The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey Review: It Isn’t Lord of the Rings, But it Isn’t The Phantom Menace Either

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After nine years of guessing whether it would be made, development hell, and a split into three films, The Hobbit is here, and the results will divide moviegoers everywhere.

Those who read the novel and consider J.R.R. Tolkien their god will eat it up. Casual fans of the films might find this first entry on the boring side.

I find myself split down the center finding tons of flaws in the film, but also a lot to love about it.

I was ten when The Fellowship of the Ring came out. It swept me away into a new world. At age 11, my eyes watered at the end of The Two Towers when I refused to blink as Gandalf, followed by an army, saved the heroes still fighting at the battle of Helm’s Deep. A year later, at age 12, my eyes watered again as Aragorn was crowned king in The Return of the King. Sentimentality got the better of me (and still does on repeat viewings). At that young age, The Lord of the Rings trilogy changed storytelling for me forever. It was, and still is, the platform for epic storytelling that so many other films have tried to reach and failed.

Now it is time to go back with An Unexpected Journey, the first of a prequel trilogy with hype surrounding it at Star Wars levels.

The film opens just before the original trilogy begins with an unnecessary and poorly acted scene featuring an older Bilbo (Ian Holm) writing his book for Frodo (Elijah Wood) to read. We are then taken to the beginning of his tale as Gandalf (Ian McKellen) knocks on a younger Bilbo’s (Martin Freeman) door asking him to join in on an adventure.

Then come the dwarves, 13 in total. Only three of them really stand out: the leader Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), the wise Balin (Ken Stott), and Legolas stand-in Kili (Aiden Turner). Their goal is to reclaim their homeland from the dragon Smaug.

With this film, director Peter Jackson has included so many arbitrary details. It feels like an hour before the group leaves the hobbit home of the Shire. Even after, the fan service here is admirable, but at the cost of the film’s length and overall pacing. It feels more like the extended versions of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, which were made for the Tolkien enthusiasts, instead of the trimmer and superior theatrical versions.

This amount of fan service gives the sense that Jackson isn’t feeling pressure from the studios, but from the fans. A declared Tolkien fan himself, how could Jackson not want to give them everything they want? If the fans want giant rock monsters beating each other up for seemingly no reason at all other than it being in the book, why not give it to them?

But the biggest issue by far with An Unexpected Journey is that it is merely set up for what will likely be two far superior sequels. The first Rings film had a a true purpose in the whole trilogy besides introducing everything. At the end of this film, I barely feel we have come much further in the journey from when we started. This first movie will likely improve once the sequels are out, but for now it’s a slow start.

Phew, okay, all the bad stuff is out of the way. Now I can talk about all the things I loved about this movie.

The acting, aside from Ian Holm in the prologue, is nothing short of brilliant. Martin Freeman is a fun lead to follow, perhaps even superior to Elijah Wood’s Frodo in the original trilogy. Returning cast members, including Ian McKellen, Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett, and Christopher Lee, easily slip right back into their roles. The four of them have one of the best scenes in the film together.

And Andy Serkis! Just wow! Bilbo’s encounter with Gollum in the third act may be Serkis’s best work yet as the creepy, yet utterly sympathetic creature poisoned by the ring. It is the highlight of the whole movie and one of the best scenes Jackson has ever directed. The whole sequence actually enhances Gollum’s character in the first trilogy for the better.

There are a few scenes, actually, that give more weight to major events in the Rings films. But those are best left discovered on your own.

While this film has a lot of issues, I feel it will merely be a bump in the road once the new trilogy is done. There are tons of things to love about this film, and the fans will be more than pleased to be back in Middle Earth. Grade: B




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