I’m mildly ashamed to begin this review of “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” by stating that I’ve not read J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel The Hobbit. It probably would have helped me to contextualize the film quite a bit more, but at least I won’t have to wrestle with any of those “Gee, in the book it was this way, but it the movie it’s this way” thoughts.
Besides, this is too special a title to waste that valuable time with.
“An Unexpected Journey” takes fantasy lovers back to a place they got to know mighty well not too long ago thanks to some other large scale fantasy films: Middle-earth. It does so with stunning visuals, excellent audio and a captivating, action filled story that mixes its themes with its imagery in a special way I thoroughly appreciated and enjoyed.
Director Peter Jackson is at it again with “An Unexpected Journey,” and among the first thing fans of his previous fantasy film trilogy are likely to do is compare this film (and the two others that will follow…more on those in a moment) with “The Lord of the Rings” titles. While it’s clear why this will occur, there’s room to debate whether or not it should. The films, like the books, are connected via timeline, characters and chronology, yet follow similar but separate storylines. I don’t know either series as well as its most dedicated fans do, of course, but every film should be able to stand alone, even if only for a short while.
Speaking of other films, do mark your calendar for “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” in December 2013 and “The Hobbit: There and Back Again” in July 2014. The second and third films in this trilogy, which, remember, is based on one book, are due out shortly, and have the potential to be as popular (or more) as the first, which grossed over $1 billion worldwide and over $300 million in the United States.
Things open with old Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) deciding to put down on paper an adventure he had 60 years ago so his nephew, Frodo (Elijah Wood), can learn a thing or two. We learn through some brisk but informative flashbacks that the story actually begins with Smaug the Dragon attacking the town of Dale and then the Dwarf Thror, who had become King of the Lonely Mountain and was rolling in gold with the greatest ease. Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), grandson of Thror, does all he can to fight back against Smaug, but to no avail, and is especially dismayed when nearby elves do not come to his people’s defense.
Fast forward a bit and find Bilbo (Martin Freeman) minding his own business when wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen…who else?) arrives in the Shire to visit, ultimately convincing him to assist Thorin and his dozen dwarf company as they travel back to Lonely Mountain and plan their reclamation of their home and kingdom. Bilbo is resistant, at first. And given his resistance, some members of Thorin’s dwarves quickly come to doubt his ability and will power. His change of heart is among the central themes “An Unexpected Journey” explores as the traveling characters fend off challenge after challenge en route to their final destination.
Now, about those dwarves. Don’t mistake them for friendly, lovable and good-doers. No, these dwarves are characters, and additionally, they have character! They’re rough around the edges and not shy about putting themselves out there. Dwalin (Graham McTavish), his brother Balin (Ken Stott), Thorin’s nephew Kili (Aidan Turner), Kili’s brother Fili (Dean O’Gorman), Nori (Jed Brophy) and Ori’s (Adam Brown) brother Dori (Mark Hadlow), Golin (Peter Hambleton), Oin (John Callen), Bombur’s (Stephen Hunter) brother Bofur (James Nesbitt) and his cousin Bifur (William Kircher) round out the bunch. As individuals, they’re all unique with specific traits and idiosyncrasies. Yet together, they seem to work in perfect harmony, balancing bravery, humor and execution with clarity I appreciated and enjoyed. Think of it like a less polished “Entourage” episode, with the guys at the helm emphasizing a slightly more primitive brotherhood, but remaining committed to one another above all else.
“An Unexpected Journey” tracks the group on their trek through poor weather, uneven ground and some less than friendly encounters. Trolls, Orcs, Stone Giants, Goblins and a super nasty Orc war-chief named Azog (Manu Bennett), who Thorin knows is responsible for his grandfather’s beheading, all come into play and complicate the mission. Gandalf, meanwhile, has an ulterior motive of bringing the dwarves and elves back into some sort of cordial relationship, thus leading everyone to Rivendell, where he shares an ancient map with unreadable text with Elrond (Hugo Weaving), Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and Saruman the White (Christopher Lee). And did I mention that Bilbo gets separated from everyone and meets up with none other than Gollum (Andy Serkis), who just so happens to drop a mysterious ring that Bilbo snags and finds out can make him invisible?
If you’re not keeping up with “An Unexpected Journey,” you’re likely to miss an important detail or two, which only becomes more frustrating when you don’t have a background on the story’s concept because you didn’t read a book you’ve been told you should read about 500 different times. This said, “An Unexpected Journey” is able to keep your interest for its 169 minute run time, and it does so be overlapping relevant characters with each other’s relevant stories.
As the film began to wrap up, I quickly realized that it was only partly about Bilbo and his coming of age. It’s equally about Thorin’s quest for revenge and redemption among his peers, within his family and inside his soul, as well as Gandalf’s desire to reunite groups together so they can work in harmony rather than against each other. “An Unexpected Journey” is a complicated film because it drills down into so many different levels that I needed a little time to get used to, yet it also traces its plot back to many solid themes and values you’d find in any genuine film where individuals put the good of the order before themselves.
Nominated for three Oscars (Best Makeup and Hairstyling, Best Visual Effects and Best Production Design), “An Unexpected Journey” is an engrossing experience that uses all it can to draw in its audience. The question then becomes where the line is drawn between too little and too much. I liked it because it was new to me and it formulated its characters in a methodical way that I hadn’t really seen done in quite some time. I didn’t like its screenplay, which probably had to be somewhat loyal to the novel it’s based on (and remember, I’ve not yet read that one), yet felt as though it was pieced together by one too many minds (and that’s because it was, with Jackson, Guillermo Del Toro, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens all contributing). It’s obviously too early to judge the entire series, but if the rest look and sound as sharp as the first, fans will be in for a treat that satisfies their Middle-earth desires.
Among my fears when a film pushes the technical buttons to the degree that “An Unexpected Journey” does is that its characters and the performances by the actors who play them get left in the dust. Not so here, but is that really due to Jackson? We must remember that this is Tolkien’s story first, and also that many principle cast members aren’t 100% new to Jackson’s films or to these stories thanks to “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. Perhaps the next two upcoming films will better answer the execution piece, at least as it relates to on screen performances, most of which take place in a world digitally crafted for our visual engagement.
There is much more to be said about “An Unexpected Journey,” but a film like this really needs to be seen and heard rather than read about. Heck, even if I’d really hated it, I would have encouraged folks to go and see it for the parallels between stories and characters, as well as for the battles Bilbo, Gandalf and the dwarves have with countless foes in an effort to resurrect their previous and more joyful lives. This said, “An Unexpected Journey” doesn’t lack on using a structure or formula to roll its story and characters out on a silver platter. And given the attention to detail this title provided, it’s all the more impressive it was able to develop everything it did and remain, I’ll assume, somewhat loyal to its original text.
“An Unexpected Journey” is a film watching experience. And a good one, at that.
Warner Bros. pushes the 2.40:1 1080p High Definition video transfer to a new place with “An Unexpected Journey,” and I’m glad I got to see it for myself. The film is simply stunning to look at, especially the transition shots that populate the gaps between fights and conflicts where Bilbo and his gang are migrating around Middle-earth. The sharpness the picture provides is noticeable right from the start, and whether you’re gazing ahead down a grassy knoll or watching Thorin brandish his sword in battle, there is a lot to take in with just one set of eyes. It’s as vivid a title as I’ve seen in some time, and Blu-ray is essentially the icing on the cake. Lots to like here, no doubt.
The film’s English 7.1 DTS-High Definition Master Audio soundtrack is superb, with everything from gravel crunching under dwarf footsteps to hobbit eye blinking having a distinct tone and hue. No detail is left untouched audibly, and it’s a good thing for your ears. The battle sequences really steal the show, unsurprisingly, and you won’t struggle to decipher how disorienting Jackson intends for them to be. There are moments where mere conversations are slightly less clear than I expected, but that probably has something to do with the similarity between character names and the fact that a couple unique Middle-earth languages are used (would you be shocked to hear that I didn’t understand those?) with English subtitles provided when they are. French and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1s are offered, as are French, Spanish and English subtitles.
“An Unexpected Journey” comes with a standard DVD and ultraviolet copy, plus a super nifty access code that will get you online to see Jackson provide a sneak peek at “The Desolation of Smaug” on March 24 at 3 pm EDT. A full suite of Jackson’s production videos is provided as well, with 10 video blogs specifically crafted for fans available to check out. The special features occupy a second disc, with the film taking up the first and the standard DVD holding its own on the third. Jackson’s videos range from the production’s beginnings to location scouting to post-production overviews.
A Final Word:
“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” is really quite good. Of course, there’s more to come, but from what this introductory title has provided, we’re left with a natural curiosity about what happens next and who will be there to guide us through it. I was pleased at how much I enjoyed the film, especially not having seen what the story offers by not reading Tolkien’s book. Its sequel will be here before we know it, and for me, I just hope I’ve read the novel by the time part two hits theaters.