Peter Jackson set the bar high with his excellent adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s seminal work The Lord of the Rings. The trilogy was praised by long-time Tolkien fans and newcomers alike, and the final film of the trilogy, The Return of the King, won an Academy Award for Best Picture (2003). But could Jackson return again to Middle-Earth and strike magic yet again? The answer is a resounding “Yes! Yes, he can!”
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey begins a new trip for film-goers through the realms of Hobbits, Elves, Dwarves, Wizards and Orcs as created by Tolkien in his prequel novel The Hobbit. The film opens with an older Bilbo (Ian Holm) recounting his adventures to nephew Frodo (Elijah Wood) as he prepares for the birthday party that opened 2001’s The Fellowship of the Ring. This serves as a nice tie-in to the LOTR movies. The film then takes us back 60 years, where we meet a younger Bilbo (played very well by Martin Freeman, of the BBC series Sherlock ) who receives a visit from the old Wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen, returning to the role). Gandalf is looking for someone to partake in an adventure, which Bilbo initially refuses. The Hobbit is then visited by a group of Dwarves, led by Thorin Oakenshield (a terrific Richard Armitage). Bilbo learns that the Dwarves have lost their home of Erebor under Lonely Mountain to the dragon Smaug (who is only glimpsed here in this film but occupies a much larger role in the upcoming second movie of the trilogy). Gandalf recommends Bilbo to join the Dwarves as a burglar, since their party is composed of thirteen members and it would be better if they proceed with a luckier number. Bilbo agrees, and their journey begins.
Jackson does a nice job moving things along after the initial meeting between the Hobbit and the Dwarves, leading to a thrilling chase by Orcs led by the villainous Azog (Manu Bennett of the Spartacus series, as well as currently playing Slade Wilson in the DC comics inspired TV show Arrow ), as well as narrow escapes from battling stone giants and a trio of trolls. Familiar faces are met along the way, including Galadriel (a returning Cate Blanchett) and the leader of the Elves, Elrond (Hugo Weaving, reprising his earlier role). And there is, of course, the fated meeting of Bilbo and the wretched creature Gollum, which results in Bilbo gaining possession of the One Ring that leads to much larger events. Andy Serkis returns as Gollum, and again proves he is a master at bringing to life CG created characters. Gollum is once again both sympathetic and repulsive, and Serkis’ performance is fantastic in conveying the character to audiences. The meeting is one of the film’s highlights, providing a nice mix of both humor and suspense.
Fans of Tolkien’s works will recognize that Jackson expanded on the source material, including things not only from The Hobbit but from the Appendices found at the end of the final book in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. This works nicely for the film, filling in the parts where Gandalf left the group, as he was gathering information on a new threat brought to him by another Wizard, Radagast the Brown (an amusing Sylvester McCoy). This in turn leads to a meeting between Gandalf, Elrond, Galadriel, and sorceror Saruman (another returning member from LOTR in Christopher Lee). The additions fleshed things out nicely, including the pursuit of Azog, giving the movie a main villain.
WETA Digital again provides the special effects that bring the world of Middle-Earth to life, and they provide some spectacular set pieces, from the battling stone giants to a thrilling escape from hordes in Goblins in their cavern city. The CGI in this film is a bit less realistic than that in LOTR, but it suits this film’s lighter tone. The Hobbit after all was intended to be more of a children’s book, and therefore a bit lighter fare than the darker trilogy which followed. This film deals with a less than world threatening plot as well, since the Dwarves are simply interested in reclaiming both their home and their treasure stolen by the dragon. This makes it no less thrilling or enthralling, however, and the story is told well with plenty of humor (with a couple of songs thrown in for good measure) and action. The cast all do a fine job and Howard Shore returns to provide an excellent score to serve as a backdrop.
All in all, Tolkien fans should be pleased with the film, though it must be remembered that this is lighter in tone than Jackson’s previous trilogy. Very young children may be frightened by the Goblins, Orcs, and Trolls, as well as a couple of scenes with giant spiders (though they are not shown in full), so parents should take that into account. For myself, the additions fleshed out the story nicely, and I can see why Jackson chose to expand this from two films into three. It’s a grand beginning to a journey that’s well worth taking, and should make fans eagerly await the next two installments.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.
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