I had the chance to see The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey over the holidays with relatively low expectations. While I liked Peter Jackson's interpretation of The Lord of the Rings well enough, I felt like there was little need for a Hobbit movie, much less three of them. Besides that, I also thought that there was a very good chance that these new films could suffer the same fate as the Star Wars prequel trilogy. And no, it's probably not what you think (see below). After seeing this movie, however, I think most of my fears have been misplaced.
As a fantasy movie all on its own, I think it's one of the best ever, sitting proudly side-by-side with the LotR trilogy. Contrary to what others have said, I feel that this movie did an even better job of putting Middle-Earth on the big screen even outdoing the LotR movies in this regard. I'm in love with New Zealand, the landscapes were a kaleidoscopic of colorful vistas that felt almost exactly like what I had envisioned of Tolkien's fantasy world.
And yes, this was a D&D movie through and through. I almost wonder if some D&D players were advising PJ and the other producers during this as some of the elements are too coincidental to not have some RPG connections. Unlike LotR, this was a classic, "orthodox" fantasy quest, about greedy heroes and a menagerie of cool villains.
The added bits to tie The Hobbit together with LotR (beyond just the ring) was brilliant and warrants the three films. Going into this I was under the impression this was simply a cash grab. Now, I don't think it is. It is far more than The Hobbit, it's a film that fills in the missing pieces of the LotR story with Biblo's tale added on.
From a purist's point of view, however, the film was the biggest mess in the PJ Tolkien series yet. In most cases, this doesn't bother me too much, like the troll battle, Thorin's more complex character, and Radaghast. My biggest and most unforgiveable gripe was [spoilers ahead] Azog. Read the Durin appendix and you'll see why. As the story goes, he was clearly beheaded and had no business coming back to chase Thorin around. Now this wouldn't normally be a problem for me because I'm okay with story changes to spice things up for theatrical purposes, but in this case, this change wasn't needed at all.
You see, Azog's son, Bolg, is the one who goes after Thorin and ends up leading the goblins at the battle of five armies. Why, oh why, did PJ have messed with this? Revenge is one of the best story tropes ever and it would have worked beautifully juxtaposed to Thorin's OWN story of revenge against Smaug. Now we have this weird god in the machine albino, captain hook Orc, situation to make lemonade out of lemonades. This simply wasn't needed. The son revenge story would have worked just as well (or better) AND stayed true to cannon. I wouldn't have even cared if Thorin had killed Azog himself, just as long as we had the right Orc going after him.
Other than that, a few scenes did bother me a bit. The attempt to shoehorn in Frodo and Ian Holme's Bilbo in the beginning was just a mess and completely unnecessary. Not only did they look wrong make-up-wise, the scene just felt awkward (Was it just me or did Elijah Wood look like he was anorexic?). The Goblin City battle made me wince a few times, turning the party into invincible/comical super heroes. I thought the Radagast chase sequence was too long and poorly done as it was needlessly shot in two completely different locations making the whole thing feel unrealistic and disjointed.
This is a funny movie because I can find faults with almost every scene in the film for one reason or another, yet it's the sum of its collective parts that redeem the whole. The movie just feels good from start to finish, notwithstanding the cringe-inducing moments. Other than that, the movie was a win overall. Problems notwithstanding, I know it could have been far worse, and that's more than good enough for me.
My biggest fear, above all else going into this movie, was the expectation that it would try to "out-epic" the LotR trilogy. What I mean by that is I think there was a real temptation to make everything bigger and better than its counterpart. Afterall, Jackson was sitting on over a decade of improved CG technology and far more wiggling room from his studio that could have very easily out-done the original series. Even though most can agree that the Star Wars prequels were inferior to its predecessors, Lucas had this very same problem. Because of technological wizardry, the prequel films feel far grander and more "big" than the originals. This would have been a terrible thing had it happened to Tolkien's work.
But it didn't. The music was less memorable, the CG was relatively on par with the others, the acting was about-as-good, and the entire feel of the film matched the tone of the LoTR movies fairly well in size and scope. That's a good thing. The LotR novel series is and should remain the superior literary story, and I think PJ respected that. Above all else, that's the most important thing for me in this series - make it good, but not too good. That's a lot harder to do than it sounds, but I think Peter Jackson pulled it off, bumps and all, in The Hobbit. There are two more films that could change my mind, but we're off to a pretty darn good start.