Middle-Earth Eye Candy: 'The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey'

This film explores the bonds of friendship and the commonality among all races, and provides raging battles and daring escapes, as well as quiet fireside moments that reveal a character’s thoughts.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Director: Peter Jackson
Cast: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Ken Stott, James Nesbitt
Length: 169 minutes
Studio: Warner Bros
Year: 2012
Distributor: New Line
UK Release Date: 2013-04-08
US Release Date: 2013-03-19

“I’m going on an adventure!” an exultant Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) proclaims as he leaps over a fence and runs headlong into the story. The journey may have been unexpected for this hobbit, but for critics and fans worldwide, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was a long-awaited, much-anticipated, and hotly debated Peter Jackson film. When The Hobbit was released late last year, fans and critics often focused their attention on whether this movie is comparable with Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, if J.R.R. Tolkien’s rather short novel warrants a new cinematic trilogy, and how a film shot at 48 frames per second affects the story’s and visuals’ quality. Bilbo had acquired a lot of baggage before he left the Shire.

The film initially received criticism that it strayed too far from Tolkien’s plot and characterization or that the first installment in the trilogy pulled the original story too thin, no matter that scenes detailing the White Council or portending the Necromancer padded the plot. Yet moviegoers worldwide enjoyed the film, enough to make The Hobbit the 15th highest grossing film of all time, with more than one billion dollars in global box office ($301.1 million in the US; $700 million from the rest of the world, by early March). The film boasts excellent performances from Freeman and Ian McKellen (returning as everyone’s favorite wizard, Gandalf). Its achievements in production design, visual effects, and make-up and hair styling were recognized with Academy Award nominations.

The DVD/Blu-ray release of The Hobbit offers an excellent opportunity to consider the film for itself -- not as a holiday blockbuster, long-expected prequel, or adaptation of Tolkien’s novel. Of course, seeing this movie on a big cinema screen (whether in 3D or 2D) is ideal, but even hobbit-sized screens can suitably take viewers back to the Shire -- and that is a trip worth taking.

The Shire is so lush and inviting that Jackson hates to leave it. With the final film in The Hobbit trilogy, Jackson’s vision of Middle-earth, for better or worse, will be complete. The Hobbiton living set (lovingly created and now permanently maintained on a farm outside Matamata) is more than a beauteous advertisement to visit New Zealand; it represents the comforts of home for Bilbo, that “everyman” hobbit providing entry into the story, and becomes a touchstone for the virtues of friendship and family. Although Bilbo hates to leave his comfy chair, books, and garden, he does so in the effort to ensure that others -- an unruly company of dwarves thrust into his life -- will someday be assured their own returned homeland.

Freeman is a master of the comedic expression -- including eyebrow raising, mouth quirking, and eye widening. He plays physical comedy well. Upon hearing about his prospective journey’s many dangers, an overwhelmed Bilbo thinks he has successfully overcome the urge to faint. A moment later he calmly admits he was wrong and promptly falls down. Freeman makes this action funny by underplaying the reaction.

With Freeman as Bilbo, the hobbit can survive the trolls’ gross-out humor with a bit of dignity, seem vulnerable during his first encounter with Gollum, and foolishly daring in protecting his new friends. Bilbo is at first unimpressed with Gandalf and rather prissy about his home, but he warms to the adventure, even while ever-so-humanly wondering if he should be on one. Freeman makes viewers want to know more about Bilbo and to travel with him; he keeps Bilbo’s reactions and actions believable, even within the broad parameters of fantasy that often require suspension of disbelief.

The film may be entitled The Hobbit, but its catalysts are 13 dwarves. Leader Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) is a king without the familial kingdom, although he still knows how to make grand entrances, and the camera loves his brooding glower and flowing locks. He instigates this adventure by proposing to retake Erebor and the dwarves’ riches gleaned from years in the mines. To do so requires a long journey through “enemy” territory -- lands inhabited not only with trolls, Orcs, and wargs but the elves of Mirkwood who refused to aid the dwarves when they were attacked. Cunning dragon Smaug is an obstacle yet to be faced, and audiences get a glimpse of this fiery foe as an intriguing set-up for the second film.

Not only Thorin is Middle-earth eye candy. Fans dubbed Kili (Aidan Turner) and Fili (Dean O’Gorman) the “hot dwarves” for their youthful good looks. These dwarves seek adventure, although they do not yet know what perils their journey may include. They may not be the brightest warriors (being a bit slow, for example, to catch on to Bilbo’s attempt to save them from trolls), but they are loyal and fearless in battle. Not all dwarf personalities are as distinctive, but those award-nominated make-up artists and prosthetics designers developed a unique look for each dwarf.

The wizards cannot be forgotten. Ian McKellen is Gandalf to a generation of moviegoers and in this film is a welcome, familiar presence. Returning, too, is Christopher Lee as Saruman the White, well featured in the White Council scenes at Rivendell. New to the film is Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy), whose enthusiasm as the eccentric, sometimes frantic wizard can be a bit over the top.

Some scenes are excessive (e.g., movie-battle violence) or unbelievable, even for fantasy (e.g., an escape on a crumbling, free-falling bridge that allows the dwarves to emerge with no visible injuries). Not everyone appreciates a good Rhosgobel rabbit race. But for every indulgence, there is a scene well worth watching more than once. The Riddles in the Dark segment is particularly enjoyable because of Bilbo’s and Gollum’s mental sparring, and the excellent Andy Serkis convincingly portrays Gollum as both heartrendingly lonely and horrifyingly vicious.

This Hobbit presents a grandiose adventure, complete with bloodthirsty villains, a shadowy evil presence, and the promise of a smart, smug dragon. It's a coming-of-age story, even if the hobbit in question is technically well into middle age in hobbit years. The film takes us from the depths of mines and a goblin kingdom to the heights of the eagles’ aerie. It explores the bonds of friendship and the commonality among all races. It provides raging battles and daring escapes, as well as quiet fireside moments that reveal a character’s thoughts.

The Combo Blu-ray + DVD + Ultraviolet pack offers more than 110 minutes of extras and includes the ultraviolet code to make the movie accessible on multiple platforms. The theatrical and game trailers are interesting teases, but the video blogs are the stars of the special features. Fans who followed the movie’s progress on Jackson’s Facebook page (or traveled via Air New Zealand late last year) probably have seen Jackson’s video blogs that span the start of production through the Wellington premiere. The ten diaries not only highlight aspects of filmmaking, but they illustrate the dedication of crew and cast working on a long project that is in many ways a labor of love. Everyone seems happy to be working on The Hobbit, and their enthusiasm is contagious.

One final treat is designed for those who buy the film within a few days of its release. Just like Bilbo, Thorin, and company turned their gaze toward the Lonely Mountain, fans are prompted to do the same on 24 March. According to the Facebook page Sneak Peak at the Desolation of Smaug or The Hobbit website, "Peter Jackson will host a live first look at The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, the second film in The Hobbit Trilogy, on Sunday, March 24th at 3:00PM Eastern/Noon Pacific. Content will be streamed live, and an edited version will be archived on the Trilogy’s official website. Access to the live event will be limited to holders of an ultraviolet code available by purchasing The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey Blu-ray Combo Pack, Blu-ray 3D Combo Pack, or 2-Disc Special Edition DVD. Select digital retailers will issue access codes upon purchase of the film."

Taken on its own, The Hobbit is not a perfect movie, but it's a good one, entertaining and beautifully filmed. When approached with a spirit of adventure, this Unexpected Journey holds some surprises for at-home audiences, whether they are visiting Middle-earth for the first time ,or the eleventy-first.

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