As a culture, we listen to stories or, in this case, watch movies, as a way to connect with the world around us. They help us connect not only with the emotions of others, but our own. The story of Dad simply getting lost that one time on his way to Grandma’s house becomes a grand tale of perseverance in the retelling. A barely missed car crash becomes a meditation on life and death. And, if the parents are the ones doing the recounting, a middle school band recital can become a performance for the ages.
Pressing the slightly unwieldy metaphor outward, most drama focuses on the emotions, and those of others, we struggle with everyday: Struggles with race, identity, security, or romance. Science fiction, for the most part, requires viewers to plug in to the emotions of where we’re going, whether it’s a troubling dystopia we must fight to avoid, or a utopia we are capable of reaching toward. Science fiction can be more of a challenge simply because it forces us to consider the possible consequences of our emotions. High fantasy, or The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in this case, can go down a little easier simply because the genre connects us to the emotions of where we’ve been: We came from a savage world of swords and monsters, and we triumphed. We can’t help but feel some deep, primeval stirring when we watch the hero win the day.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, directed by Peter Jackson and adapted from J.R.R. Tolkien’s seminal work of fiction by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Guillermo del Toro and Jackson is, first and foremost, a tale of almost mathematically precise mythology; storytelling techniques combined to tell a story we’ve all heard before. There’s a hesitant protagonist we know will grow into a hero. There’s a defeated prince looking for his path to redemption. There’s a kindly but powerful mentor. And the villain isn’t only destructive, but also insatiably greedy, keying into Biblical fears of gluttony and avarice. Despite the pointed ears and magic, these threads tie us together, whether we like it or not.
The whole story of Bilbo Baggins, portrayed in his youth by Martin Freeman and as an older Hobbit by the returning Ian Holm, was only hinted at in the original The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Jackson’s earlier Oscar-winning foray into Middle-Earth. The wizard Gandalf the Gray (Ian McKellen, having the time of his life) recruits the contented Bilbo as a member of a company of Dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), a prince of a fallen kingdom looking to retake his homeland from the evil dragon, Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, but not just yet). The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey aims to show why Gandalf has so much faith in the Hobbits, which becomes significantly important in the second trilogy.
Fortunately, new viewers don’t really need to know anything about The Lord of the Rings before embarking on this particular quest. Where George Lucas failed in returning to an easily-embraceable world with Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, Jackson and his collaborators graciously welcome audiences into theirs, confidently delivering exposition without letting the film drag. Unfortunately, the fantastical tropes of setting so far removed from the everyday can still present obstacles for the casual moviegoer. After all the drama and character development, you’re still watching a movie about Hobbits, Dwarves and a wizard on a quest to defeat a dragon.
Because the movie isn’t dealing with the elimination of evil in the metaphorical form of shiny jewelry, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is much simpler, in both tone and accessibility. Other than some particularly bloody battle scenes, it’s perfect to show to younger budding fantasy enthusiasts, who’ll likely be fascinated by the opening flashback, charmed by some early physical comedy, and invested in the rollicking, two-fisted heroics of Prince Thorin and his band. They might even identify with Bilbo’s struggles with his own courage.
Surprisingly, most of the film’s weakest spots have to do with connecting the film to The Lord of the Rings, with too much time dedicated to visiting Rivendell, appearances by Lord Elrond (Hugo Weaving) and Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), and Bilbo’s first meeting with Smeagol/Gollum. The motion-captured creature, played by a returning Andy Serkis, looks better than he did before, but not so much that it’s distracting. In fact, the production design by Dan Hennah perfectly syncs up with Grant Major’s work on the earlier trilogy. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is definitely part of a bigger whole, but serves as an invitation to a celebration of humanity, its stories and its legends, rather than an obtuse “Keep Out” sign. B