More like an unexpected delight! I was wondering how – and why – the prequel to THE LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy was going to be reasonably divided into two, and then later into three, movies. The book itself is only about 1/3rd as long as any one of the component volumes of the later work, and they were exhaustively treated by Peter Jackson in his film versions. So, yeah … I went in dreading that padding had been added for padding’s sake, to ensure the next three Decembers were good paydays for the producers, not just this one.
I am happy to say my fears were unfounded. Just as in the LOTR films, certain concessions have been made in order to boost the hell out of the box office takings, but the story itself neither suffers or drags because of it. If you want to avoid SPOILERS (but lets face it, we all know – Bilbo finds the Precious) stop reading here and go spend your money on a ticket. Otherwise, press on….

The film opens, appropriately but confusingly, about half an hour before the first “hobbit” scene in THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING, just before Gandalf’s arrival for Bilbo’s big party. This establishes the framing device of Bilbo writing his memoirs for Frodo to complete at the end of the final LOTR film, THE RETURN OF THE KING. We then follow old Bilbo’s memory back sixty years, to a time when he was a respectable hobbit of middle years with no interest in doing anything more exciting than wishing strangers a hearty “Good morning!” as they pass his door. Unfortunately for Bilbo’s equanimity, but fortunately for everybody else (including the Dwarves, the rest of Middle-Earth, the genre of heroic fantasy & the heirs of J.R.R. Tolkien) one such stranger is the wandering wizard Gandalf the Grey. He orchestrates a meeting between Bilbo & a party of Dwarvish adventurers who are hoping to kill the dragon Smaug and retake their ancestral homeland, and Bilbo is swept up into their party quite in spite of his own misgivings, in the role of ‘professional burglar’ no less.
These opening scenes establish a tone for the movie – the Dwarves are somewhat comical but can be threatening; Bilbo is quite the opposite of any sort of adventurer, almost effete in his mild hedonism; Gandalf is mysterious and manipulative – but overarching everything is a sense of fun, of being swept of one’s feet into something quite possibly regrettable but most probably wonderful. Of course, that’s entirely the tone in which Tolkien wrote his little novella nearly 80 years ago and for Jackson and scriptwriters Fran Walsh, Guillermo del Toro & Phillipa Jackson to capture that spirit so perfectly is a remarkable achievement, given the opportunity to let so many other things (the special effects, or the melodrama, or the action, or the continuity with the LOTR films) dominate proceedings.
The vast majority of the film is one long chase scene. If you thought Frodo and co had a time of it in the wilderness in FELLOWSHIP, then you’ll be aghast at what Bilbo & his mates are subjected to – nearly cooked & eaten by trolls, chased by warg-riding orcs (and incidentally, these wargs look infinitillion times better than the hyena-hybrids in the LOTR), caught in the middle of a fight between mountain giants, captured by goblins & rescued from a burning forest by giant eagles. A few of the chase scenes look as though they are specifically written as playable missions in the inevitable video game, but that’s all part of the modern adventure movie business, I guess. Bilbo gets separated from the Dwarves for a spell, during which he encounters Gollum and takes possession of the One Ring. The movie ends with Our Heroes taking a well-deserved breather and catching sight (in the far distance) of their destination – The Lonely Mountain, Erebor.
As mentioned above, the writers have taken a few minor liberties with the source material – I don’t recall Bilbo crash-tackling any Orcs in the book, let alone Azog (who is dead in the book by the time the story takes place, but takes the place of the Orc leader Bolg in the film, with a much enlarged role); the film features in great detail some things touched on towards the end of the book by Gandalf which later tie into backstory for THE LORD OF THE RINGS, such as the presence of the Necromancer in Dol Goldur & the ‘White Council’ of himself, Elrond, Galadriel & Saruman; and plenty of material on Dwarven history is lifted from the very voluminous Appendices to LOTR. Also appearing in a far greater role than expected is Radagast the Brown Wizard, who is only very briefly mentioned in the FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING and not at all in THE HOBBIT book. (Sylvester McCoy’s portrayal reminded me of nothing less than Catweazle playing Lewis Carroll’s White Rabbit). However, I found all inclusions to be quite valid and much more true to the source than the (still tiresome after all these years) expansion of Arwen’s role in the LOTR films.
The cast are uniformly terrific, with standouts by Martin Freeman (maybe his Arthur Dent in THE HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY turned out to be more or less a rehearsal for his Bilbo Baggins here) & of course Sir Ian McKellen, who grunts and gapes his way though this movie as effortlessly as he did the earlier three times he played the part of Gandalf. Barry Humphries does a fine ham turn as The Great Goblin, complete with a goiter that George Lucas would be proud to own. Andy Serkis’ Gollum is a tad more predatory than I recall from the other films, which could be due to script, actor or a combination of both. Richard Armitage is heroically fatalistic in the best traditions of Northern European folklore in the role of Thorin, leader of the Dwarves – but if I have one gripe it’s that while the rest of the Dwarves are elaborately made up, with outrageous beards and prosthetic noses and blocky physiques, Thorin simply looks like a short guy with a grim face. Perhaps Jackson wanted to avoid any chance of the noble Thorin being perceived as comic relief, I don’t know, but it irked me a little.
The sum total of the parts is a wonderful movie, with the production values and attention to detail that made THE LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy such a joy to watch.  If you kept reading after the spoiler warning (and clearly, you did), well now its time for you do what I said back there – go spend your money and enjoy THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY.

Cheers,
Darryn

Part two of the trilogy (THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG) is due for release Christmas 2013, with the concluding chapter (THE HOBBIT: THERE AND BACK AGAIN) due for release Christmas 2014.

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