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The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (from here on out just An Unexpected Journey) marks the long awaited return to Middle Earth since LOTR: The Return of the King won an Oscar for Best Picture. An Unexpected Journey follows the exploits of Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellan, reprising his role) and 13 dwarves – the most important being Thorin, the dwarf king (Richard Armitage) as they set out to reclaim the dwarves’ fallen kingdom, Erebor. Whether you are a huge Tolkein fan or not An Unexpected Journey offers up great entertainment and quality that oozes with deep admiration for the story, much like the original Lord of the Rings (or LOTR) trilogy.
The first third of the movie is all set up and can move a little slow. This isn’t much of a detriment, especially since director Peter Jackson is a master at building towards a crescendo of action and suspense, but it certainly does feel a little long. The movie begins with an extensive prologue, where an older Bilbo (Ian Holm also reprising his original role) narrates the rise of Erebor, the greatest dwarf kingdom, fueled by the rich deposits of gold throughout the mountain in which the palace presides, and its eventual fall to the gold-loving dragon Smaug. This prologue plays out as more of a history lesson than anything, but the sequence is important as it gives context to the motivations of the dwarves. While the prologue is action packed, despite its lecturing, it is the half hour or so afterwards that plays out dully as the audience gains its first introduction to Gandalf, Bilbo, and the dwarves. Perhaps, it is because I have already been introduced to the characters from the previous trilogy that the Shire scenes seem to drag on a tad too long.
However, once the company leaves the Shire An Unexpected Journey gains its footing. This journey winds its way through various perils, some funnier than others (a mountain troll scene comes to mind), as Bilbo tries to prove to the dwarven warriors, and himself, that he is a worthy companion for the journey to take back Erebor. Martin Freeman does a stellar job with Bilbo. Bilbo is sort of the straight man of the group and Freeman plays this up while occasionally offering up some very dry humor. While Bilbo’s overall grumpy and unwilling attitude might chew on some nerves, Freeman’s facial expressions help to disarm those feelings as he often wears a defeated and an “in over my head” look when he’s not wildly flailing to fend off goblins or orcs.
What most great movies do is make the audience feel like a character in the journey, and An Unexpected Journey is no exception. Jackson balances the level of peril with the level of disbelief so that it never feels inorganic. He puts just the right amount of doubt into the audience’s mind of the survival of the members of the group without making their survival too ridiculous (although there are a few characters falling in the film that cause an eyebrow to be raised). More importantly is the growth of Bilbo’s character. Bilbo’s progression from burdensome grump to courageous friend feels natural and isn’t forced. He grows a little in each scene and his façade of being out of place slowly crumbles, allowing the wonderment of his surroundings and his desire to continue on the quest to be expressed.
When it was first announced that The Hobbit would be split up into three movies many Tolkien fans wondered how this would happen with the material being much thinner than in the LOTR trilogy. Jackson decided to augment the original story with lots of material from the appendices as well as some from The Silmarillion. However, in doing this Jackson has created some pacing problems for An Unexpected Journey. The transitions into the augmented/new material (the introduction of Radagast comes out of nowhere, and the history behind Thorin’s father’s death) are usually abrupt and take away from the pacing of the movie. While they are interesting, the transitions do take the viewer out of the story.
An Unexpected Journey is more family friendly than the previous LOTR trilogy. This quest lacks the high stakes and dire subject matter that LOTR was based on, which allows for more humor. While some of the villains can be a tad frightening, many others (including the Master Goblin) are more hilarious than menacing. The epitome of Jackson's ability to offer tension with humor comes in the meeting of Gollum (Andy Serkis reprising) and Bilbo which is one the most well written and acted scenes from any movie this year. Radagast is another instance of the available goofiness in An Unexpected Journey and a company of thirteen dwarves and one hobbit adds to that (there are very little serene elves in slow motion in this film). Of course the fact that The Hobbit lacks the growing oppression and obsession that comes with the one ring immediately gives this trilogy a lighter mood.
An Unexpected Journey is a blockbuster that is crafted with more care than most. While it may not be the greatest movie, the quality is undeniable. From the meticulous beards of the dwarves to the amazing motion capture special effects that have become a staple of the Tolkien franchise under Jackson’s stewardship, An Unexpected Journey often inspires awe. After a few trademark bird’s eye view shots of the company traversing the wilds of Middle Earth you fall right back into the capable hands of Mr. Jackson and it feels like you never left Middle Earth, despite the eight year intermission between films.