Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

I’ve had a hard time trying to review An Unexpected Journey, the first in Peter Jackson’s trilogy adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. The one thing I’m sure of is that I was disappointed, but I’m still not sure what I wanted it to be. The thing is, I’m not sure it knew what it wanted to be either.

So, I’m going to break this up into several different sections, and we’ll see if it assembles into a coherent opinion by the end.

What if this had come out before Lord of the Rings?

Part of the problem here is the looming legacy of the Lord of the Rings movies, now almost ten years old but still widely considered a success—even by fans of the books. So let’s consider: what would I have said had An Unexpected Journey been Jackson’s first Tolkien adaptation?

Well, in that case, it’s really stepping away from being The Hobbit and becoming more The End of the Third Age: Before the War of the Ring. For those who haven’t read The Hobbit, the book is almost entirely from Bilbo’s perspective (though still in third-person). We don’t see as many conflicts between the dwarves and elves, nor do we hear anything of Gandalf when he is off investigating the nebulous threat of “the Necromancer”. In the film, there are clearly deeper stirrings than just a quest for treasure. If it hadn’t already happened, I’d say Jackson was clearly setting himself up to adapt The Lord of the Rings.

(Actually, Radagast’s entire appearance is entirely absent from the book, and I believe the novel-canon as well. In addition, the dwarves do not try to avoid Rivendell, there known as “The Last Homely House”, but instead plan for it to be a waypoint all along. And only Thorin is alert enough to catch the trolls by surprise, instead of the other way around.)

The thing about The Hobbit is that it’s also fairly light, even humorous at parts—after all, it was written as a kids’ adventure story. An Unexpected Journey, on the other hand, is not. The fight scenes are fairly violent from the get-go, and there are many more of them than before. To put the action in perspective, the first third of The Hobbit has only one battle sequence, while An Unexpected Journey has three or four. Bilbo is cold and miserable, but he’s not constantly in mortal peril, nor does he become a hero out of the blue. (On the other hand, Gandalf is even more of a deus ex machina in the book.)

And as for the humor…there are bits of An Unexpected Journey where Jackson and co. tried, but it came out awkward and overdone. Radagast’s quirkiness, the rabbit sleigh, the Goblin King’s good humor, and the scene from the trailer where the dwarves are crushed in a dogpile…these would have been reasonable for The Hobbit, but felt out-of-place with An Unexpected Journey’s grim threats and bloody beheadings.

To be fair, some things were done very well:

  • The movie manages to give the dwarves unique personalities, or at least unique groups, which the book didn’t actually succeed in doing. (The book color-codes the dwarves by hat, then pretty much ignores the coloring and makes them all interchangeable except Thorin, Fili/Kili, and Bombur.)
  • The dish scene in Bilbo’s house was wonderful. (It’s in the book as well.)
  • Thorin is not a stereotypical grey-haired dwarf; he actually does take the “noble” role well. Fili and Kili actually look young (and a bit goofy).
  • Although we could have done with fewer / shorter / more condensed flashbacks, the use of Fili and Kili to introduce Thorin’s background worked very well.
  • Martin Freeman is a wonderful actor to play Bilbo Baggins, managing to pull off cultured and awkward at the same time.
  • Smaug’s body is never shown in full.
  • The scene with Gollum wasn’t perfect, but it was perfectly good.

But that just makes me feel all the more odd to have these flashes where everything is working, and then to be kicked back to this movie that overall is not working, and does not capture The Hobbit for me. Why?

What if you haven’t read The Hobbit?

Ten years ago, Jackson’s Lord of the Rings was extraordinarily successful, leading to the quip at the Academy Awards that people were “moving to New Zealand just to be thanked”. It’s probably not far from the truth.

So now Jackson’s back to direct The Hobbit. Yes, he probably could have done it in two movies, perhaps even one. But how do you make a successor to the Lord of the Rings movies?

Well, you’ll have to keep all the action that viewers have come to expect. You’ll want to make sure the stakes are high. And of course, you’ll want to sneak in references to the previous movies.

I think that’s the trap that Jackson and co. fell into here. I’ve made it sound really bad, but the truth is that An Unexpected Journey feels a lot like “Yet Another LotR movie”.

I can see how it happened, too. The book doesn’t provide the same depth of character to anyone except Bilbo, and there’s no political intrigue or Fate of the World available to raise the stakes. After Lord of the Rings, a little adventure story runs the risk of feeling decidedly non-epic.

Unfortunately, when you try to avert a prophecy, it comes true regardless. I’m actually all right with telling the story of the Necromancer alongside the journey of Thorin and co., but it does make the story a little more fragmented and fragile. What made it fall apart was the constant transition from one action sequence to the next, leaving the movie without any feeling of sensible progression in tension or stakes. And that action was over the top.

There’s no way thirteen dwarves and a wizard could run through an entire city of goblins, essentially on the attack the whole way (unlike Moria in Fellowship) and emerge unscathed. And was there really a need for the final fight scene on the cliff? Was there a need for it to be on a cliff?

The action was bloodier than most of Lord of the Rings, the political intrigue doesn’t have anything to do with the main quest, and the tension never really rose or fell but just sort of wavered at an unpleasant high for everything after Rivendell.

I mean, the movie wasn’t bad…but I did have the feeling that I could have just watched Fellowship of the Ring again instead.

Music

Although the movie content was fairly disappointing, I quite enjoyed Howard Shore’s return to Middle-Earth. The new main theme is distinct from the Fellowship, Rohan, and Gondor themes from the original trilogy but can stand proudly alongside them, though it reminded me of the theme from Baten Kaitos (also here). The return of the Shire theme was very well-played (pun intended), to the point that I broke out into a smile during Bilbo’s frantic “I’m going on an adventure!”.

The other returning themes were mostly good, but a bit overused, IMHO. In particular, the Orc theme should not have played when Thorin edged down the tree trunk to fight Azog. That did not fit at all.

The song from the trailer worked very well for the trailer, but it’s not exactly how I imagined it when I read the book—I had something more up-tempo, though not really any brighter. However, I really like the credits track, “Song of the Lonely Mountain” (performed by Neil Finn).

(All three Lord of the Rings movies had female singers for the credits, so my prediction is that all three credits songs for the Hobbit movies will feature male singers.)

3D

Added absolutely nothing to the movie and $4-6 to the price of admission. (Can’t tell what was 3D and what was IMAX.) At least I didn’t find it distracting or anything, which is still an improvement over some movies.

If I do end up seeing the next one, I’ll try high-framerate instead and see how that works out.

Does it stand on its own?

Well, sorta? I guess? But then it’s just a sort of average action fantasy movie with an epic backdrop and odd flashes of humor. Also about half an hour too long because of how many action sequences there are.

Actually, that’s kind of what it was anyway. By comparison with The Hobbit, An Unexpected Journey is way too dark and way too violent; by comparison with the previous trilogy, it’s not as well-put-together (and still arbitrarily gruesome). On its own, it works, mostly, but it’s no Fellowship of the Ring.

In other words, you will be less disappointed to watch An Unexpected Journey if you haven’t seen Lord of the Rings and haven’t read The Hobbit. But even while I can’t quite call it bad, there’s so much that could have been done better.

Gripes (spoilers)

  • Glamdring and Orcrist don’t glow! My brother pointed out that Glamdring doesn’t glow in the Lord of the Rings movies, so they had to be consistent, but…
  • Missed opportunity: when the dwarves misinterpret Elrond’s welcome and Gandalf translates, we could have had seen the proud Thorin having to bend in order to further the interest of his company. Instead we get Gimli Dwalin (?) letting the tension completely drop on the floor for a weak joke.
  • Saruman already seems evil. I want to see him before his fall, or at least in the “Senator Palpatine” position.
  • The goblin tunnels weren’t tunnels. Heck, I’m pretty sure they weren’t even underground the whole time.
  • For some reason the Great Goblin’s voice bothered me. He’s the only goblin with a smooth voice in any of the movies. But maybe I shouldn’t be so voicist.
  • The movie gave no clue that the eagles were sentient. …Maybe in movie canon, they aren’t.
  • Sad to miss out on the goblins’ “Fifteen birds in five fir trees” song. That whole scene was better / less crazy in the book.
  • The Fellowship of the Ring already showed Bilbo finding the Ring (albeit played by Ian Holm, who plays Old Bilbo in both Lord of the Rings and An Unexpected Journey). IMHO, they did it much better; Bilbo didn’t obviously know it belonged to Gollum, and there was no fanfare to suggest it was the Ring. Which is appropriate for The Hobbit.
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