Why The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey Is the Best Film of the Trilogy - VRGyani News and Media

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Monday, August 9, 2021

Why The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey Is the Best Film of the Trilogy

It almost goes without saying that expanding The Hobbit into a trilogy was a mistake, and by all accounts the production was chaotic. Guillermo del Toro had developed the project for years before departing, and his exit put a time crunch on Peter Jackson to redesign the entire production shortly before filming began. Shooting without a completed script is generally not a good idea, particularly if it's one of the most expensive productions in history that also requires extensive visual effects work. To do so while also deciding at the last minute to make a two-part story into a trilogy is downright disastrous, and Jackson later admitted he was “winging it” most of the time.

It’s easy to list the issues these films have: shooting in a high frame rate was a gamble that didn’t pay off, the overreliance on CGI made the creatures look cartoony, and despite the excessive runtime, few characters had any depth. However, the film's success was limited from the beginning, as the simplicity of J.R.R. Tolkien’s original novel doesn’t justify the same epic adventure of The Lord of the Rings. Certainly there are elements of the original novel that retroactively help foreshadow Jackson’s trilogy, including the first appearance of Gollum (Andy Serkis), and Gandalf’s (Ian McKellen) search for Sauron’s origins were included in Tolkien’s appendices. However, The Hobbit itself is a story about a mild-mannered homebody who gets caught up in a treasure hunt.

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It’s almost unfair to call The Hobbit trilogy an adaptation of the 1937 novel, because in actuality it’s just a Lord of the Rings prequel that awkwardly foreshadows a more exciting adventure, undercutting its own story in the process. The dwarves’ quest to retake their homeland from Smaug has little stakes, because we know the infinitely greater threat of Sauron is just on the horizon. The second chapter The Desolation of Smaug is often cited as the trilogy’s high point because it comes the closest to capturing the tone of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but it's a film where Bilbo (Martin Freeman) is basically a supporting character. Of the trilogy, only the first film An Unexpected Journey actually makes use of Bilbo’s unique perspective.

Bilbo is not his nephew Frodo (Elijah Wood). He doesn’t leap at the sense of adventure, nor does he seek out new companions; even within the isolated world of The Shire, he’s relatively secluded from the other Hobbits. An Unexpected Journey plays up this “fish out of water” element as Bilbo is recruited for a quest he has no stake in, and Freeman perfectly captures Bilbo’s uncomfortability and awkwardness. The framing device of the elder Bilbo (Ian Holm) recounting his adventures to Frodo highlights the differences between the two. Compared to Frodo’s wide-eyed enthusiasm, Bilbo is reserved and even contemptuous at points, only opening up once he sees what life outside his narrow worldview actually looks like.

Replicating a similar structure to The Fellowship of the Rings actually benefits An Unexpected Journey because The Shire is integral to both stories. Before going on their adventures, Frodo and Bilbo both need to be living in an environment of innocence where the most dramatic occurrence is a squabble between families over party invitations. An Unexpected Journey luxuriates in The Shire and takes its time exploring how the Dwarves disrupt Bilbo’s routine, establishing a naivete that will be weathered by his adventure.

The similar structure also helps highlight the differences between the two Hobbits’ relationship with Gandalf. The bond that Lord of the Rings establishes through Gandalf’s return to The Shire isn’t present here, and seeing the elder wizard playfully tease Bilbo by bringing the chaotic Dwarves is a fun way to get Bilbo out of his comfort zone. Gandalf the Grey is more mischievous than when he became the authoritative “The White” in The Two Towers. Freeman and McKellen have fun banter before they’re burdened by the responsibilities of the quest.

Although it was frequently criticized for the wackier comedic elements, An Unexpected Journey is a children’s story so it makes sense to have a lighter touch. Tolkien’s original novel was aimed at children and didn’t bear the same intensity that The Lord of the Rings did. There’s physical comedy from the Dwarves running rampant within Bilbo’s kitchen and toilet humor coming from goofy Trolls. The second two films took a more serious approach (the extended edition of The Battle of the Five Armies was even Rated-R for its graphic violence), but An Unexpected Journey retains its fairy tale-like quality. Jackson treats many of these creatures with playfulness: it makes sense for the Goblin King to be an eccentric first threat before the graver menace of Smaug is introduced.

The strongest tie between The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings is the scene in which Bilbo receives the ring from Gollum (Andy Serkis), something Tolkien himself revised in later editions of the novel in order to tie them closer together. While it has connotations for the fate of the One Ring, the scene in An Unexpected Journey helps highlight Bilbo’s character growth. The game of riddles with Gollum shows Bilbo’s inventiveness, and his aptitude for storytelling which Gandalf mocked early on saves him in a dire situation. Bilbo’s decision to spare Gollum’s life reminds the viewer that despite his newfound resourcefulness, the adventure hasn’t changed his soft heart. In a fleeting look, Bilbo recognizes a mistreated soul within Gollum without knowing he was once a creature not dissimilar from a Hobbit; it's a brilliantly acted moment between Freeman and Serkis.

The weakest parts of An Unexpected Journey are those that stray from Bilbo’s perspective. The conflict between Thorin and the Orc chief Azog (Manu Bennett) was an underdeveloped storyline throughout the trilogy. The Dwarves’ desire to return home is constantly undercut when the films divert and start introducing more Lord of the Rings characters, but the final conflict with the Orcs in An Unexpected Journey works because it shows Bilbo’s merit within the quest. Thorin’s ambition gets the better of him, and Bilbo’s willingness to take on Azog shows just how much he’s grown since his diminutive introduction. It’s a great moment of development for both characters: Thorin is humbled and recants his harsh early words about the Hobbit, and Bilbo realizes he’s become invested in helping the Dwarves find a home as comforting as the Shire is to him. It functions perfectly as the middle point in a two-part adventure, as it was originally intended to be.

The Hobbit films are largely underwhelming, but there’s merit in all three. Desolation of Smaug features some jaw dropping spectacle and incredible motion capture work from Benedict Cumberbatch, and The Battle of the Five Armies is genuinely weird thanks to grotesque creature feature elements reminiscent of Jackson’s early horror work like Bad Taste, Meet the Feebles, and Braindead. The two sequels are a collection of fun scenes and callbacks that never coalesce into a cohesive narrative, but An Unexpected Journey actually remembers who is telling the story. Ironically lost within his own trilogy, Bilbo’s individuality is only the focus of the opening chapter; a story that’s also referred to as There and Back Again at least gets the first half right.

KEEP READING: 'Lord of the Rings' Timeline Explained: Middle-earth from 'The Silmarillion' to 'The Hobbit' & Beyond



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