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[The Hobbit: An Unexpected JourneyDirected by Peter JacksonStarring: Martin Freeman, Ian McShane, and Richard ArmitageMPAA: PG-13 - For Extended Sequences of Intense Fantasy Action Violence, and Frightening Images]
I recently had the chance of seeing the Extended Cuts of The Lord of the Rings trilogy on the big screen, played back-to-back for 12 straight hours of the day. It was an exhausting experience, but there was surprisingly never a moment where I was bored, nor was there a moment that felt completely unnecessary (Even the scene of Merry and Pippin preparing to get stoned was at least fun). Yet, like most people, I kind of cringed when I heard The Hobbit, the prequel novel, was going to be expanded into a trilogy of its own, despite being shorter than any of the individual Lord of the Rings books.
So let's get a few things out of the way first: An Unexpected Journey is good. It's fun, enjoyable, visually stunning, filled with good-to-great performances, and some knock-you-on-your-ass action sequences that reaffirm Peter Jackson's natural talent as a visual filmmaker. That being said, those expecting something on the caliber of the original trilogy should lower their expectations.
The Hobbit starts with some backstory explaining how the dwarf kingdom of Erebor was overtaken by a monstrous dragon called Smaug. Some years later, the dwarves decide to finally take back their homeland, with the dwarf king Thorin (Richard Armitage) setting up a small army of twelve and recruiting the help of Gandalf The Grey (Ian McKellen), a wizard. The only piece they're missing is a "burglar", someone who can slip by the monstrous dragon unnoticed. This is where our titular hobbit, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), comes into focus. Apparently, dragons can't catch the scent of hobbits, making one such as Bilbo perfect for this journey. Of course, Bilbo is forced to go through the "Refusal of the Call" portion of the Hero's Journey formula and is reluctant at first, but, as these things do, he ends up tailing along with the group for the adventure of his lifetime.
Considering The Hobbit was much lighter than the darkness and intensity of The Lord of the Rings, one should come into this film adaptation with similar expectations. The scope is of course, not as epic--saving a kingdom instead of, well, the world--and the tone as a whole is much more earnest and childlike. These, however, are not bad qualities. Jackson is well aware that not even he couldn't top his own trilogy, which was already something akin to catching lightning in a bottle, so he approaches it exactly for what it is: Just another adventure in Middle Earth.
And on that front, it succeeds. The characters aren't nearly as well-developed as they were in the previous trilogy, but they're all fairly likable and played by a terrific cast of actors. Richard Armitage especially comes out of nowhere as Thorin, this trilogy's badass, and he shines in just about every scene he's in. Ian McKellen is exactly as good here as he was last time as Gandalf, and perfectly cast here is Martin Freeman as Bilbo, who captures the essence of the reluctant, unsuspecting hero pretty damn well (Fans of BBC's The Office and Sherlock will know exactly why). The other dwarves are pretty interchangeable, but they're at least not overly annoying, which was one of the concerns I had going into the film.
That being said, despite being called The Hobbit, there aren't really enough scenes with him. The movie tries desperately to balance out each of their three leads, but ends up just kind of not really having a real protagonist. Also problematic is that Bilbo doesn't have an interesting arc. I hate comparing this whole thing to LotR, but it was expected, I suppose: Frodo also went through this same sort of journey of being swept up in something much bigger than himself, but his arc was clear. There was self-doubt, temptation from the One Ring, a back-and-forth between he and his friend Sam, and the dangers of Gollum's influence over him. We get snippets of a similar kind of self-doubt with Bilbo, but it isn't fully developed. In fact, we're not even fully sure why he even decides to join the adventure anyway. One moment, he's entirely against the notion of an adventure, and the next, he's hopping off without a clear motivation for doing so. Fans of the book will probably get it, but as an outsider of the fiction looking in, nothing in the writing or the presentation made his crossing of the threshold convincing.
The other stark comparison with LotR is, again, the way it's been set-up as a trilogy. LotR had a pretty firm reasoning on why it was divided into a full trilogy, and each of the three films managed to have their own separate arcs while still contributing to the larger whole. The Hobbit, meanwhile, just feels like the beginning of a normal-sized story, but stretched out over 2 hours and 45 minutes. Many of the scenes in the first half drag and have no clear, discernible purpose in the overarching plot. They especially don't have a reason to be there when this story as a whole could've been stripped down.
That isn't to say there aren't any enjoyable sequences in the first half. Again, I liked the lighter tone, and there are a few fun scenes sprinkled here and there, but they're caught in between more extraneous scenes of wandering the landscape (And just look at those panoramic landscape shots! Don't you just wanna move to New Zealand?). The pacing is especially taxing once the characters reach Rivendell, aka Exposition Central, and the movie just stops to a complete halt while also solely being there for the fan-service of reintroducing old characters from the original trilogy.
Thankfully, things immediately pick up right after Rivendell, with some terrific action sequences, gorgeous visuals, and a scene with Gollum that I would genuinely call one of the best scenes I've seen to come out of this lore, original trilogy included. The visuals have improved greatly over the original trilogy, including the "size-correcting" for when the hobbits are interacting with their taller counterparts. But even better are the action sequences, which strike a perfect balance of still feeling suitably epic and huge in scope while also maintaining that lighter tone. Jackson's control of the camera and all of the different elements of the fights is just as well-done here as it was before. One extended sequence that starts in a goblin lair and expands into a forest chase is among one of the best action sequences I've seen this entire year.
All in all, The Hobbit is not a great movie, but it's really damn enjoyable and fun. I still don't see the justification for expanding it into an entire trilogy of films, and this segment alone already felt padded, but I'm certainly down for seeing two more films for two more years if they're equally enjoyable, or possibly even moreso. It's good to be back in Middle Earth, folks.
Final Verdict: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is overlong and padded with lots of window-dressing, but the experience as a whole is still very enjoyable and exceptionally well-crafted. A good cast, terrific visuals, even better action sequences, and a few fun characters save it from being a waste of time.
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See ya next time! Now if you'll excuse me, "I'M GOING ON AN ADVEN-CHA!"