I saw Peter Jackson’s first installment on his trilogy of The Hobbit twice, and, strangely enough, An Unexpected Journey was better the second time. Fortunately, I haven’t read
For those who do not know the story, Tolkien’s The Hobbit is the story of one Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and how he came to have an adventure. In this case, the adventure was accompanying Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), the leader of a band of dwarves, in his quest to regain the Lonely Mountain, Erebor, back from the dragon Smaug, who had taken occupancy many years before amid much fire, smoke, and general carnage. Thorin is of the line of Durin, and it was his grandfather who was dispossessed of what was at the time the richest and largest kingdom of the dwarves. Thorin wants it back. He is aided in this quest by none other than Gandalf the Grey (Sir Ian McKellen), a wizard of some repute. Jackson’s first film takes them through various adventures until they make their way — barely — through the Misty Mountains and first lay eyes on their goal.
I have to confess, I was not one of those wildly enthusiastic about Jackson’s Lord of the Rings Trilogy. Quite aside from the liberties he took with the story (which, if you’re trying to compress three lengthy novels into three films, are understandable in large part), I had reservations about some of the characterizations, the lack of support for some scenes, and the pacing. Those faults are not so much in evidence in The Hobbit, but they haven’t vanished, either.
I will say that Jackson has assembled a superb cast. At this point, Ian McKellen owns the role of Gandalf — I simply can’t imagine anyone else pulling it off. Martin Freeman’s Bilbo is, I think, a legitimate reading of the character, although I didn’t find it entirely persuasive — Bilbo spends a lot of time dithering (especially in the scene in which he is about to make his escape from Gollum and the cave, one of those in which pacing becomes an issue), and I couldn’t really find those qualities in him that would have caused Gandalf to pick him for this quest. Maybe they will start coming out in the next installment. Richard Armitage as Thorin projects the right combination of dwarvish stubbornness and obsession, although his antipathy toward the inclusion of Bilbo is kind of spotty — he’s against it because he says so, but we don’t really see it. (Nor, to be fair, does there seem to be much opportunity for him to show it.) There is something sinister about Christopher Lee (Saruman the White), even when he’s supposed to be one of the good guys. Sylvester McCoy is delightfully loopy as Rhadaghast the Brown, and at this point, Andy Serkis is the only possible Gollum. Thankfully, Cate Blanchett as Galadriel shows some signs of humanity in this one, which makes her much more credible — the contrast between her characterization in The Fellowship of the Ring and those of the rest of the Elves was jarring, to say the least.
In broad outline, the story hangs together quite well, without the glaring gaps evident in LOTR, although there are places where I was thinking “OK, cut to the chase” — which, when what you’re watching is a chase scene, is a distinct problem. Jackson does seem to have a tendency to milk some scenes beyond what they can honestly bear — the merry band spends a lot of time falling down holes and sliding down mountainsides, with all the attendant yelling (and somehow winding up with not so much as a bruise), long after we’ve gotten the idea. Even as early as the scenes of Smaug wreaking havoc on Erebor and the town of Dale, I found myself thinking “Gotta use up that FX budget.” And the treatment there actually made sense.
On the whole, though, it’s a film well worth seeing — it’s thoroughly enjoyable, and even I, who can be something of a nitpicker, saw it twice. (In 3D both times, and the second time even the 3D was better, although it’s still unnerving to have a much more than life size butterfly heading right at you.)
(New Line Cinema/MGM/Wingnut Films, 2012) For full credits, see the entry at IMDb.