When Peter Jackson agreed to tackle J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” a collective sigh of relief went out across the world of “Lord of the Rings” fans. This time, Jackson decided to make a single, relatively short novel into three full-length movies. The first of these is “The Hobbit: The Unexpected Journey.”
Returning to The Shire after a number of years, the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) visits Bag End, the hobbit hole inhabited by Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman). Gandalf knew a number of Bilbo’s ancestors and remembers Bilbo as a particularly wild and adventurous young hobbit. Time has tempered Bilbo’s adventurous nature and he initially refuses to participate in whatever scheme Gandolf is working on. Undeterred, Gandolf inscribes a rune on the door of Bag End and leaves.
Later, a knock at the door introduces Bilbo to the first of thirteen dwarves arrive and help themselves to Bilbo’s fire and larder. Gandolf, too, returns and admits that it was he that invited the dwarves to Bag End so that they could plan their adventure. Led by Thorin (Richard Armitage), the dwarves intend to return to their home, Erebor under the lonely mountain. The plan includes hiring Bilbo as the party’s burglar.
Bilbo is concerned by the various possible means of his own demise listed on the party contract and refuses to go along. The next morning the dwarves have left and cleaned up the mess they made the previous evening. Taking a moment to reconsider, Bilbo hastily gathers his things and runs after Gandolf and the party of dwarves brandishing the signed contract he’d failed to complete the night before.
Now a party of fifteen, they make their way toward the Misty Mountains. They do not realize that an old foe of Thorin is pursuing them through the wilds. Azog lost a hand in their last meeting and Thorin assumes incorrectly the pale orc died of those wounds years ago.
There are other dangers for the party to encounter as well. Trolls and giant spiders have moved into the forest while the reclusive wizard Radagast relates that he encountered a necromancer in the ruins nearby.
Pursued by warg-riding orcs and guided by the enigmatic hand of Gandolf, the party shelters with the Elves in Rivendell. Lord of the Elves, Elrond (Hugo Weaving) reads the hidden runes on Thorin’s map of the Lonely Mountain that outline the method by which they can open a secret door and gain access to the mountain. Their hope is that this passage will allow them to avoid confronting the dragon Smaug that sleeps on a bed of dwarven gold.
Sneaking away from the distrusted elves without their wizard, the party shelters in a cave that turns out to be a trap constructed by the goblins of Moria. The goblins capture the dwarves but initially fail to notice the hobbit. When Bilbo is finally discovered, he and his goblin pursuer fall into a deep crag. Within the crag, Gollum (Andy Serkis) dispatches the goblin without noticing Bilbo who has fallen a little ways away and is obscured by mushrooms.
Bilbo finds a gold ring, dropped by Gollum and pockets it before drawing his blade and going after the creature, hoping it may be able to lead him out of the darkness. Gollum discovers the hobbit following observing it and challenges him to a game of riddles. If Bilbo wins, Gollum will lead him out of the cave. If Gollum wins he will eat Bilbo whole.
Ultimately, by chance Bilbo wins the contest, but Gollum suspects that Bilbo has stolen his ring and chases him through the cave. Bilbo learns that the ring in his pocket has magical properties when it accidentally slips on his finger and makes him invisible. He uses the ring to escape Gollum and reunite with the rest of his party that have been rescued by Gandolf.
Fans of Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” will find things are a bit different in the movie. Everything from Thorin’s motivation for returning to the Lonely Mountain, to the presence of Galadriel and Radagast in the movie will raise questions. Also, the fairly late decision to cut the rather thin book into three films has forced “‘The Unexpected Journey” to manufacture a climax and come to an abrupt end. In fact, the audience was audibly disappointed when the lengthy (2.5 hour) film ended and the credits started to roll.
In addition to characters and minor plot points, there were several references to the coming darkness that fully identified in the “Lord of the Rings” movie trilogy. “The Unexpected Journey” takes pains to draw ties to the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy that were nonexistent or at least less blatant in Tolkien’s “The Hobbit”.
Like most film adaptations of beloved novels, devoted fans will find plenty of differences to debate the relative merits of in “The Unexpected Journey.” Whether these changes are accepted in or detract from the overall movie experience will no doubt depend on the viewer. For my own part, I accept that this movie could not follow the book exactly and doesn’t try.
Where I do have problems with “The Unexpected Journey” has more to do with execution. There is a distinct lack of chemistry among the main characters. There is also the decision to render all of the orcs and goblins using computer graphics. One of the better aspects of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy was the use of costumes and makeup for most of the humanoid creatures.
While I continue to look forward to the culmination of “The Hobbit” two movies from now, I can’t help but be somewhat disappointed. Given that this film is merely one third of the story, it isn’t surprising it is unable to stand alone. Hopefully the next two installments will prove that “The Unexpected Journey” only functions as a successful prelude to a more exciting climax two films from now. To find out, we have to wait