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Movie Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey – Not Quite What I Expected

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I loved the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy. I’ve got the DVDs, Blu-rays, extended edition. I spent hours watching all the ancillary materials, commentaries. My daughter walked down the aisle to one of the film trilogy’s musical themes (her choice, not mine). I even have the Trivial Pursuit Lord of the Rings Edition game. So it was with high expectations (despite the reviews) that I dragged my son and husband to the IMAX to see part one of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

The movie recounts the beginning of Bilbo’s (Martin Freeman, Watson on the BBC Sherlock Holmes series) adventure preceding the events of Fellowship of the Ring. Gandalf (Sir Ian McKellen) enlists the young Hobbit, living too contented a life, to aid a band of landless dwarfs reclaim their kingdom. Along the way, Bilbo faces dangers and delights, elves, orcs, goblins, and of course his first meeting with Gollum (Any Serkis). 

Although the movie looks beautiful, the use of 3D effective and immersive (although somehow, for some reason Rivendell doesn’t seem quite as striking as I’d found it in the original trilogy), I found that it did not grab me the same way Fellowship of the Ring’s had, all those years ago.

The Hobbit is not a bad movie, and I didn’t find myself peeking at my watch, even at a 2:38 minute running time. If I gave star ratings, I’d probably give it three stars out of five. Freeman makes a great Bilbo Baggins, bewildered at the adventure in which he’s reluctantly found himself. McKellen brings a profound world-weariness to Gandalf; he is far more haggard than at the start of Fellowship, and much in need of spark and inspiration. And it is jarring (in a good way) to see Saruman (Christopher Lee) as the wise and benevolent white wizard he had been back in the day before being seduced by Sauron’s power. Hugo Weaving and Cate Blanchett also reprise their LOTR elven roles. 

The film gets off to a very clunky start, and I think the beginning might have benefitted from tighter and less self-indulgent editing. The scene in which we are introduced to Bilbo’s dwarf companions is far too long and too silly, and does little make them sympathetic. Why should we care about such badly behaved buffoons?

Yes, their land was taken from them by force, but they weren’t such nice guys in the first place. And when we learn the Elves did nothing to support them when the Orcs laid siege to their mountain castle, I really can’t say I blamed them. And, here, I think, lies one of the movie’s biggest weaknesses. The Hobbit is simply not as compelling a story as Lord of the Rings, or even its first part, Fellowship of the Ring. And this very long film takes a one-third slice of that very slim novel and tries to present it as something it’s not, nor likely never intended to be.

I’ve only read The Hobbit once, and that was many, many years ago. And to be honest, I don’t remember that much about the novel except that it didn’t quite grab me. It’s a small volume, the story simpler, a child’s tale, a prelude to the complex and devastating heroic quest that lay ahead in Lord of the Rings. So my perspective is not as a Tolkien purist, or even someone who cherishes the novel. And maybe it’s unfair to compare the two, really: the prelude and the magnum opus. But, by developing The Hobbit into a trilogy in its own right, Jackson invites the comparison. 

At its heart, Lord of the Rings is dual heroic journey: one belonging to Frodo and the other to Aragorn. Frodo’s quest is to rid himself of the ring and destroy the evil that threatens Middle Earth; his quest profoundly changes him (as Bilbo’s does in The Hobbit). It is a story of sacrifice and growth, faith and hope.

Aragorn’s quest is perhaps the more compelling; it is a story of redemption: a man beaten down by the ages, now inspired by the courage of a small hobbit to ultimately take his place as a great leader and bring his world out of darkness. It is a classically romantic tale, and what gave the story its depth and richness, even if you didn’t get into the subtext and metaphor of it all.

Part of me likes the idea of exploring even a novel as short as The Hobbit expansively, mining it for detail and texture. On the other hand, I can’t find it in me to grant equal weight to Tolkien’s masterwork and the earlier work. The book doesn’t deserve three nearly three-hour movies. One-third of The Hobbit does not equal the whole of Fellowship of the Ring.

Yes, I know Jackson mined Tolkien’s other works to add depth to Bilbo’s tale. But the result is a movie a bit too flabby, too many battles, none of them really memorable. There is no Helm’s Deep here, no Osgiliath, no Isengard. Instead, we get Orcs, Goblins, more Orcs and more Goblins all try to thwart the merry band of dwarves. There is just nothing epic to care about here. At the end of Fellowship I couldn’t wait for The Two Towers to premiere. And while I will undoubtedly see part two of The Hobbit when it comes out in theaters, I do not feel the same tug of anticipation for the next leg of Bilbo’s journey I’d felt for Frodo, Aragorn and company.

As an adventure movie with lots of fighting, anachronistic (and occasionally) amusing jokes, it’s a fun romp. Just don’t go in with heightened expectations and you’ll have an enjoyable experience.

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About Barbara Barnett

Barbara Barnett is Publisher/Executive Editor of Blogcritics, (blogcritics.org). Her Bram Stoker Award-nominated novel, called "Anne Rice meets Michael Crichton," The Apothecary's Curse The Apothecary's Curse is now out from Pyr, an imprint of Prometheus Books. Her book on the TV series House, M.D., Chasing Zebras is a quintessential guide to the themes, characters and episodes of the hit show. Barnett is an accomplished speaker, an annual favorite at MENSA's HalloWEEM convention, where she has spoken to standing room crowds on subjects as diverse as "The Byronic Hero in Pop Culture," "The Many Faces of Sherlock Holmes," "The Hidden History of Science Fiction," and "Our Passion for Disaster (Movies)."
  • Buddy2Blogger

    Superb review, Barbara. You are the best!

  • Thanks Buddy2Blogger.

  • CJ

    “Yes, their land was taken from them by force, but they weren’t such nice guys in the first place.”

    How so?

    “And when we learn the Elves did nothing to support them when the Orcs laid siege to their mountain castle, I really can’t say I blamed them.”

    Again, why? What did the dwarves do and what “mountain castle” are you referring to, because I have no idea what you’re talking about.

    This a shoddy review btw, you didn’t actually, you know, review the film. Nothing about anything that really happens, the action, acting, effects etc. Just comparisons to LOTR. Of course there’s no Helm’s Deep or Osgiliath because those happened in the 2nd and 3rd films, whereas An Unexpected Journey is the first one, the setup.

  • CJ–Matter of opinion. I did review it, perhaps not to your liking or the way in which you might have wanted. I think many people will go to see it expecting something on par with Fellowship. It’s not there. That’s why the comparison, and my reasoning as to why it doesn’t stack up.

    The dwarves had a lot of power, they exacted homages for it, defeated many foes. They were cast out and that’s a tragedy, but I read a lot of hubris in the subtext… That is my opinion (and subjective, I know).

  • CJ

    Barbara- But it doesn’t make sense. Dwarves weren’t shown to not be nice guys and orcs didn’t besiege any mountain castle. And it wasn’t a review, you laid out the plot of the film briefly and just went on and on about LOTR. Where’s the critique?

  • Pam

    I just saw the Hobbit-I have not seen LOTR. I had the same sort of “it’s OK” feeling I am getting from your review. Don’t know that I’ll go out of my way to see the sequel. Sounds like LOTR is better-I’ll look for that.

  • Pete

    I’m with CJ. Not a true review of this movie. The story of the hobbit is very different in style to the LOTR and so is the movie screenplay. If you are going to review it against LOTR then review the effectiveness of the special effects, the 3D inclusiveness and the acting, which is outstanding. to compare the stories only is a cop out. Just one example is your comment about Rivendell. In the Hobbit it far surpasses the watercolour print background of LOTR. The goblin kingdom and action resembled but surpassed the mine scenes from indiana jones. I didn’t see Saruman as a font of wisdom but rather already being suspected and sidelined from the council. I can’t wait for the next one.

  • Sanch

    Aint a review at all , The hobbit AUJ is a perfectly well shaped movie

  • There are many types of reviews. I liked the movie, really I did, but it didn’t wow me like Fellowship did. Too much on the battles, but not enough story to sustain the nearly 2:40 minute runtime.

    Yes, it’s a smaller story and different sort of movie, but then why make it try to fit a trilogy with each part so long? This is what bothered me. Not that it was a bad movie; it wasn’t a bad movie.

  • djesus

    Barbara, like you, I’ve found this movie so so, not same quality as the LOTR, I falled asleep the first hour with all this “blabla” around the dwarves.

  • CJ

    This isn’t a review though, it’s a sham- you didn’t REVIEW anything. You know, critiquing, analysing, evaluating, pros and cons. Most of what you wrote was about LOTR, Aragorn etc. Nothing about The Hobbit itself. Boo.

  • Brad

    Like most I have read the books and seen the movies, and I agree with Barbara in that The Hobbit is just an average film. The visual effects were very detailed and complex as are most action adventure movies today. In my opinion Jackson’s attempt to squeeze a few laughs from the audience detracted from the movie. The movie had more of a “Shreck” type feel to it. In the end the box office numbers will be the true indicator for this film. There is already plenty of news stories about the movie remaining at number one but numbers are falling sharply.

  • Brad–Thank you. I think you nailed it. Something was gnawing at the back of my head. Shrek (maybe not quite, but yes). The entire first half hour was too jokey and really painted the dwarves as a bunch of buffoons who liked a good time, not a band of wandering refugees yearning to reclaim their land. And I think that setup affected my entire experience for the rest of the movie (which got better as it went on).

  • “In the end the box office numbers will be the true indicator for this film.”

    Considering “It’s a Wonderful Life” failed at the box office and is now considered classic and the increased importance of home video sales to a studio’s bottom line, I disagree with Brad’s statement above.

  • Dagorlad

    Barbara, thanks for your view of the film. I didn’t think it was amazing, but I really enjoyed the Hobbit. I do agree with CJ that much of your review is actually a comparison with the LOTR films. What I get from your review is a heavy dose of personal nostalgia about the LOTR films and everything it brought with it in terms of culture and fan community ten years ago – and absolutely nothing wrong with that. But in that case the Hobbit – both the film or the book for that matter – will not elicit the same feelings for you. Because it is a different tale – not just in plot, but in tone and scope. So the comparison doesn’t work really – and the fact that you noticed the difference between the Hobbit and the LOTR films is in fact to PJ’s credit. Indeed I have read many critiques in which reviewers have felt Peter Jackson tried too hard to make the Hobbit similar to the LOTR in gravitas and grandeur…in then he failed to pull off such a feat, then he has, in my view, succeeded. And has done justice to the fact that the Hobbit was never really a true ‘prequel’ to the LOTR, it was a different tale in its own right.

  • Warrick Snowball

    Interesting to read a review where I agreed with almost every word – My daughter did not walk down the aisle to themes from LOTR! At least Peter Jackson nails his colours to the mast at the outset. Tolkien gives the perfect mechanism by which to differentiate the dwarfs. They all wear different coloured hoods which are consecutively hung in Bibo’s porch. That immediately gives them a likeable quality. Jackson’s dwarves don’t wear hoods, they are hoods. Tolkien’s Bilbo was around 50 years old, not ancient for a Hobbit, but more mature than the juvenile deliquent that often masqueraded as him in the film. Of course when other elements of Tolkien’s writings have been interwoven, it makes direct comparison with the book more difficult. And yes, there is too much fighting. It dominated and never really gave the slender story line a chance to flourish and to charm. Like Barbara I have many relics of LOTR films and neither am I aching to see the second, and (really?) a third slice of Weta Battleshop.

  • Thanks Dagorlad. I appreciate your opinion. The only reason I made the comparison is that I’m very wary of Jackson’s attempt to try to make The Hobbit into an epic three movie trilogy. And with the first film clocking in at 2:38, it’s clear that’s what he’s trying to do.

    I agree with those who say that Jackson is trying to make The Hobbit similar in scope to LOTR. This is the core of my criticism. I don’t think it’s successful because of the very nature of the simpler story involved. I went into the movie really assuming that despite the reviews, I would be blown away and I wasn’t.

    I practically dragged my son and husband to the IMAX (neither of them like 3D) to really experience it with all the wonder I’d come to expect. The movie fell short. Again, as I said in my review. I liked it, but I can’t help but review it in context of LOTR largely because of what Jackson is trying to do with it.

    That’s why I approached my review the way I did.

  • Thanks Warrick. Yeah, she walked down the aisle to the Hobbit theme and the theme from The Princess Bride 🙂

    Interestingly, after the movie, I asked my 21 year old son what he thought. He didn’t like the movie at all (much less than I did). I asked him if he still liked LOTR and he looked at me as if I was crazy. Of course! he said. My husband wasn’t keen on it either, although to be honest, he wasn’t a huge fan of the LOTR trilogy either.

    It’s interesting. Like Les Miz (which I will see this weekend), The Hobbit seems much a case (both among critics and filmgoers in general) of a very split difference of opinion.

  • CJ

    “The Hobbit seems much a case (both among critics and filmgoers in general) of a very split difference of opinion.”

    No, I’d say that 95%+ of the audience likes it judging from the numerous discussions and comments I’ve seen and the majority of critics like it too (2:1 on RT). You just went in expecting LOTR and was disappointed. We didn’t and we weren’t.

  • Actually CJ, the rotten tomatoes score isn’t quite that impressive. It’s about where I placed it.

  • CJ

    65% is roughly 2:1. Twice as many that didn’t like it, liked it.

  • It’s still not stellar. And I never said I didn’t like it. I believe I said I would give it three stars (if I star rated movies).

  • I agree with your review, sad to say. I regard the Ring Trilogy as a masterpiece of movie making and it was very disappointing to actually feel bored while watching The Hobbit. I tried to analyze the problem and came up with this; In TLR there are a number of stories being told simultaneously. We weave back and forth between sets and characters. In The Hobbit we follow one group of characters for three hours. Ho hum. There is little tension and the whole thing feels predictable. It should have been one movie, maybe a three hour film, with bits and pieces from Tolkien’s other writings spliced in – three films just smacks of greed on someone’s part. Also, I had to sit in the back of the theater because each time the camera panned the whole screen went blurry and I got nauseous (I did not see it in 3-D). I give it two stars. I sincerely hope that Jackson will take these reviews to heart and make the next two movies into just one masterpiece as I know he can.

  • will

    Superb movie and true to the book. Complainers should go play Pachinko because if you love Tolkien., you will absolutely love this movie. Those who complain reveal they neither read Tolkien., nor appreciate the books richness and depth of the characters. All of this is well displayed in this accurate rendition with superb cinematography. Shiners begone…..

  • Catherine Osnborn

    When I read the book years ago, I found it interesting, exciting and full of humour. I found the film, however, all spectacle and noise and little substance. Too many over-long battles, and too little social interaction among the characters. Okay for small boys.

  • Ben

    The hobbit is 3 hours long and I wish it to be 4! What a cracking film and is by far the best film I’ve seen! People compare it to lord of the rings! It’s a different story with a different feel! It should not be compared! I want to watch the whole thing again! Critics are idiots who for some reason have superman returns top ratings and that was terrible! Better than I was expecting it to be and was not dragged out at all!

  • will

    I need to say this again. Like the introductions written at the front of great novels, those who belittle this movie either slept through it or used Cliffs Notes when they read The Hobbit. If they think the movie dragged or wasn’t true to the book., then they either skimmed the book or failed to appreciate its depth because the movie is rich., well done and pretty accurate. Go see it. Read The Hobbit first if you haven.’t. Sadhow someone wouldn’t love this flick.Go watch Jerry Springer or somethinh.

  • Shannon

    I dont think anyone should compare The hobbit with the lord of the rings at all. Its Bilbos adventure and the prequel to the larger story.The fact that you already have seen the lord of the rings makes the Hobbit seem dull in comparison, it still has what the book has..Still has the Trolls..the elves.. it explains the bitterness of the dwarves towards the elves..it has its own depth and Its still a great story and adventure in its own right and in the world that we all have come to love.I have all the extended versions of the lord of the rings too and all sorts of things.. But I don’t go to the Hobbit to expect lord of the rings.. I go to expect completeness, and with out the Hobbit, lord of the rings is not complete. The best thing about the Hobbit is not the fight scenes that come up and the business of them which at times you barely see whats going on , its the little things… like the runes that show up on the map at the a precise time of the year.The names of the weapons and where they came from, the fact that the dwarf prince/ King thinks the hobbit does not belong, but at the end he was proven wrong.. that is the story and gives a great insight into the other movies and fills in details that other wise cut from the other movies.

  • Rob Scotia

    A good review Barbara. I found the film disappointing: the dwarves were far too silly and loutish and the whole film was too commercialized and full of long, boring fighting. It was an opportunity to do something different but it’s the same old Hollywood digitized, video game violence – yawn.

  • Dagorlad

    Hi Barbara, thanks for your response – I actually see where you’re coming from. I think my problem is that I didn’t much like the LOTR films anyway, I felt they made too many (curcial) changes to the book, especially to key characters. So anything that tries to be different to the LOTR is, in my book, a plus. Having said that, I do agree that The Hobbit film suffers from an inconsistency in tone. There are times when the film wants to be a prequel to the LOTR and so aspires for the same gravitas (I don’t know why, it shouldn’t bother with this); at other times it aims for the lighter appeal found in the book of The Hobbit. The two approaches don’t sit easily with each other. A bit of an identity crisis then.

  • Hi Dagorlad–Absolutely. I think it’s trying to be something it’s not and that’s a shame.

  • Deano

    Barbara, good review (as always!) but as Shannon noted, The Hobbit is not LOTR.

    The Hobbit was written as a children’s story and in weaving that fairly light-hearted tale, Tolkien wove in a darker background that ended up becoming the focus for a more epic and often malevolent story. Tolkien was aware of the tonal difference in the works and supposedly went back to The Hobbit at one point with the intention of re-writing it to fit the broader, more adult world of LOTR, but he gave up in frustration and finally decided to let the story he had told stand as it was.

    Treating The Hobbit as an extension of the LOTR films is an issue. Jackson has very deliberately mined the background appendices of LOTR to flesh out the tale told in The Hobbit with grander aspects consistent with LOTR. The issue is that these backfiller parts tend to obfuscate and bebother the central innocence of the Hobbit storyline. Yes, it makes the film more in tune with LOTR, but it detracts from the pacing and feel of The Hobbit.

    The movie is schizophrenic, two dualities trying to be two different parts of a whole. That it works as well as it does is a testament to Jackson’s skill as a filmmaker but overall I would have vastly preferred he not pad the tale, kept it down to two movies (which would do the story ample justice), and focused on Bilbo’s tale. The movie is at its best during the Riddles in the Dark scene, which is lifted almost in its entirety, directly from the source material, with no extra fluff.

    When it works, it works brilliantly, but it only happens intermittantly…

  • Deano–exactly. I went to the movie (in IMAX 3D) expecting The Hobbit. I got something else. Identity crisis indeed. Had he made it into one movie or even two, the padding would be unnecessary.

  • dorcas

    Last night I went into the theatre warning my mother and sister, with whom I had in the last three previous nights watched the entire LOTR trilogy for the first time (violence, even fantastical, isn’t our cup of tea), that the tone of the Hobbit book was meant for children and therefore the movie would likely have a different tone. They and I LOVED the movie. My mom was fascinated by the story of the dwarves and Lonely Mountain, and when I told her Tolkein had based them vaguely on Jews she gave me an analysis on the references. I bet Jackson made the first half so slow and “encumbered” with background because in the Fellowship there was a ton of atmosphere he introduced well, but hurredly, and that same style wouldn’t have worked with establishing Bilbo as stuck in a rut. Afterwards I couldn’t help thinking that despite the liberties taken (Galadriel, Thorin’s charge at the end) it was true to the book, and if the creators of the Narnia movies had put half as much effort in the Voyage film they would have done right by the fans. I think the audience for this movie are a)teenagers b)families with precocious children and c)those who read the book who are simply glad to have so much attention on it (and d) choirmembers–my people–who geek out over the dwarves’ song! Did you know Gregorian chant was influenced most strongly by Jewish chant?)
    First word from my sister, middleschooler: “The next one’s in December? You’re kidding!”

  • aadarsh22

    I think the movie was fairly good.I think Mr. Jackson did a great job as it was very difficult to show the same middle earth for the forth time but with totally different scenarios.. i too found it a bit long but then so was the fellowship.I think the most important task for Mr. Jackson was to make separate identities for the various dwarves , cos each should be unique and i believe it was no simple task. hence lets not take away his credit and judge him now .. i think the other two parts will be mind blowing .. eagerly nay desperately waiting ..

  • Tamim

    Hey Barbara thanx for the review..

    Most of the people commenting about the weaknesses of the movie, i totally agree that 42 fps,alongside, three parts of the story is making it unpleasantly lenthy..


    Has anybody thought that Peter had to keep track of the BOOK.. LOTR… as well as the APPENDICES of the book which is extremely tough. With the help of LOTR and the book its being easy to find the pros an cons of the film..