You would be hard pressed to find a 2012 release with a more storied development than the first installment of The Hobbit. Copyright issues, legal battles over previous monetary issues, production companies facing financial uncertainty, directorial changes, and the sheer management of a movie on this kind of scale and scope have led to a story almost longer than the book it was based on. In the hands of most people, this project could have easily been fumbled. But as An Unexpected Journey shows, the likes of Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens aren’t most people.
The beginning of this film takes us not only to a very familiar place, but a very familiar scene as well. Much like The Fellowship of the Rings (sans Middle Earth back-story), we are introduced to Bilbo Baggins in his study, writing the book that would eventually become the story of The Hobbit. After a magnificent flashback sequence showcasing the Dwarvish kingdom of Erebor being tragically taken by the dragon Smaug, we soon meet Gandalf the Wizard and a company of 13 dwarves hoping to take back their homeland. After much contemplation and denial, Bilbo Baggins finds himself a part of this quest as well, heading to the East into unknown dangers.
And many dangers there are. Trolls, wolves, autonomous rocks, orcs, and goblins all lay ahead of the company, each one more dangerous than the last. Not only that, but there are many allies who would wish to see the company give up on their journey, clearly stacking the odds against the dwarves. Perseverance, as stated many times throughout Tolkien lore, will be gifted to those who display loyalty, honor, and willing heart; themes that are essential to discovering the multitude of meanings to The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings.
There is plenty to love about this movie beyond its themes. I would say that has a more playful tone than Lord of the Rings, but considering the differences between the source materials, this was to be expected. The production and costume design was once against top notch, and I would be completely shocked if it wasn’t nominated by the Academy in both areas. The sweeping cinematography was terrific as well, doing more for New Zealand tourism than advertising ever could. And it wouldn’t be an epic adventure without plenty of action sequences. And while they are carried out magnificently, they also become the films biggest downfall. There were a couple of action pieces that could have been cut out entirely, which would have dramatically cut down on the films run time. I understand the need for these scenes, as they keep most audiences engaged in the story by offering new excitement every 10-20 minutes, but it ultimately becomes redundant as far as storytelling goes. I would love to see as much of Middle Earth as anybody else out there, but when extended cuts of the film have already been announced, theatrical versions need to be a little more focused. I would have complaints, extended versions coming or not, however. They didn’t seem all that important to the story, and could have easily been left out.
The ensemble brought in for this film was well cast, even if we didn’t become too acquainted with a few of the dwarves. Middle Earth veterans Ian McKellan, Hugo Weaving, Christopher Lee, and Cate Blanchett were solid as expected, while newcomers such as Richard Armitage, Ken Scott, and James Nesbitt each brought something new to the table that made their characters stick out. Martin Freeman, taking over the role of Bilbo Baggins from Ian Holm (who also makes an appearance), did a great job of copying mannerisms we witnessed from the character in the previous films, while adding his own bit of nuanced flare that has earned him praise in works such as BBC’s Sherlock. All other performances pale in comparison, however, to that of Smeagol/Gollum given by Andy Serkis. If you thought the previous interpretations of this creature was impressive, you’ll most certainly love what they did the characters here as well. Dark, hilarious, and sad all at the same time, this pivotal scene between Gollum and Bilbo becomes the best part of the movie.
Using new RED 3-D cameras, the 3-D on display here is also top-notch stuff. Jackson doesn’t try to use the technology as a gimmick, but as a way to add depth to the presentation and further enhance the storytelling. While the color palette of the film is fairly dark because of the settings that we are introduced to and the tone of a telling a dangerous tale, the production crew did quite a job at exaggerating the colors of the sets/costumes so that the film wouldn’t come across the issues many other 3-D movies come across.
I’ve had the opportunity to watch this film in both regular 3-D and 3-D HFR, which utilizes the 48 frames per second rate that has had received some negative reactions that have been blown way out of proportion. Most of the screenings for this film will still be in the normal 24 frames per second, so bringing a “barf bag” like some news outlets are recommending isn’t necessary. And from what I could tell, nobody in my HFR screening was sickened by what they were watching. I, for one, loved the newer high film rate. There is a noticeable difference right away, but after watching it for five or ten minutes, your brain gets used to it and you forget that you’re watching something new, while at the same time knowing that you’ve never seen better quality in film. It really is the same difference between HD and regular television. It was strange at first, but it’s so real that you probably wouldn’t voluntarily go back.
While the jury is still out on whether or not this story will work as three films, I would have to say that the first installment met and maybe exceeded my expectations. The more I allow this film to digest, the more and more I love appreciate that Jackson and company were able to do here. Yes, it could have been cut down to about 135-140 minutes instead of 169, but the extra length isn’t enough to become detrimental to the films overall success. Fun, engaging, and displaying breath-taking action shots are just a few of the many reasons to fall in love with this film, and allows it to be a worthy companion of previous Middle Earth films.