The expectations for Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit were high. It has been nine years since the incredible box office and award success of the last Lord of the Rings film. It was exciting to hear Guillermo del Toro on the film and then his departure filled by Jackson returning to helm the LoTR prequels was a welcome return of an old friend. The trilogy smacked of the Star Wars prequels, but the appendix material will bring in the Battle of the Necromancer which hangs in the background of Tolkien’s book. The only Hobbit movie that I had seen was the old Rankin & Bass animated film that came out on the same year as Star Wars (1977). I knew all of the songs, can recite the dialogue (which I ended up doing in the Jackson film), and for decades the voices of Gandalf was John Huston and Thorin was Hans Conried. Now, this is all erased, and there can’t be a Gandalf that isn’t Sir Ian McKellan and Richard Armitage is now Thorin Oakenshield.
There are a few expectations for The Hobbit: Unexpected Journey that were fulfilled by Jackson. First was the tone has to be much lighter than LoTR. It didn’t need to a kid’s film, but it is an earlier period than the war in the latter part of the Third Age. While there are dark moments in the film, it is more of a fun adventure with Bilbo Baggins trying to find his way in an increasingly dangerous quest. Bilbo of course is played by Martin Freeman who has to be the one factor where I knew his casting would make the film a success. He of course can bring the comic elements, but it is an ordinary guy put in extraordinary circumstances that is perfect for Mr. Freeman. Next, there has to be songs. In fact, there are two, but I hoped for three sung in the movie. Tolkien was very careful in placing songs throughout The Hobbit. The film has Dwarves who are the singers, surprisingly the Elves have choruses, but no greeting song by the Elves mocking the company. The Dwarves making fun of Bilbo is put to song and more impressive is the song begun by Thorin and picked up by the other dwarves which reflects Tolkien’s “deep throated singing of the dwarves.” It is a droning chant which makes me think Nordic singers.
The return of the LoTR cast is brilliant. The film starts with Sir Ian Holm as the older Bilbo beginning to write the book that we saw him turn to Elijah Wood’s Frodo in Fellowship of the Rings (2001). It truly serves as a bridge to the earlier trilogy where we discover that Frodo is going off to surprise Gandalf. Since, Frodo runs off, it appears that he will only be in the first Hobbit film. I imagined him checking in on his uncle and Bilbo telling him so part of his adventures in the following sequels. The filmmakers also had Frodo tacking up the “No Admittance” sign after Bilbo says he is not being anti-social. The LoTR ties continue with Bilbo worried about the party and fingering the Ring in his pocket. Ominous is the second title showing up with Bilbo blowing a smoke ring which hangs in the sky to hint at the presence of the One Ring. Surprisingly, once the company reaches Rivendell there is no scene where Arwen or Aragorn are wandering around the halls.
The opening prologue covers what happened when Smaug drove out the dwarves from Erebor. This is told by Bilbo in his narrative, but does make more sense if Gandalf or Thorin tells the tale during the party. We get the great halls of Erebor with the dwarf kingdom in a golden age. Thorin is seen watching his father, Thrain’s obsession with gold. The Arkenstone is recovered, placed above Thrain’s throne, and later taken out by him. Then, Smaug comes in, shadowy, breathing fire, with only his claws and tail shown. This is a great build up to the full reveal which will be in the later sequel. This is very reminiscent of the dragon Vermithrax in the 1981 Disney film, Dragonslayer. One of the vast improvements on the narrative front is the driving force for Bilbo to go on the adventure. In LoTR, Frodo leaves Hobbiton just because of circumstances. In Bilbo, we get a more personal reason, this is clear in the scene where he is all alone after the party with the dwarves, then he runs off. He is then faced with his worthiness on the quest. The dwarves at first question his ability has a burglar, silenced by Gandalf, but this comes up much later. It is a great scene where he is questioned by the dwarf on lookout duty why he is leaving. Bilbo’s reply is Hobbiton which is also a motivation for Frodo and Sam. The conversation then pushes to the dwarves not having a home. So this major part of the characters connects them and drives all of them forward.
The same character exploration applies to the dwarves especially Thorin. Richard Armitage really explores the part with Thorin becoming a respected war leader defeating the Orc Azog played by Manu Bennett. The pale Orc was mentioned by Tolkien, but only as a goblin (Tolkien changed it to Orc in LoTR) that killed Thorin’s grandfather. Here is made the villain that pursues the dwarves. His strongest character component is his arrogance. Thorin gets into disputes with Gandalf who is pushing them to get counsel with the elves. Gandalf is less mysterious with his disappearances here with Gandalf wandering off to cool off after an argument with Thorin. The trolls, not really identified, but Bert, William, and Tom (voiced by some of the dwarves) run into Bilbo. They speak here not the mute giants from the LoTR films. The trolls don’t stuff the dwarves into bags instead they surrender themselves to save Bilbo. It is shown that they are all quite deadly with their weapons including the fight with the goblins.
The names of the dwarves of course from the Poetic Edda including a dwarf named Gandalf. There are thirteen dwarves altogether including Thorin. The few dwarves that standout are Dwalin, played by Graham McTavish, who is the elderly advisor to Thorin and keeper of the contracts for the quest. Then, there is Fili, played by Dean O’Gorman, and his brother Kili, played by Aidan Turner. I identify Turner with his part as vampire John Mitchell in the BBC show, Being Human. They have the most contact with Bilbo and they are the young warriors who convince him to burgle from the trolls. Adam Brown plays Ori who is the youngest dwarf eager for adventure. His weapon of choice seems to be a slingshot which doesn’t seem as deadly as a battleaxe or a crossbow. There is the surprise of a bridge battle with the goblin king voiced by Barry Humphries. The dwarves along with Gandalf get into a running battle that ends with the bridge. The Grey Wizard of course has found Glamdring the Foe Hammer, an elvish sword that he recovers from the troll cave. Gandalf cuts down the goblin king and they topple down a cavern. This is an exciting addition to the story like the Moria bridge collapse in FotR.
The White Council is introduced in Rivendell. Elrond, again played by Hugo Weaving, greets the company when he rides in after attacking some Orcs. We got an earlier introduction of Radaghast the Brown. The appearance of Slyvester McCoy, the Seventh Doctor made me smile. He is perfect as the befuddled Istari. He is threatened by what seems like the giant spiders that later spread to Mirkwood and he investigates the fortress of Dol Goldur where he sees the Necromancer. This is of course Sauron manifested in physical form. He is played by Benedict Cumberbatch, but unfortunately does not get too much of a speaking opportunity here. Cumberbatch is brilliant as Sherlock Holmes in the BBC series Sherlock and he is getting attention for his role in the next Star Trek movie. More fun is Radaghast drawing off a Warg party led by Azog using his sled of bunnies. The rest of the White Council is shown including Cate Blanchett who has the elf quality of looking more beautiful as she gets older. We also get Christopher Lee as Saruman who is allied with the council and has not fallen to the dark side yet. Saruman sees power as the way to counter Sauron which hints at his future, but Gandalf does not pick up on it. The threat of the Necromancer is identified through a sword forged in Mordor which was given to Gandalf by Radaghast. Gandalf brings up that he fears that Smaug will be ally to Sauron when he comes to power. Finally, there is the question of 3D, which is not very strong in this film.
The highlight of the film has to be the Riddles in the Dark. This is the confrontation between Gollum and Bilbo. The hobbit has plunged over a cliff after fighting with a goblin. He spies Gollum, again played by Andy Serkis, taking away the goblin and bashing it with a rock. While Gollum is taking away the goblin, the One Ring, slips from him. This is more interesting than the Ring just slipping away before Bilbo sees Gollum. The riddle game is more of a threat with Gollum about to attack Bilbo, but he is held back by Bilbo’s elven sword. Bilbo is chased by Gollum and he falls with the Ring flung into the air and onto his finger like Frodo at the Prancing Pony. He goes invisible and is about to kill Gollum, but spares his life. While it is nice to see Middle Earth in 3D, visually there is not much that seems especially framed for 3D like the more 3D friendly Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is the great start for the trilogy, respectful in part to J.R.R. Tolkien, and has the perfect blend of action, comedy, and drama.