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Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)

Directed by: Peter Jackson

Premise: The first installment of a three-part adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s prequel to The Lord of the Rings. Taking place sixty years before The Fellowship of the Ring, a Hobbit named Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) joins with a group of dwarves in their quest to reclaim their homeland.

What Works: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is very entertaining and fans of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy ought to find this a satisfactory addition to the series. Although nearly a decade has passed since the release of The Return of the King, the filmmakers are able to match the look of that film, making this a seamless addition onto an established series. Many of the strengths of the previous films, especially The Fellowship of the Ring, are replicated here. An Unexpected Journey has a similar sense of fun and adventure and it demonstrates director Peter Jackson’s talent for spectacle and showmanship. The creatures are well conceived and characters like the goblin king often have a grotesque cleverness to their design. An Unexpected Journey is a very well-cast film and it sees the return of some key actors from The Lord of the Rings, namely Ian McKellen as the wizard Gandalf. New to this film are Martin Freeman as Bilbo and Richard Armitage as dwarf leader Thorin, and both men are very good in their roles. Freeman has a very grounded persona, which contrasts with the mythic settings and epic set pieces, and in the moments when film focuses on him Freeman brings a lot of humor and humanity to the movie. As Thorin, Richard Armitage contributes to the film’s dramatic gravitas and his quiet intensity makes him credible as a leader.

What Doesn’t: As entertaining as An Unexpected Journey is, the film is not much more than that. Following the success of The Lord of the Rings, Hollywood studios produced a lot of fantasy films and many of them were mediocre or downright awful. An Unexpected Journey is better than many of those pictures but it is not up to the standard of previous Lord of the Rings movies and it sometimes feels like another knock-off. The film is virtually a remake of The Fellowship of the Ring and its story structure is nearly the same: the film begins with an epic prologue, and then sets a reluctant Hobbit on an adventure through Middle Earth, starting at the Shire and traveling cross country with a stop at the elven city of Rivendell before culminating in a finale in a cave. The plot beats and visuals are so similar that it gets quite repetitive; unlike some prequels or sequels that sometimes repeat scenarios as a way of commenting or reflecting upon the action, An Unexpected Journey often seems like a greatest hits reel of Peter Jackson’s earlier Middle Earth films. The picture is further hurt from poor storytelling decisions. In several instances the filmmakers put their characters in a jam and instead of finding interesting ways out that define who they are and substantiate their heroism, the filmmakers opt for deus ex machina solutions, usually involving Gandolf showing up out of the blue and using a little magic. These storytelling decisions are lazy and they also rob the characters of moments in which they prove their mettle. The lack of character beats results in a cast of flat and uninteresting people. The combined effect of the recycled content, sketchy plotting, and one-dimensional characters is a movie that lacks any kind of emotional resonance. Very little about An Unexpected Journey is memorable and it is the kind of movie whose details are forgettable within hours of watching it. 

Bottom Line: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is not a bad movie; it is certainly better than most fantasy films and it is very entertaining. But as a prequel to The Lord of the Rings, one of the touchstones of epic filmmaking, it has great expectations to fulfill and on those terms it falls short. This is an acceptable movie but little more than that.

Episode: #420 (December 23, 2012)