The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
The prequel to the Lord of the Rings trilogy films, The Hobbit tells the story of Bilbo Baggins, an unassuming hobbit who finds adventure with a group of dwarves on a quest to reclaim their ancestral home. Unsure of himself, Bilbo comes to realize that he's more adventurous than he ever realized.
Also starring Radagast the Brown Wizard.
The real story here is how director Peter Jackson (who helmed the smashingly good Lord of the Rings films) managed to stretch a simple, relatively small prequel novel into three movies. After watching the film I can answer: he spared almost no detail from the book, delved into other related (or unfinished) Tolkien stories and ... he added some musical numbers.
The story of how the One Ring was found by a simple hobbit named Bilbo Baggins was intended by Tolkien to be a children's book, and Jackson seems to have tried to instill a childlike quality to this first film. The plot is shockingly simple; far more simple than I remember. Gandalf essentially goads Bilbo into going on 'an adventure' for no other reason than to get him out into the world.
At times whimsical, comedic, scary, thrilling, Jackson spared no detail in bringing The Hobbit to life. The dwarves (Fili, Kili, etc. -- they number thirteen and I won't name them all, sorry) are all great. You won't remember all their names, but they all make a great impression. They run the gamut of skinny, stupid, smart and tough -- and with Jackson's wonderful visual storytelling -- are completely captivating, charismatic and magical.
The story begins with Gandalf mischieviously tricking Bilbo into hosting a group of dwarves at his home, who promptly eat all his food, threaten all his mother's fine crockery, and dig out the horse manure from their boots on the edges of his antique furniture. The thump their fists on the table, and sing (musical number, wee!) and generally drive poor Bilbo beserk.
The final dwarf arrives, their leader, Thorin Oakenshield, who seems far more serious than the rest. He's the heir to the throne of Erebor, and he tells Bilbo their story. Director Jackson brings the ancient dwarven city of Erebor to life in Thorin's telling; the industry and wealth of the dwarves is so powerful that their city is the crown jewel of the world, rivaling even the Elves. Audiences will thrill to see the dwarves mining out the inside of a mountain; their smiths working. There's a great shot of a dwarven smith holding a glowing ingot of metal overhead, to be smashed by two gargantuan overhead hammers.
As Thorin tells it, the wealth of his grandfather, The King Under the Mountain, becomes so great that it attracts the attention of Smaug, a dragon that attacks the city, forcing the dwarves to flee. Thorin's father and grandfather are killed in the ensuing warfare. And now enough time has passed that Thorin believes Smaug may be dead and it's time to take back the dwarves' ancestral home.
Bilbo finally relents and joins the group as their 'burglar' though he's never stolen anything in his life. From there the story follows the original narrative very closely. As a Tolkien fan I was eager to see if Radagast the Brown Wizard would make an appearance. You see (non-Tolkien nerds can use this time to silently reflect on something else) Gandalf is one of five wizards sends by the Valar (those are the Gods of Middle Earth) to protect Middle Earth. They're sort of like angels.
Gandalf is asked to stop rainfall by the dwarves, and he declares that the rain will stop when it stops, and that if they don't like it they can find another wizard. Which prompts Gandalf to remark that there were five wizards in total -- Saruman the White, two blue wizards whose names he cannot remember (Pallando and Alatar, ahem) and Radagast the Brown.
I'm sorry, but I just flashed back to Reservoir Dogs for a moment there. "Why do I have to be Mr. Pink? Makes me sound gay. I don't want to be Mr. Pink!" Radagast's appearance pretty much lines up with what you might expect; he's brown alright. Really, really brown. He's sort a wizard dedicated to the welfare of the animals of Middle Earth, and he's PETA's new spokesperson. Radagast loves animals so much he has a bird's nest under his hat, and when he finds a dying hedgehog he trashes his home (which was trashy to begin with) trying to revive Sonic. It's comical and cute, but ... but the bird's who live under his hat have been using one side of his face as a toilet.
You read that correctly.
Radagast the Brown has a huge, crusty patch of bird droppings attached to one side of his face and it is so distracting I couldn't even hear what he was saying. In keeping with Radagast's whimsical nature, he has a chariot made of sticks that is pulled by rabbits, hedgehogs, etc. and it is laughable. Radagast is the Jar Jar Binks of The Hobbit, folks.
Bird crap on the side of his face! Tolkien and Jackson know how to bring the whimsy, don't they?
Ok, fine, you love animals, I get it. But bird poop on his face? You would think the birds would love him in return enough to spare his face. You would be wrong. While watching Radagast on the screen I just wanted to see Gandalf kind of motion to the side of his face, like someone who tries to silently signal to you that you inadvertently got marinara sauce on your face.
The bird poop on a major character's face was very distracting to me, is what I am trying to say.
Ok, moving on.
Jackson adds a subplot about a particularly evil orc named Azog to the story to pad it out to three films, and the film ends with Bilbo managing to earn the respect of the dwarves. Bilbo also meets (and riddles against) Gollum, in a scene that fell a bit flat for me. Gollum just isn't as menacing as he should be. I took my niece to see this, and she insisted that Gollum was cute. He does have big blue eyes -- and anime axiom #378.5 clearly states that creatures with big eyes are always cute, so ... I guess Gollum is cute, and not nearly as menacing as he should be.
What else? Oh, Jackson went ahead and made movie history by doubling the framerate for The Hobbit from about 30 frames per second to 60 frames per second. I didn't notice much, and I watched this in 3D. The 3D effects were used sparingly and mostly to increase the depth of field. There were some sequences in which there was so much action (falling orcs, collapsing towers and ladders, etc.) that for my aged eyes it all became a jumble of 'stuff'.
Technical wizardry aside, Jackson does what he did for the first three films here as well -- he created a movie so visually stunning that every frame feels as though it could be framed and placed on your wall.
Except for the scenes with Radagast.
Ignoring the poop-covered wizard, this is a great film that captures the magic of Tolkien's book. I'll definitely see the other two films when they come out.