The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)
Directed by Peter Jackson
“An Unexpected Journey,” Peter Jackson’s first film in his second Tolkien trilogy, is no dwarfish achievement. Brimming with adventure and action, “An Unexpected Journey” strikes that rare equilibrium between childish fun and engaging drama. And Jackson gives us a beautifully crafted New Zealand, a postcard of everything there is to like about its vast landscape (not to mention the vast digital landscape). From the Shire to Erebor, every inch of Jackson’s Middle Earth (once computers got involved, Tolkien lost all the rights) is picturesque, visual magic.
A younger, less adventuresome Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman, as witty as ever) is dragged alongside Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and a dozen dwarves on a journey to take back the last home of the dwarves, Erebor, from the fire-breathing dragon that sought it for its gold nearly 600 years prior. Of course, traveling hundreds of miles anywhere in Middle Earth comes with its share of challenges…three movies worth, apparently.
Unlike the Lord of the Rings trilogy before it, “An Unexpected Journey” presents a story that requires little explanation. This is Tolkien for the people. Jackson, over the course of 170 minutes, fully explains the story he wants to tell, doing all the work for us. LOTR enthusiasts may fault him for pandering to Big Hollywood-loving simpletons (like me) that prefer their movies hand-fed to them. Too bad. Jackson’s relatively simple story (also written by Guillermo del Toro and two LOTR screenwriters) allows us to bask in the glory of his beautiful homeland without having to pay constant attention to every word spoken. (Let it be known, however, that I’ve never read Tolkien. This is a moviegoer’s impression.) The downside? At 170 minutes, “An Unexpected Journey” is full of unnecessary digressions and drawn-out sequences. It could have been told just as cleanly in 140 minutes.
“An Unexpected Journey” also offers the return of Gandalf, one of 21st-century cinema’s most recognizable figures. Ian McKellen continues his brilliant acting legacy with a distinctly nuanced Tolkien-ian performance. McKellen has created his own Gandalf, giving him distinct and genuine characteristics. After the first trilogy, I’d expect nothing less. Martin Freeman, as Bilbo Baggins, is the film’s most likable lad. His underdog charm makes him a very fun character to watch. And I couldn’t go without mentioning Andy Serkis, plus a few additional motion-capture balls, breathing unprecedented life into Gollum. What an unforgettable scene. Unfortunately, the dwarves in this tale number thirteen, making it rather difficult to find much about each one to take away from the movie. Even immediately after leaving the theater, I couldn’t tell Ori from Nori or Dori.
A strong, well-utilized score can take a good movie and make it great. Howard Shore, working with Neil Finn’s “Song of the Lonely Mountain,” does just that. The film’s epic battle scenes are made more intense with the assistance of this slow-building, dwarfish ballad. Plus, it’s quite an earworm.
Peter Jackson gives us something to look forward to in the coming years with the start of a new Tolkien trilogy. This is a story everyone can get behind, easily the most beautiful film of the year and one of the best. But don’t take it from me.