The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Posted by Joel Copling on December 13, 2014

Solidly entertaining as it is, one can't help but sigh with exasperation at the manner in which 2012's "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" arrived in theaters. J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Hobbit" was a fairly simple novel--shorter at 300 pages, even with its generally smaller font, than J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" was nearly seventy years later--and director Peter Jackson, who brought Tolkien's three chronological sequels and companion pieces, "The Lord of the Rings," to life in the early part of the 21st century, clearly couldn't get enough of his billion-dollar franchise. And so here is the first of three bloated parts of an adaptation of the simple, charming, only occasionally dark novel.

But "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" works, and it does so in large part because of a clear command of aesthetic craft. Bloat there may be, as the film already runs just nine minutes shy of 2001's "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring," but there is also grace to this opening act of a particularly long movie. The titular hobbit has been recast, of course, though Ian Holm reappears as Bilbo Baggins in a brief prologue that takes place moments before the earlier series began, promising to recount in storybook form the entirety of an earlier adventure involving the Dark Lord Sauron's Ring of Power to nephew and eventual heir Frodo (Elijah Wood).

It isn't for nearly another hour that the younger Bilbo (Martin Freeman) sets off on a quest with Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) and a delegation of dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage, who is quite effective here) as a "burgular" (a plot element that doesn't even remotely come into fruition in this installment). And it is even longer until we get the riveting sequence involving a trio of trolls (played via motion capture by Mark Hadlow, Peter Hambleton, and William Kirch, each of whom also plays one of the dwarves), and not until the end does Gollum, played with the usual brilliance by a motion-captured Andy Serkis, return for a sequence of such riveting dialogue only Tolkien could have written it (and, luck would have it, he did).

All of this is effective, and there is a solid emotional context to how we are re-introduced to Middle Earth in a time of siege. "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey," though, has a series of redundant cul-de-sacs, such as Gandalf's determination to find out why dark creatures are appearing where they shouldn't (He seeks council from Christopher Lee's still-good Saruman, Hugo Weaving's Elrond, and Cate Blanchett's Galadriel) and fellow wizard Radagast's (Sylvester McCoy) investigation of the ruins of Dol Guldur (in which he finds a darker presence than what he expected). This stuff is intriguing but bloats the film and halts its pacing. Thank Eru Iluvatar, then, that Freeman is so effective at conveying Bilbo's sense of hobbity courage. Why couldn't one movie be enough for Jackson, though?

Film Information

Ian McKellen (Gandalf), Martin Freeman (Younger Bilbo Baggins), Richard Armitage (Thorin Oakenshield), Ken Stott (Balin), Graham McTavish (Dwalin), William Kircher (Bifur/Tom Troll), James Nesbitt (Bofur), Stephen Hunter (Bombur), Dean O'Gorman (Fili), Aidan Turner (Kili), John Callen (Oin), Peter Hambleton (Gloin/William Troll), Jed Brophy (Nori), Mark Hadlow (Dori/Bert Troll), Adam Brown (Ori), Andy Serkis (Gollum), Sylvester McCoy (Radagast), Hugo Weaving (Elrond), Cate Blanchett (Galadriel), Christopher Lee (Saruman), Ian Holm (Older Bilbo Baggins), Elijah Wood (Frodo Baggins).

Directed by Peter Jackson and written by Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Guillermo Del Toro, based on the novel "The Hobbit" by J.R.R. Tolkien.

Rated PG-13 (extended intense fantasy action violence, frightening images).

169 minutes.

Released on December 14, 2012.