It is really challenging to consider a critical assessment of The Hobbit. The much-beloved Tolkien novel has to live in many shadows, from the achievements of Peter Jackson’s previous treks into Middle-Earth, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, to the classic Rankin-Bass animated version, to the very novel itself. It’s almost impossible to judge Jackson’s return to Middle Earth without considering some other element. Thankfully, the start of the new story, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey does a fantastic job of adapting the source material, connecting with the previous content, and reminding everyone why Peter Jackson is the true lord of Middle-Earth.
If you are somehow unfamiliar with the story of The Hobbit, it was considered a much lighter prequel to The Lord of the Rings. Written for a younger audience, the novel tells the story of Bilbo Baggins, uncle to the protagonist of Tolkien’s trilogy. Over the course of The Hobbit, Bilbo goes on a great adventure with a party of dwarves who have set out to reclaim lost treasure from the terrible dragon Smaug. As Bilbo and the dwarves encounter orcs, goblins, giant spiders, and other fearsome creatures, Bilbo has a chance encounter with Gollum and acquires the “one ring” that sets the events of The Lord of the Rings in motion.
The novel is mostly Bilbo’s story, who we are reintroduced to in an prelude that reminds us of Bilbo (Ian Holm) and Frodo (Elijah Wood)’s relationship before telling the bulk of the story in a flashback that follows a younger version of Bilbo, excellently played by Martin Freeman. This makes the third iconic performance for Freeman, following Arthur Dent in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Watson on BBC’s Sherlock and with each character Freeman finds a way to make the character his own while staying true to the nature that made these such iconic figures. His Bilbo is a fumbling, nervous character, as he should be, but Freeman also brings the character an intriguing curiosity and strength that helps this Bilbo stand out from previous adaptations. It doesn’t take long to realize Bilbo is in an uncomfortable situation, traveling on an adventure when he has no business doing so, but it also doesn’t take long to see why he finally chooses to go on this adventure, and why he remains with the company despite some of their grievances with him. In short, it’s easy to see in Bilbo why Gandalf the Grey becomes so fascinated with hobbits.
Speaking of Gandalf, Ian McKellen returns to his equally iconic role and the return couldn’t be any more welcome. Despite weaving his way in and out of the narrative in the novel, Gandalf is a greater presence here (making me believe he’ll probably be absent more in the subsequent movies) and his rapport with Bilbo lays the foundation for his relationship with Frodo in the future story. This Gandalf is a bit more active then we’ve seen him before, more involved in the adventure and overcoming the obstacles that confront the party. In the novel he tends to be used as more of a miracle solution, but this Gandalf feels very human and flawed, thanks largely to McKellen’s return to form.
One of the largest changes in adapting the book to movie format is making the story more of an ensemble piece. Each of the dwarves are built up a bit more in character and given thirteen distinct different personalities and appearances. Their interactions give a strong impression of the camaraderie of their race, with boasting, bragging, squabbles, and raucous laughter breaking out between any collection of them at any time. While all the dwarves are interesting (and a fascinating departure from John Rhys-Davies more typical depiction in Jackson’s previous films), two stand out as absolutely remarkable: Ken Stott as Balin, and Richard Armitage as Thorin, the leader of the company. Stott’s Balin is a wise historian and he gives a sense of grandeur and richness to the race’s history, which plays a prominent part in building up the dwarfs’ story to even out the story. Armitage’s breakout performance, however, is a beautiful performance of leadership, equal parts hubris and humility. This is a character the audience wants to see more of, especially as he fills a role similar to that of Aragorn in the previous films – the reluctant leader who is destined for a greater future, despite his own misgivings with that. The audience who found Aragorn such a captivating character should find enough similarity with Thorin to want to follow his story just as much as Bilbo’s or Gandalf’s.
For the most part, the story changes are a fantastic adaptation of Tolkien’s work, derived partly from Tolkien’s own appendices and partly from original, somewhat archetypal story elements. Giving the dwarves a greater sense of legacy gives them a stronger reason to pursue this quest than Tolkien gives the characters and helps even things out. The addition of an army of orcs pursuing the company (and Thorin in particular) helps raise the tension and give a greater sense of the overall world. A few scenes are added in to “connect the dots” between this film and the existing trilogy, helping develop the idea of evil on the rise in Middle-Earth while allowing fan-favorites like Elrond (Hugo Weaving), Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), and Saruman (Christopher Lee) to return to the screen. The only part of the additions that truly doesn’t work for me is the addition of the character Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy), one of the other wizards of the land. While Radagast’s scenes serve a purpose for the overall narrative, the character’s execution is too silly and detracts from the mood of the rest of the film, particularly a scene that has Radagast riding his rabbit-pulled sleigh to divert the pursuing orcs. Considering Jackson and company are expanding one novel to fill three movies, there is quite a bit added in here, so I can’t imagine another “extended edition” like we got with Lord of the Rings, but I’d love to see an edited cut that minimizes Radagast’s involvement.
Considering the groundbreaking work Weta Workshop did to create the first Lord of the Rings movies, they are receiving a bit of flack over weaker effects in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. I can’t say the complaints are completely unfounded. There are a few parts (the aforementioned Radagast sled scene) where the effects don’t quite live up to expectations. At the same time, some of the effects continue the breathtaking trend of the previous film. Particularly some of the digital creations like Gollum, the Great Goblin, and the three trolls the company encounters in their travels. Andy Serkis continues his tremendous work as Gollum, breathing life into the iconic “Riddles in the Dark” chapter of The Hobbit. I wondered how Jackson would make a contest of riddles interesting to watch and a lot of it is achieved through Serkis’s magnificent performance, which will no doubt yet again be ignored by the Academy of Arts and Sciences. Honestly, I don’t think the effects as a whole are weaker in The Hobbit but I do think some flaws are visible, exacerbated by the quality of some of the other effects.
While The Hobbit certainly is no Lord of the Rings, it certainly has a familiarity to it that brings comfort with the extension of Tolkien’s story. The source material is lighter which creates a lighter product (despite the addition of darker material to bridge the gap between stories) and fans of the novel might take issue with the more ensemble approach given to the film. Fans of the previous films might be disenfranchised, as these aren’t the characters we followed for three movies, nor do they have the same level of baggage (although some feel similar to characters we’ve seen before). Still, I defy anyone to sit in the darkened theatre looking at the familiar image of the shire while Howard Shore’s score plays and not smile. There may be a bit of a bloated feel because of the additions and it may not have the gravity of the previous movies, but this is certainly an adventure that makes it fun to go “there and back again.”