Written by Lee Clifford

A few years back we were treated to Peter Jackson’s cinematic vision of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings book series. Immediately the series became a theatrical success and one of the most celebrated franchises of modern cinema, finding itself held in the same regard as immortalized franchises like Star Wars and Indiana Jones.

Those are big shoes to fill.

So what happens when the team takes another shot at it and makes a film adaptation of the less celebrated, but equally brilliant, prequel story?

Story
In case you glazed over during the recap in The Lord of the Rings, I’ll give you a quick low-down. The dwarves have been cast from their mountain kingdom by Smaug, a fire-drake (also pronounced “dragon”) who was drawn to the accumulated riches of the kingdom. As is commonplace in Tolkien lore, a small collective wants to do something about it, in this case 13 dwarves, a hobbit named Bilbo Baggins and the wizard Gandalf to keep them all in line.

As the adventure unravels, the 15 adventurers stumble upon trouble time and time again as they continue to make their way to the Lonely Mountain, and the eventual confrontation with Smaug. From escapes from packs of orcs to huge battles with hordes of goblins to nearly becoming breakfast for a trio of trolls, this movie’s version of The Fellowship can’t stay out of trouble for more than a few minutes as the excitement is frequent.

Characters
A lot of mainstay characters from The Lord of the Rings make return appearances in this film, whether it be fully reprising their roles or making brief cameos, the full team seems to be back on board to make this movie a seamless transition into the trilogy that it’s meant to be setting up. Sir Ian McKellen still flawlessly owns the role of Gandalf, being the strong foundation to this film as he was to the previous trilogy; it is interesting seeing him reverted back to Gandalf the Grey, a man firm in his beliefs but not entirely confident in himself yet and not as strong as the man he will become in the LOTR movies. Hugo Weaving, Christopher Lee, Elijah Woods and many others make brief reappearances in their previous roles, which again just makes the film feel more at home with it’s original trilogy that started a decade ago.
Ian Holm’s Bilbo Baggins has been replaced with a younger, more spry performance by Martin Freeman, and though some may want to disapprove of the change of actors, Freeman pulls off looking like a young Holm’s incredibly well and feels like a perfect fit for the role, delivering just the right amount of wit, frustration and doubt that were key factors to the personality of Bilbo Baggins at the beginning of his journey, while properly pacing the bravery that comes as the adventure continues.

Thorin, the dwarf king looking to take back The Lonely Mountain, is played by Richard Armitage. This guy is supposed to be this trilogy’s Aragorn, but he lacks Viggo’s presence, and though he turns out a strong performance, he is far to overshadowed by Freeman and McKellen’s performances.

On the whole the cast pulls out a great performance, a few minor characters are a bit over the top, but that felt more like it was adding to the fun rather than taking away from the story.

The only potential stumbling block I found that may hinder the movie is the use of all the dwarves. The film keeps the 13 dwarves from the book, which is great, but with such a high volume of dwarves it feels like their personalities aren’t as well fleshed out as they could be (and it’s understandable why) They just feel awfully predictable and one dimensional, at first glance you can tell which ones are meant to be the comic relief characters, which ones are the badass warriors, and which ones give exposition dumps. Essentially the personality of Gimli was chopped up into three or four pieces and distributed throughout the 13; again it’s understandable as they can’t give all characters full three dimensional personalities, but it feels awkward watching characters who are 100% badasses interacting with characters who are 100% goofballs and believing that they could fully appreciate one another’s company.

Visuals
First thing’s first: the websites screaming bloody murder because The Hobbit was shot in 48 frames per second will be happy to know that the film still runs very smoothly and if it hadn’t been for the endless bellyaching about how awful it would no doubt look (I’m looking at you, IGN) no one who doesn’t work in film would likely even know.

That aside, costumes and set pieces are right up there with the same caliber as the LOTR trilogy. Some backgrounds do look a little too heavily computer generated, but that’s usually more in the long, wide shots from a great distance that clearly were filled in with CGI.

Like in the previous films also, there is a host of computer-generated creatures in this film. Trolls, goblins, giant bunnies and spiders are CGed very heavily, and admittedly don’t look as seamless as they did in the previous trilogy. The wargs look jut as good as they did in the previous movies, but the giant bunnies in one scene and the community of goblins later in the film do look a little more like they belong in a Star Wars film than in a Tolkien film, which is a result of us being spoiled by the amount of costumes and makeup used in the original trilogy.

Audio
The film really shines here for me. Foley art is absolutely perfect as every sound, from a sword crashing against a shield to dishes being tossed into stacks, everything sounds like it should. The sound effects crew pulled out a stellar performance making everything sound incredibly authentic and not over exaggerated.

The music, oh man the music, beautiful. While the score boasts its own melodies and anthems, it borrows tastefully from the previous films, again making it blend very well with the previous trilogy. The curious and exciting new theme of Bilbo playing as he runs from his front door to go on his adventure, mashed up with the previous movies’ theme of The Shire while he leaps and bounds through the grassy hills genuinely gave me goosebumps as you really felt like you were back in the place where the whole story began in the LOTR trilogy… which I guess would be more continues, as this is a prequel… so it began here, but the sequel trilogy came out first, so… sometimes I hate chronology.

The blend of appropriate tunes from the previous films, mixed with new anthems like the song of the dwarves from this film, fully bridges the gap of the previous trilogy to this one sonically and I love it.

What I Liked
Honestly, just about everything. The throwback to the things we knew from the previous films and the perfect implementation of ne places and characters made this movie such a treat to partake in.

What I Would Change
Making the dwarves less of stereotypes. There’s a fat one who breaks everything he sits on, because he’s fat, there’s an old one who can hardly see or hear, because he’s old, there’s a dwarf who’s an unprecedented badass because he has tattoos on his head. The dwarves just feel too one-dimensional.

Plus the dwarves’ treasure vault looks a lot like Scrooge McDuck’s money bin, so every time I saw the mountains of gold all I could think was “Ducktales, a-woo-hoo!” while envisioning uncle Scrooge diving into his gold.

Final Thoughts
I think of this film as a younger sibling to a prodigy. What came before it was incredible and could do no wrong. This film, while still being amazing, doesn’t capture that lightning in a bottle that the previous trilogy had and despite it being incredibly it is difficult to hold it in the same regard as the ones that came before it. The Hobbit is still a must-see film for any and all who love great story-telling and adventure, but it just comes up a hair short to what Lord of the Rings gave us.

The Hobbit An Unexpected Journey Review