 Points)

Howard Shore’s score is rousing, and even though there are a lot of CGI backgrounds, they look fantastic. You always feel like you’re in this world, and the CGI works to the film’s advantage to create vast kingdoms and mountain lairs. A few of the action scenes look a bit silly, and some of the gross-out kiddie moments don’t work, but these are nitpicks.

FINAL SCORE: 84%

Yes, I brought up a lot of issues in the review because that’s fun to do, but there are a lot of really good things about An Unexpected Journey. It tries to be a bit too epic at times, but this is softened by the really nice little moments. The Hobbit is ultimately a small story, smaller than even one Lord of the Rings volume, and even though the movies are really long, the first one works for the most part.

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