Nearly a decade has passed since The Return of the King swept all 11 categories it was deservedly nominated for at the 76th academy awards. Tying with Ben-Hur and Titanic for the most Oscar wins a film has ever been nominated for. While its predecessors both were nominated for best picture, Fellowship receiving 13 nominations with 4 wins and The Two Towers was nominated for 6 but won only 2, failing to reach the promise land like The Return of the King. Not bad for a fantasy action-adventure film, an epic trilogy that is commonly referred to as the greatest trilogy ever made in film history. Objectively, it is, there is no argument against the fact.
But there is more Middle Earth to explore from the brilliant mind of author J. R. R. Tolkien – the book that precedes The Fellowship of the Ring, The Hobbit. And with the return to Middle Earth, the one man courageous enough to adapt this spectacle to film returns with it – Peter Jackson both directing and co-writing with his partners Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens & Guillermo del Toro. Though one book to adapt, the plan is to squeeze enough out of the 1937 novel of the same name into a trilogy. Imagine if each Lord of the Rings films were its own trilogy – the possibility for the accolades and success each film received spirals downward if that was the actual plan, but thankfully its not.
Leave it to complete faith and trust that Peter Jackson can pull it off, and he does, for the most part. The Hobbit subtitled An Unexpected Journey, opens on the famed Shire, an older Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) reflects on a life once lived and the adventures he took part in. Rewind 60 years and the younger Bilbo (Martin Freeman) is approached by Galdalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) to assist on a journey to aid the Dwarfs of the Lonely Mountain in reclaiming their home from the dragon Smaug. One by one 13 dwarves appear at Bilbo’s hobbit hole door for food, merriment and planning before they all take off on their quest. The question is put to Bilbo, will he be the 14th member, with a job title of burglar or will he live in peace and comfort?
If it was the latter, there would be no trilogy ironically enough.
Freeman perfectly portrays the homebody introvert – content on his daily routine, not making too big a splash in the world brought to life by Tolkien. His pantry is fully stocked and accounted for and the longing to be comfortable in the safety of the Shire is expressed in Freeman’s body language and subtle look of discomfort for his unwelcomed guests. But in keeping with the theme of heroism, the thrill for adventure from the Took side of Bilbo speaks that much louder.
Whether its self-doubt or courage, Bilbo struggles the entire film with an identity crisis. But leave it to a Hobbit to prove everyone wrong. And he does so to his biggest doubter in the company, Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) leader of the dwarfs and King under the mountain. How can he pass up an opportunity to help the homeless when Bilbo has his own home waiting for him?
Returning to Middle earth after such a period has never felt so welcoming and nothing has changed aside from advancements in technology. The look, the feel, and the landscape of Middle Earth is just as grand and epic. The Unexpected Journey is technically flawless with a minor blemish here and there. Colors pop off screen and costumes dazzle while the Orcs led by Azog the Defiler (Manu Bennett) are terrifying still. Jackson further proves he’s capable of capturing the spectacle of this universe and give it a sense of verisimilitude. Howard Shore’s score marks a fine return to the world but its missing that theme its predecessor is most known for.
And for those hoping for a familiar face or two to return outside of Gandalf – fans are in for a treat to see Elrond of Rivendell (Hugo Weaving), Saruman the White (Christopher Lee), Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and Frodo (Elijah Wood) pop up. Though the latter three don’t actually appear in the Hobbit novel. The additions of these fan favorites give an indication of a mishandling in the script, not fully trusting that new characters can keep a viewer’s attention.
Let’s not forget the return of the schizophrenic Gollum (Andy Serkis) – fully corrupted by the one ring that has long since been forgotten. Serkis on screen takes over as the paranoia sets in place of his lost precious. No other character matters during this sequence, not even his riddle opponent Bilbo – nor the fact that the company miles above is attempting an escape from the Great Goblin (Barry Humphries) and the hordes of goblins on their tails. Serkis’ timing with himself as the former Smeagol is truly remarkable as well as the motion-capture technology used to bring the corruptible hobbit to life. Serkis hasn’t missed a step.
While the theme of personal growth opposite courage and heroism touch Bilbo, they also touch the dwarves, mainly Thorin. From the moment he shows up to the cozy hobbit hole, Thorin doubts Bilbo every step of the way. So close-minded to the idea that Bilbo could be relied upon for anything that when the situation calls for it, the only one to step up is Bilbo. The perception of a hobbits courage and bravery is changed in an instant. Bilbo has something to prove and Thorin has something to learn – judging a book by its cover is unwise, especially with hobbits ready to prove themselves in the face of danger. It makes for a sweet moment that sticks the emotional landing.
An Unexpected Journey for all the right it does, can feel like a chore to get through with the near three hour theatrical runtime especially knowing it’s essentially 1/3 of the novel it’s an adaptation of. A mismatched pacing shifts the momentum, and the heavy use of CGI can make characters look unrealistic in their hyper-realism. The title bears true, this is a journey that is just getting started with the stakes not as raised as they were in Fellowship or the sequels that followed. For its vastness, Jackson does steer the ship in the right direction amongst del Toro stepping away from the director’s chair and a script not being up to the same standards as the previous trilogy.
I just wish I had the hand eye coordination that the dwarves had when cleaning up after the feast or their fighting tactics against the trolls.
Written By: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson & Guillermo del Toro
Directed By: Peter Jackson
Music By: Howard Shore
Cinematography: Andrew Lesnie
Starring: Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, James Nesbitt, Ken Stott, Cate Blanchett, Ian Holm, Christopher Lee, Hugo Weaving, Elijah Wood, Andy Serkis
Where to Watch: HBO Max
Release Date: December 14, 2012
Running Time: 2 Hours 49 Minutes (theatrical), 3 Hours 2 Minutes (extended)
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 64%
Based On: The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien