Old Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) is telling young Frodo (Elijah Wood) a story, carefully crafting his words, while we are either intruding on a private moment and hobbit hole in the Shire — or perhaps we are Frodo, listening to Uncle Bilbo’s book, “The Hobbit, or There and Back Again.” After all, it is an extraordinary story — complete with marvelous kingdoms and fantastic beasts (from dragons and orcs, to dwarves and elves, to goblins and trolls). But just as Bilbo Baggins is teasing you with how fire-breathing dragons destroyed a dwarf kingdom in the first minute of the movie, director Peter Jackson takes you away from the scene and places you into the idyllic greenery of the Shire — home of Mr. Bilbo Baggins himself.
“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” based off of J. R. R. Tolkien’s book, “The Hobbit, or There and Back Again,” is the first of Peter Jackson’s new trilogy and the prequel to his three “Lord of the Rings” films. The first of three chapters introduces Bilbo (Martin Freeman), a fretful hobbit concerned about handkerchiefs and his ancient china. When the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) shows up on his doorstep with about a dozen dwarves including Thorin (Richard Armitage) — son Thrain, the son of Thror, the king of the besieged dwarf kingdom under the Lonely Mountain — Gandalf recruits Bilbo on a journey to reclaim the land the dwarves lost.
Unlike “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” is much lighter, without any Grim Reapers or Ringwraiths casting long shadows like Dementors over the traveling party. At times, the dwarves’ folk songs make you wonder if you’ve fallen into a musical. After all, the dwarves gleefully goad Bilbo when singing, “Blunt the Knives.” Other times, you wonder if you’ve entered the ideal Dungeons and Dragons campaign, where a band of friends work together to accomplish a common goal. Along the way, there may be heroes — but it’s the performance of everyone in the production that carries that campaign and film.
Freeman is terrific as Bilbo, fussing over his material goods while the lively dwarves rearrange his furniture and pillage his pantry. It’s amusing to watch how frustrated Bilbo appears as he helplessly watches dwarves invade his home. From an anxious individual to a courageous companion, one of the highlights of the film is watching Bilbo grow as a character, reluctantly accepting the journey, and leaving the comfort of his books and maps. In one pivotal moment in the film, Bilbo is facing Gollum (Andy Serkis) with a life-or-death game of riddles. Quick in both feet and thought, Bilbo is seen confronting his fears, rather than deny the challenge.
The screenplay, written in collaboration by Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro, also develops Thorin’s character well beyond Tolkien’s words. Bearing a wooden branch as a shield, Thorin is frequently seen as David facing a pale and monstrous Goliath — a pale white orc almost three times his side. Armitage’s portrayal of Thorin is as a strong, prideful and courageous leader, whose honorable goals have won the respect of both dwarves and audience members alike. Even though Armitage is seen criticizing the tag-a-long hobbit in his company, Armitage’s nuanced portrayal of the dwarf prince allows us to understand him. Thorin and his band of merry dwarves will protect Bilbo with their lives despite how many times Thorin may quip about how burdensome the hobbit is.
The screenplay also makes Gandalf’s role as the deus ex machina very apparent in the film. Every time the company of miniature men is about to be killed or roasted alive, Gandalf’s mysterious and god-like appearance saves the day with his magic. Once again, McKellan adopts the role as adviser and protector — but at times, you find yourself shaking your head and smiling as the underdogs escape death again and again. Compared to an audience that may be used to more modern epic narratives like the “Game of Thrones” books or HBO series — known for author R. R. Martin’s fondness for killing favorite characters — the constant saving seems cheap.
However, Jackson’s story is very true to Tolkien’s book, albeit some embellishments. While Frodo never appears in “The Hobbit,” fans of the LOTR franchise will be thrilled to see Wood’s cameo in the first part of the film, which bridges “An Unexpected Journey” with “The Fellowship of the Ring,” the first of “The Lord of the Rings” saga. With Frodo nailing up party signs, we are witnessing the eve of Bilbo Baggins’ birthday party and seeing the story of his adventure.
The 3D brings the adventure to life so you feel as if you’re immersed in the journey. Gold and rocks fall on you and the traveling company. The beauty of New Zealand is dazzling in its crispness. Despite the expansion of these moments with technology, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” is just shy of three hours — and the tale is far from over. The first film of “The Hobbit” trilogy only tackled the first 100 pages of Tolkien’s 300-page book. While Jackson could have told the tale in the first minute recap of the film where he introduced the fire-breathing dragon who housed himself in a dwarf kingdom, Jackson expands the film to span three movies — each probably amassing about three hours in length.
While neither the 3D nor the length are strictly necessary to tell the story of “The Hobbit,” Jackson sums up his argument in Gandalf’s words: “All good stories need embellishment.”
And “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” is certainly a good story.
“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” is directed by Peter Jackson and written by Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro. The movie is based on J. R. R. Tolkien’s book, “The Hobbit, or There and Back Again.”