The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Peter Jackson’s follow-up and prequel to the Lord of the Rings trilogy, comes to us as the first third of J.R.R. Tolkien’s much beloved novel. For those who are keeping score at home, it covers from the beginning of the book until right after the Eagles appear. Hopefully that won’t spoil anything for those who haven’t been exposed to the novel. I don’t believe it does, anyway.
The Hobbit begins just before the Lord of the Rings trilogy does. Directly before Bilbo Baggins’ (Ian Holm) party, actually. Bilbo is recounting a story to Frodo (Elijah Wood), about a journey he once went on. There are two Lord of the Rings cameos that get out of the way right at the start. There will be a bunch more throughout. This tale is what we’re going to focus on for the rest of the movie, taking place 60 years before the start of Lord of the Rings. Bilbo is now played by Martin Freeman, who fits perfectly in the role. Bilbo, at the behest of Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and a dozen Dwarves, is about to go on a little adventure, which will encompass the majority of a new trilogy of movies.
This might sound a bit odd at the beginning. The Lord of the Rings was a trilogy, with one movie dedicated to each book. The Hobbit is one book, and it’s shorter than each individual Rings installment. Why does it get a trilogy to itself? Well, Jackson has decided to tell more than just Bilbo’s story, including details that weren’t found in the main book, but in the appendices — and some stuff that he decided to make up and insert into the film to expand the universe.
There’s not a ton of that in this first film, which plays for over two and a half hours, but presumably this is something we have to look forward to. This is a solid beginning, one that takes its time in establishing everything but because of the director’s love of Middle Earth, it never drags. There was a clear point when the film could have ended — the same time Fellowship rolled its credits — but we continue on for another hour and it’s completely exciting.
You can tell that this is a passion project for Peter Jackson. Every frame is imbued with love. Speaking of frames, An Unexpected Journey is playing in 48 frames per second (FPS) — as opposed to the traditional 24 FPS of almost all other movies. The result is initially an uneasy feeling; this isn’t what you’ll be used to, and it takes some time to adjust. After some time, you don’t notice it, or the 3D. It’s beneficial to the film, as it creates less motion blur, a smoother picture, and an easier time seeing more detail, but it’s not necessary to see the film in this way.
What we’re given here is a really charming movie that feels a lot smaller in scope, despite the universe in which it takes place. You have a good idea, assuming you saw the previous Jackson trilogy, of what’s going around in this world, and while you certainly get to see some of it, this is a more personal story. It’s about Bilbo Baggins, these Dwarves, and Gandalf, who gets a much larger role here than he did previously. He’s more the star than anyone else.
The Hobbit was more of a children’s book than the Lord of the Rings were, and it shows through in this movie. The tone is far lighter, with a lot of comedic moments scattered throughout. This is actually a funnier movie than the majority of comedies released in any given year. There does lack a certain sense of danger throughout most of it, partially because the in-the-moment scenes are too jovial to be scary, and also because you know the outcome, at least, when it comes to the main characters.
Even if your only exposure to The Hobbit‘s story came in the form of the Lord of the Rings movies, you know that both Bilbo and Gandalf make it through. They’re the only ones, save for the leader of the Dwarves, Thorin (Richard Armitage), who get any characterization. As a result, they’re the ones you care about. Since they can’t come to harm, the action scenes — some of which have been added just for the movie — it’s hard to really feel the danger of the Orcs, Dwarves, or other foul creatures the company encounters.
To fix this, the secondary characters need to become important to us. They didn’t in this film. Perhaps they’ll develop over the course of the next two films, but speaking just for An Unexpected Journey, I couldn’t even remember the names of any of the other Dwarves. They all have personalities, and I could list those if given some faces, but names or anything else wouldn’t come. They are here for battle and to crack wise. That’s it. It was more eye-opening just to see cameos from Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett and Christopher Lee — all of which arrive to the film under the best framing, the most flattering light, and with a chorus of applause from the audience.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is the first of a new trilogy of films set in Middle Earth. If you’re a fan already, you’ve got more movies to look forward to, given how much fun this one is. If you’re not, this would be a good place to start the series. This is a charming and funny labor of love for director Peter Jackson. It’s action-packed — more so than the book — really humorous, and turns Gandalf into an even more impressive character, as Ian McKellen is given a ton of time to shine in the role. It might not be Lord of the Rings, but it’s close and absolutely worth seeing.