The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is everything its title portends.
To begin, it certainly features a hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, in the process of writing down his earlier adventure for the benefit of his heir, Frodo Baggins, on the day of their joint birthday party, the party that is featured at the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring.
Beginning the film this way – framing it as Bilbo in retrospect conveying information to his nephew and heir, Frodo – makes it an explicit prequel to the Lord of the Rings trilogy of films helmed by Peter Jackson and something very different from the book The Hobbit. Tolkien’s The Hobbit or There and Back Again was published almost twenty years prior to its three-part sequel, and Tolkien made significant edits in The Hobbit‘s later additions to make it fit better with its more epic progeny. Still, the book The Hobbit stands alone as a much tighter tale that does not give much thought to what happens after its protagonist’s story ends. The Hobbit as a book is Bilbo’s journey and nothing more.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is something else. Bilbo’s story is included, but it’s couched within a larger mythological world and includes many events and conversations that set the stage for Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Bilbo’s journey is now just a part of the larger plot, and his telling of it is meant, it seems, to prepare Frodo for the adventure that is soon to envelop him. Bilbo’s lesson in this first part of Jackson’s forthcoming Hobbit trilogy which he is passing along to Frodo – “Adventures are good. Go on one!” – and the values that provide a proper foundation for adventuring are worth learning. More on that in a moment.
What’s “unexpected” about this film, for me, is how incredibly fun it is. I love this movie. Sure, Bilbo’s tale is presented as only a part of a bigger narrative, the movie’s moral lessons are as overt as anything in Aesop’s Fables, and it is a long movie with unnecessary scenes seemingly superfluous to the plot, but I loved all of it.
This is The Hobbit as if conceived after The Lord of the Rings, so of course Bilbo’s tale is just part of a larger one. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is also a much lighter and funnier movie than its precursors, more like a fairy tale (with the moral structure of a story for small children) and less like an action adventure epic.
Finally, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is most essentially a journey through a world even more fantastic than it was in the Lord of the Rings films. Jackson and Weta Workshop’s Middle-Earth is more detailed and immersive than any I imagined possible at the cinema, and I would gladly spend many more hours reveling in it. This is the work of near-religious devotees to their source material, not profiteering, cinematic industrialists interested only in squeezing every last dollar out of a cheaply constructed Tolkien knock-off. Give me more songs. Give me more backstories, side-stories, and “superfluous” scenes. This movie isn’t about the plot. It’s about the world in which the plot takes place, and I cannot wait to return to it for two more tours guided by Peter Jackson.
I saw The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey as a High Frame Rate (HFR), or 48 frames per second (fps), 3-D presentation. There are two other ways to see this movie – as a 24 fps, 3-D presentation and as a 24 fps 2-D presentation. I haven’t enjoyed the 3-D movies I’ve seen, but I really enjoyed seeing this movie this way at the higher frame rate.
For the first ten minutes or so, I felt like the movie was sped up, but then I got used to it and appreciated the lack of motion blur and vast amounts of detail provided by the higher frame rate. For the first time ever, I was presented with a three dimensional cinematic image I could actually scan and search like I visually survey the real world. Jackson took full advantage of the smoothness of the image, and utilized an alarmingly mobile camera during the movie’s many chase scenes. I’m only guessing based on past experience, but I imagine that the constantly swooping camera is headache inducing at a lower frame rate. If there isn’t an HFR, 3-D presentation near you, see it in 2-D.
There are a lot of “lessons” to be gleaned from this tale, but such is the nature of its rich source material. No doubt this movie will provide many sermon illustrations in the years to come. However, the theme that seemed more dominant to me is the one I mentioned earlier – “Adventures are good. Go on one!” By the end of this first installment in the trilogy, Bilbo has to learn to give himself fully to the adventure before him, no longer mourn the abandonment of his hobbit hole comforts, and to trust his place and importance in the company.
In the movie’s early moments, Bilbo worries over his many possessions, chastising the dwarves for roughly handling his silverware and saucers. Gandalf even asks Bilbo at one point when he became so concerned about his things and so unconcerned about the rest of the world. As Bilbo leaves his perceived abundance behind, he finds an increasingly abundant world full of more majesty, mystery, and wonder than he ever imagined. His initial “abundance” was really a lack that he had to give up to gain true treasure. That all of this takes place in one of the most visually stunning films I’ve ever seen, a film that is more resplendent as Bilbo journeys further from his possessions and deeper into the greater world, is all the more appropriate.
But as I said, that’s just one of the many precious stones one might pilfer from this dragon’s keep of a film. I can’t wait to see it again and to see its sequels in the years to come.