The existence of The Hobbit film trilogy is a bizarre thing. Its story predates The Lord of the Rings by 76 years, but Lord of The Rings (LOTR) was the first to be turned into a film series, leading to several alterations and additions when An Unexpected Journey was finally released in 2012. A huge amount of footage was shot across the six films in the Middle Earth Saga, and wary that audiences may not sit through it all, there are 2 versions of each film- theatrical and extended. As someone who wants to get as much out of each film as possible, I only own the extended versions and as a result it is these versions of the saga that I shall be using for my reviews. Let us start at the beginning.
The first half of An Unexpected Journey centres around Bilbo Baggins, as he is hired to be a burglar for 12 dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield in a quest to reclaim their home Erebor (or The Lonely Mountain) from the dragon Smaug. They are joined on this adventure by the wizard Gandalf, as they battle a trio of trolls and a group of orcs before arriving in the Elven town of Rivendell. This first half acts as a set-up for the story to come, with The Company of Thorin Okenshield only embarking on their quest at the 40 minute mark- which isn’t a bad thing. This lack of action and adventure allows for us to focus on worldbuilding, getting to know the characters; which is essential in storytelling. Fíli, Kíli, Bifur, Bofur, Bombur, Óin, Glóin, Balin, Dwalin, Dori, Nori and Ori all have distinct personalities, and whilst some get more focus than others, none of them are unlikable.
Bilbo is played with magnificent awkwardness by Martin Freeman, while Gandalf’s wisdom is, once again, excellently delivered by Sir Ian Mackellan. Thorin, portrayed with regal air by Richard Armitage, is skeptical of both, but trusts every dwarf in his company, as his backstory eloquently explains. Each of the dwarves get their own little moment, but the standout is Bifur, whose comedic timing is impeccable, but can be stern when the moment requires it. Another standout is the CGI… which is used in several shots, and that isn’t necessarily a good thing. The majority of the CGI is wonderful, but there are times when a greenscreen is clearly being used. For a movie that was shot primarily on location in New Zealand, it can be jarring and for me and that is a bit of a let down.
I would be remiss to talk about the extended version of An Unexpected Journey without mentioning the extra footage and how well it fits the story. The first change comes during a flashback to the fall of Erebor, focusing more on the Elven king Thranduil instead of Bard’s father. This makes sense from a narrative standpoint as it provides the basis for the Dwarf/Elf rivalry and Bard won’t be introduced until the following film. We also get a flashback to young Bilbo playing with a wooden sword instead of gentler games. This is a nice demonstration of how adventurous Bilbo used to be compared to the respectable hobbit that he becomes. Next is a scene of Bilbo trying to avoid Gandalf at the market which, while amusing, isn’t particularly necessary. Our final lot of extra footage shows the Dwarves dining in Rivendell and Kíli’s fondness for Elves. It features a musical number, giving us a glimpse into Dwarven culture, and sets up Kíli’s arc with a little foreshadowing, which are both things that I appreciate.
This first half of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey does a wonderful job with its worldbuilding. From here we can focus on interactions and character growth, but the groundwork is laid here. There’s plenty of humour to keep us entertained and makes for an excellent starting point for what is to come
The second half of An Unexpected Journey is definitely more action packed than the first. Our band of heroes traverse through Stone Giants only to find themselves prisoners of the Goblin King and upon escaping are finally cornered by orcs. It is during the encounter with the Goblin, King that Bilbo finds himself seperated from the group and discovers the creature Gollum, during which he steals the One Ring.
Peter Jackson’s decision to split the 300 page book into 3 films was bold, as there isn’t really enough material to do so. The solution was to intertwine it with material from other works of Middle Earth such as the appearance of The Necromancer. He is briefly mentioned in this film, but goes on to play a larger role in the sequels which is, I think, rather a good idea. Not only does it explain why Gandalf is absent from The Company for the majority of this adventure, but it also paves the way for the return of the dark lord Sauron, making the six films feel more connected.
This half of An Unexpected Journey has more seamless CGI with the goblins, their king and Gollum seeming like they belong, and not like they were added in a hurry. The level of detail put into these characters is impressive, with the Goblin King being a gross sight to behold. Meanwhile Gollums CG seems to get better with every passing film, as does Andy Serkis’ performance, which is no small feat for what is a rather small role. If there is one let down, it’s Azog the Defiler- leader of the orcs who has the blandest design of all the characetrs. Azog, for the moment, is the main antagonist, and as such needs to have a certain amount of character. The original design for his appearance, which was to be done with prosthesis, can be found rather easily online and includes that sense of menace which the CG version so sorely lacks. I am overwhelmingly impressed with The Great Eagles, who rescue our heroes from the orcs. They are one of the best examples of just how good CGI can be.
Almost all of the extra material for the extended cut of the film takes place in Rivendell and features Bilbo in some aspect. He first comes across the shattered remains of the sword Narsil and a mural of it being used in the final battle against Sauron, which is a set any LOTR watcher will recognise, and is a nice little nod to the future. A following scene sees him and Thorin listening to Lord Elrond express his concerns about the quest, more specifically the Gold Madness that could consume Thorin, to Gandalf. Lord Elrond also has a small scene where he offers Bilbo a chance to stay in Rivendell, where he’d be safe. These scenes do a good job in humanising the Elven Lord as well as foreshadowing Thorin’s fate and Bilbo’s dedication to the dwarves. We also get a scene of Gandalf meeting with The White Council, consiting of hime, Lord Elrond, the Lady Galadriel and Sauraman the White. They discuss both the quest and The Necromancer, whom Sauraman doesn’t believe to be anything more than a mortal man.
On the whole The Hobbit: An Unexected Journey proves to be an excellent set-up for not just the adventure to come but also the larger story to follow. As a result, it isn’t overly exciting, but it does provide ample time for us to connect with these characters. Instead of seeing this as part of the adventure itself, I see it more as a prologue. As prologues go, An Unexpected Journey is wonderful if not entirely essential.