I have to admit, sitting down to watch The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, there was a small part of me that was worried it wouldn’t live up to my expectations. For starters, it had been almost ten years since we last saw Peter Jackson and company’s vision of Tolkien's Middle-Earth on the big screen. On top of that, this was the beginning of a prequel trilogy, taking a much smaller work (and some supplemental material) and stretching it out over three movies.
Turns out I had nothing to worry about. An Unexpected Journey is every bit the return trip to Middle-Earth I was hoping for. As soon as I saw the Shire again, it was like putting on an old pair of slippers, or wrapping your favorite blanket around you while you read a great book. I never realized how much I missed seeing that world until it was up on the screen in front of me again.
But this trip to Middle-Earth was different, of course, and that’s a great thing. While the Lord of the Rings trilogy was very dark, punctuated by spots of brightness, The Hobbit is the opposite. And the first chapter, An Unexpected Journey, is a colorful, almost giddy celebration of the wonderful world of Middle-Earth. It’s almost as if Jackson and everyone else who worked on the film are saying “I know! We’re so excited to be back here too!”
Not that there isn’t plenty of action mind you, and some scary moments as well.
The movie begins with an older Bilbo Baggins (played once again by Ian Holm), penning a memoir of his greatest adventure from his younger days. We also get to see Frodo (Elijah Wood), and are reminded of how innocent he was prior to the events of The Lord of the Rings. In fact, the framing sequence at the beginning of the film takes place just prior to the big party that began The Fellowship of the Ring.
Which brings me to one of the aspects of An Unexpected Journey that I loved the most--how it foreshadows The Lord of the Rings. From the framing sequence at the beginning, to the subplot of a great evil returning to the land, Jackson and company did an excellent job of making this a prequel movie that stands on its own, but certainly sets the table for what is to come. And that’s no easy task, because at face value, the stakes in The Hobbit are much lower than in The Lord of the Rings. While all of Middle-Earth is at stake in The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit is about Bilbo Baggins trying to help a group of determined Dwarves take their home back from a dragon.
It would be easy for this film to feel small compared to The Lord of the Rings, and the fact that it doesn’t basically boils down to three things in my opinion:
As I mentioned earlier, Middle-Earth is an amazing, fantastical place. This time around, we get to see it in all its colorful, beautiful glory. The Shire, Rivendell--all of it brought to the screen a world so immersive, I just want to stay there and visit with the characters forever.
The combination of a sense of adventure, whimsy and humor make this visit to Middle-Earth fun. Sure, there are scary things, and sure, there is danger, but much of this movie is about a solitary Hobbit who goes on an exciting quest and sees the world for the first time.
I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Martin Freeman should be nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of Bilbo Baggins. Having seen him own this role, I can’t imagine anyone doing a better job with it. He carries the first half of the movie, when things are a bit slow, and we see how Bilbo is sucked into the big adventure by Gandalf and the Dwarves.
And the Dwarves? Everything I’d hoped for. Of all the fantasy races, Dwarves have always been my favorite, and these Dwarves are a combination of what you saw with Gimli in The Lord of the Rings, and what we grew up seeing in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. As an ensemble, they run the spectrum of stalwart warriors to bumbling buffoons. But they all have heart, and as a group they’re great. My personal favorite was James Nesbitt’s Bofur. In this movie he is the one who connects the most with Bilbo, and their relationship is a joy to watch.
Of course, Ian McKellan is wonderful as Gandalf, and Hugo Weaving and Cate Blanchett make great returns as well. And Andy Serkis? Add him to the Oscar nomination list.
I don’t want to get into spoiler territory, so I will leave specific plot details out. Needless to say, I was very happy with the story, and I’m glad it will be a trilogy. That just means more time for us as viewers to spend in this wonderful world.
As a parent, I am still contemplating whether or not to take the kids to see this one. There are some scary parts, and more than a little violence, but nowhere near the level of a movie like The Avengers. And so much of the rest of the movie has an all-ages appeal to it, I’m inclined to say that if your kids have seen any superhero movies lately, they will probably be fine seeing this.
In any case, I can’t recommend The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey enough. I will be seeing many more times.
5 out of 5 It’s Great to Be Backs