At long last, some 10 years after The Lord of the Rings, comes Peter Jackson’s return to the realm of Middle-Earth, The Hobbit. But not just one movie. Rather, An Unexpected Journey is in fact the first of three installments based (albeit loosely) upon Prof. Tolkien’s 1937 children’s adventure. What Jackson obviously plans to do is stitch the later materials from LOTR together with The Hobbit, to not only create a continuous storyline to the former film trilogy, but in short do what the Prof. himself was unable to do — include background material and larger plots both beyond and within the tale of everyone’s favourite hobbit burglar. In short, he pulls a “Lucas” with Tolkien’s work.
Do I sound bitter? Well maybe a bit, but that’s honestly not my intent (at least not yet, anyway). For the most part, I was in favor of the changes PJ made in LOTR (a fallable Gandalf, a humorous Gimli, an anti-establishment Aragorn — not to mention Arwen’s replacing Glorfindel and having spell casting powers at the ford, the Elves at Helm’s Deep, a shield-surfing Legolas, etc. I was not particularly happy with a missing Tom Bombadil or Prince Imrahil, but understood why they weren’t included), but am more than a bit nervous about his plans at this stage. For now, it’s best to narrow the focus. Unusually, I may have some spoilers below for those who haven’t read the books (but shame on you: even my sister demanded my 11-year-old nephew read the book before seeing the movie; due to the film’s unusual nature, it led to a number of questions afterward), but in this case I feel they’re relevant to what the film represents. So if you are ignorant of the books, you may want to stop reading after the next paragraph and skip to my score at the very bottom.
An Unexpected Journey is itself the product of a journey made through an eventful pre-production. A long, long time ago, etc., the film was going to be a two-feature series directed by the amazing Guillermo del Toro, who ended up leaving production because of financial issues with the various studios involved (Warner Bros., New Line Cinema and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer), and the amount of time those negotiations took. As a result, Peter Jackson — who had been serving as on-board producer and co-screenwriter — once again took the director’s helm. This honestly was a disappointment to me, since I sincerely wanted to see del Toro’s take on Tolkien’s world, and did not wish for the film to be a strict prequel of LOTR: in other words, more of the same. Luckily, it is not. More on that later.
AUJ (as I’ll call it from hereon out) builds up story threads for the purpose of extending the given story into three films, the first being the introduction of the Necromancer and his lair of Dol Guldur. Other than my confusion as to how Dol Guldur is discovered (by Radagast the Brown; which calls into question how the films will handle Gandalf obtaining the map of Erebor) I will say no more at this point, seeing as how what may transpire as some sort of flashback later on will alleviate my misgivings. Included is a meeting of the White Council (Elrond, Gandalf, Galadriel and Saruman) to confer on the Necromancer’s existence, and in some ways foreshadow what will transpire in later films. Another noteworthy addition is that of Azog the Defiler, who in the books was dispatched in the Battle of Azanulbizar. Azog’s revenge against the dwarves is a major chunk of the film’s storyline, and is a solid dramatic impetus for their onward drive toward Erebor. I do love the way Jackson handled this, even if it deferred from the books dramatically. Azog made a good low-level threat for Thorin and company for the breadth of the film. What is obvious (and kind of annoying) is the transformation of Thorin Oakenshield himself from the greedy ignorant lout in the book, to — essentially — “Aragorn Lite”. I’m betting more than likely this was Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens’ doing, turning Thorin into a tragic, brooding king in exile.
Other than the above-mentioned alterations, I was quite pleased with AUJ. Del Toro’s influence remains in the designs for the goblins (and their king), the stone trolls and wargs (which are considerably more warg-like, in my opinion). Performances are great all around, with Ian McKellen, Cate Blanchett and Christopher Lee all returning to their former roles, and Ian Holm and Elijah Wood making a brief appearance as the elder Bilbo and Frodo at the beginning. Once again, the amazing Andy Serkis brings Gollum to life, with help from the equally amazing WETA Digital. And Martin Freeman absolutely owns the part of the younger Bilbo. His constant state of incredulousness and displacement are both hilarious and utterly believable. Orc-blades are flying, wargs howling and trolls swinging their mighty fists, but poor Bilbo is still wishing he had a proper handkerchief. The film overall is tonally different from LOTR, being more a more colorful and fairytale-like presentation. The overly fanciful costumes and appliances of the dwarves — something I disliked early on from photos and clips released online — are thankfully played down in the film. The visuals (particularly Erebor and the lair of the Goblin-King) are wonderfully realized, and the action sequences, while deliberately paced, are amazing.
In short, AUJ is everything brought to the table in LOTR (maybe a bit unavoidably like The Fellowship of the Ring) is present here, but with a more fanciful approach. Whether that approach will touch the other two films is unknown, but I remain hopeful. And as to Jackson’s strange amalgam of a film series, it has one thing in its favor thus far — a wonderful start.