A Very Belated Action Movie Review: The Hobbit, An Unexpected Journey

It is time for a Very Belated Action Movie Review, where I treat an action movie like an action movie and not like a drama and stuff. All movie reviews are subjective and while I may like something, you might think it’s shit, and vice versa!

Title: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Release: 2012
Genre: action, adventure, thriller, fantasy
Starring: Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Ken Stott, Graham McTavish, William Kircher, James Nesbitt, Stephen Hunter, Dean O’Gorman, Aidan Turner, John Callen, Peter Hambleton, Jed Brophy, Mark Hadlow, Adam Brown, Ian Holm, Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett, Christopher Lee, Adam Serkis, Sylvester McCoy, Manu Bennett
Director: Peter Jackson
Writer: Fran Walsh, Phillippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, Guillermo Del Toro and JRR Tolkien (Book)
Distributor: Warner Bros.
Budget: Aprox: $250 Million
Box Office: $1.02 Billion

Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 64%

Gingersnaps Rating: Five Cookies!

Summary: Bilbo Baggins is very comfortable living in his Hobbit hole. The Wizard Gandalf has other ideas and with an unexpected party of 13 dwarves comes to tea at Bilbo’s house. Turning the hobbit hole and Bilbo’s life upside down as they want him to be the 14th member of their quest. The quest, to travel to the Lonely Mountain far over the Misty Mountains and reclaim the gold and the Heart of the Mountain the Arkenstone from the dreaded dragon Smaug! The company has their doubts about Bilbo and Bilbo has more doubts about himself. Chased by Azog the Defiler and beset by trolls and Goblins, Bilbo has to look within himself to find the courage to continue on this unexpected journey.

Review:

All right, I’m going to admit in advance that I am extremely biased about anything Tolkien, just as I’m biased about anything Chronicles of Narnia. I love both series very much and they hold a fond place in my heart since I was a child. The Hobbit was one of the books my beloved third grade teacher, Mr. Filmore, read to us out loud during lunch times. And I owned an audio version of it done by the BBC on cassette tape which I listened to quite a bit. There are places in the opening of the Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey that make me cry out of sheer happiness and nostalgia. So, because I love the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings, unless Peter Jackson had completely and utterly destroyed the story, these movies are going to get a favorable review from me. So, if you don’t like Peter Jackson, Tolkien or high fantasy stories, there is probably no real reason to be reading this review.

To be fair, as written neither the Hobbit nor the Lord of the Rings would truly qualify for “action” movie status. For certain they were adventures, and full of wonderful creatures and vivid concise descriptions. But Tolkien was not and is not an “action” writer. That simply was not his style of prose. It is the difference of mediums, visual versus written, that took these films from high fantasy adventure to action high fantasy adventure.

After watching this movie, I decided to reread the book. Watching the movie had put me in the mood to read the book again and I just didn’t feel like reading anything else on my bookshelves. And in reading the book again, I was reminded most painfully that there wasn’t a lot to go on to make the movie. Tolkien was never a writer of dialogue either. What little dialogue there is in the book is almost painfully used in its exactness in the movie. There are bits of dialogue in the movie that were actually thoughts of Bilbo’s in the book. The other thing that was missing from the book was characterization and thus, therefore, etc, conflict.

The Hobbit as a book was a happy little adventure that bumbled along from one mishap to the other without the characters ever really being developed or at odds with each other. Sure, they were at odds with the orcs and the goblins, and that was sort of a passive “hiss, we kill each other now” good versus evil sort of at odds. Gandalf liked to grumble about the stubbornness of dwarves and in the beginning Thorin and company grumbled about how Bilbo wasn’t much of a burglar or of any use. But it wasn’t precisely personal and Bible never seemed to take any offense at it. (Perhaps he was just too polite and merry.) While this makes for fine reading, it doesn’t exactly translate very well into a movie. At least, not one that fits well into the current zeitgeist of what audiences want. They want characters and conflict.

So, in order to make the movie, yes, the developers including Jackson almost had to dip into the few scraps and bits and bobs of what Tolkien put into the Hobbit and delve into the appendixes to expound on who Azog the Defiler was and what was Gandalf and the White Council doing with the Necromancer of Dol Guldor while Bilbo and Company were off antagonizing a dragon. Most of this hadn’t been written when Tolkien published the Hobbit! In fact, most of it were notes and he wanted to write about the deep past of Middle Earth but kept being pushed back to the fact he needed to write Lord of the Rings first in order to get audiences to care about the past. (Funny thing that, editors and agents really haven’t changed that much.) So, there were these tantalizing bits and bobs to play with. Now, whether or not you think Jackson did a good job in expounding on the bits and bobs and showing them in the Hobbit is a matter of opinion.

But we’re talking here about the first move and thus, the first half of the book from the Unexpected Party to Out of the Frying Pan, Into the Fire. In the book, nothing of any major sort of conflict of the character sort had happened by that time. Yes, there was the party and the trolls and Rivendell and being caught by Goblins and this was all lovely action plot related stuff but none of it was really personal. And in the books, the dwarves don’t start to respect Bilbo until he rescues them from spiders in Mirkwood. But you see, there wasn’t anything personal in there because Tolkien just didn’t really care about that. Modern audiences, we care. It is the action/adventure film genre, the audiences want to connect to the characters and care about them on a personal and somewhat relatable level. Then the audience can get behind the goal and cheer the characters on to victory!

So the developers did something ingenious. They made the entire first movie about Bilbo going from a reluctant adventurer and not accepted by Thorin as useful, to someone who accepts the mission, has a reason to be on the mission other than “adventure” and being accepted by Thorin by Bilbo’s own deeds. Just, wow. Because there was only one place hinted at this in the book and that was in Out of the Frying Pan, Into the Fire while the dwarves and Gandalf argue about whether or not they should go back into the mountains to look for Bilbo. Bilbo overhears but is too amused about having the ring and surprising them to be offended about it. One conversation and it turns into an entire character arc that is compelling.

And then on top of this they flesh out some of the dwarves enough to actually make you care about them. Of course, the ones they flesh out the most are Thorin, Balin, Kili, Fili and for some reason, Bofur. (I swear, Dori got mentioned more in the books than Bofur, but okay then.) And if you’ve read the books and you’ve read/seen the Lord of the Rings, you will know perhaps why they flesh out all of those (minus Bofur, Bofur is such a weird choice, you’d think Gloin, but no, BOFUR.) But mostly, they flesh out Thorin and the backstory of the line of Durin or at least the immediate history. Then, instead of having a merry little adventure, they added danger by showing Azog the Defiler and showing how much Dwarves and Elves do not get along. The company is being hunted? Will they make it to the Lonely Mountain? And now there is a time line? Will they make it in TIME? (Though I will point out in the books they didn’t know if Durin’s Day was going to happen that year or precisely when. They got there and lo and behold they got LUCKY and it happened. But yeah.)

Honestly, mad props to the development crew and Peter Jackson and the writers for this particular movie. They took something that was very action oriented, very description heavy and light on dialogue, lots of telling and little showing and made it just the opposite! A cookie. A Golden Cookie really. My hat is off. Golden Cookie!

Where there are dragons there are explosions and there were plenty of fires and whether or not any of them were unnecessary is open to debate. But they were there and entertaining and given this is medieval fantasy, I’m going to say one cookie. (Since outside of dragons, most explosions are going to involve barrels of flour.)

There were also plenty of madcap fighting sequences. The most entertaining and I’d wish they’d focused on it a little better was the fight scene out of the Goblin Caves where almost every dwarf (if not every dwarf) got to show off their battle skills. That’s hard to do with 15 characters! Another cookie!

Now here we have a pretty pickle. Here is the part of the review I usually talk about female characters. In the Unexpected Journey there is literally one female character and she never even showed up in the book! The book is a male oriented adventure from beginning to end. Here, in the movie, Galadriel shows up at Rivendell to take part of a council for maybe ten minutes. There is very little I can say. Gandalf gives Galadriel great respect. She’s obviously intelligent. (More so than Saruman but we’re not supposed to know why at this point why Saruman is being so obtuse.) She offers Gandalf her assistance if needed and we don’t know what that assistance will curtail. It’s also ambiguous if she’s there in person or if she is just some sort of astral projection, indicating she’s a powerful magician. She’s a side note to set up a side plot in a movie that is very much about a man’s adventure. For what it is worth, she’s not sexualized. She’s not a love interest. She’s not a damsel in distress. So, for a ten minute portrayal, I guess, it’s not that bad. *shrugs* So, I’ll give it a cookie given that this is one of those “well, what else am I to do?” sort of things. I can’t say anything bad other than this isn’t really her story. I can’t take a whole cookie because of that. She’s there. She’s treated well. She doesn’t fall into an action movie trope. Woohoo!

This review has gotten rather long. Odd, I usually don’t have so much to say if I like something. Oh well, these movies are controversial, maybe that’s it. Since this was the fourth movie in a very large production of high budget Tolkien movies, the universe was pretty well built. We didn’t start seeing any “new” places outside of the glimpses of Erebor until the second movie. So, it didn’t feel out of keeping with say the Fellowship of the Ring. Because it was the exact same ground covered in The Fellowship of the Ring. (GO FIGURE.) What I really want to give a shout out to is the way they styled the dwarves. Making 13 different looking dwarves of different ages and beard styles and really thinking about their characters when all Tolkien had to give us were hood colors and beard size and color. As a fashion designer and a writer who delves into character creation, this was really amazing. Now, I still can’t tell them all apart, but give me a few more watches. Then I’ll be that person who can not only name all 13 dwarves of the Hobbit, but can pick them apart in the movie. One cookie.

The Hobbit: The Unexpected Journey is a thrilling adventure full of heartwarming moments and funny bits with a character arc for Bilbo that can resonate with the audience. Five gingersnaps!

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