Peter Jackson's "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Jouney" is a fantastic movie.
Like any book made into a movie, die-hard J.R.R. Tolkien fans will point out every minor change Jackson and the writers made for the big screen version. But as a pretty big Tolkien nerd myself, I found the movie to live up to and beyond expectations.
Just to give you a little background into my Tolkien nerdiness, I have been a fan of the man's work since I was about 4. My first introduction to Middle Earth was through my dad, when he taped the Rankin/Boss produced TV movie version for my brother and I. From there, I saw the Rankin/Boss "Return of the King" movie, read "The Hobbit", "Lord of the Rings" and "Simarillion", and seen Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" films.
So I am going on over 20 years of fandom and feel I know the world of Middle Earth pretty well. But my knowledge is limited. I can't name the 13 dwarves of "The Hobbit" or the Valar by heart. I can't recite the house of Feanor without the help of a family tree. So I'm sure there are those fans out there who don't think I'm qualified to discuss Tolkien's works and adaptations. Fortunately, they don't read this blog and I don't care what they think or say!
For those who don't know "The Hobbit" is the story before the events that take place in "Lord of the Rings". It is where we are introduced to Bilbo Baggins, Gandalf, Elrond, Saruman, Gollum and the Ring of Power. The book was originally released as a children's book, so it's content is much lighter than "Lord of the Rings".
OK, enough with the disclaimers and intro. Review time!
The story follows the hobbit (a peaceful, lazy little person with hairy feet), Bilbo Baggins, as he ventures with a band of 13 dwarves, led by Thorin Oakenshield, trying to regain their homeland from the dragon Smaug. Gandalf the wizard also helps with the journey. Thorin is the heir to the kingdom Smaug took for his personal lair.
Jackson does a great job of mixing story telling with action. It's not a dumb action/fantasy movie that leaves you wondering what the hell everything was all about. We get good exposition setting up the story and the action scenes are well spaced out so audiences will have trouble getting bored. In the book, the first couple chapters are pretty tough to get through. Tolkien loved detail, so we spent a whole chapter learning which cakes which dwarves liked. It served nothing to further the story and Jackson was able to make this scene enjoyable. We also get a few songs that reminded me of the old cartoon and that were missing in the LOTR trilogy. If you haven't seen the cartoon movie, you might think these are silly, but I loved it for nostalia.
Of the Tolkien works that Jackson has brought to life in film, it is with "The Hobbit" where he remains the most true to the book. Of course there are plenty of scenes that slightly or greatly differ from the book, but I found them to be refreshing and clever ways to incorporate other characters from Tolkien's mind.
The greatest example of this is the main antagonist of the movie, an albino orc named Azog. Azog never appeared in the novel, but was mentioned in the appendices found in "The Return of the King". He was an orc leader in Moria who killed Thorin's grandfather. The murder caused what was known as the War of the Dwarves and Orcs that lasted for years and ended when the dwarves killed Azog and forced the orcs to retreat into Moria.
In the film, Azog is hunting down Thorin and his band because in Jackson's version, Thorin chopped off Azog's hand at the final battle of the Dwarf/Orc war and that crazy orc has held a grudge ever since. I see reviews that don't like this "exaggerated blood fued", but I think it enhances the film. We get a cool battle scene between the dwarves and orcs, as well as giving a sense of urgency to the dwarves quest.
Bilbo, played well by Martin Freeman, is almost an afterthought for quite some time. The dwarves, especially Thorin, dismiss his company and he doesn't do too much after joining the quest. He is more like comic relief than the focus of the story.
That all changes when he meets Gollum in the goblin cave. Here we see the perfect combination of acting and technology come together. Andy Serkis again plays the computer generated Gollum. But with the updated motion capture technology, we see ever wrinkle Serkis', and therefore, Gollum's face makes. The whole scene is just incredible and intense, but sprinkled with humor. Freeman shows that he was the perfect choice for the role and the scene as a whole is the film's finest moment.
And that is why I appreciate the work Jackson did so much. This moment is the moment that sets the LOTR trilogy in motion. Without it, there is no Fellowship of the Ring, there is no quest into Mordor and perhaps Sauron has more time to build up his armies, thinking the Ring is still lost. This had to be done right or else I think the movie would have been a disappointment. That's not to say the rest of the movie wasn't good, it just tells you the magnitude of this event is in the history of Middle Earth.
While I was originally skeptical of Jackson making "The Hobbit" into three movies (originally it was just going to be two), the pacing of this first film was near perfect. It didn't feel rushed at any point and there were only a few scenes that felt a little drawn out.
The drawbacks of the film starts with some of the characters, especially the majority of the dwarves. There are just too many. Viewers are not introduced to each one, just Dwalin, Balin, Fili, Kili and Thorin. Then you kind of have to guess who is who from the dialogue. Sometimes it's easy, sometimes it's not. Just having Gandalf recite their names will not help casual viewers. And with 13 dwarves, clearly you're not going to get much character development with all of them. Even Tolkien didn't give us too much about them.
While the addition of Azog is effective, there is a scene involving rock giants that Jackson took liberties with that didn't serve much of a purpose. It just seemed like an excuse to either include them in the movie because he thought they'd look cool (they didn't) or he wanted another action sequence.
There is also the rather slow start to the film. It is more for the fans of the first trilogy. We get to see Frodo and old Bilbo, with old Bilbo narrating the introduction. It would have been better to just start with a young Bilbo meeting Gandalf.
A lot has been made about the 48 frames-per-second filming of "The Hobbit". I think it looked great and didn't take long to adjust to the crazy clear picture. I could see others not liking it, but to me it was just like seeing HD for the first time. It looked unnaturally clear at first, then it just became the norm.
Go see "The Hobbit". It was awesome.
Frodo of the Nine Fingers