Film Reviews

Film Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey & The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug Both Start Slow But Finish Strong

After viewing The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug yesterday, I immediately watched The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey at home, my first time viewing the movie since it was in theaters last year.  As their narratives are so intertwined, I decided to review both films as well as weigh in on the entire idea of doing The Hobbit as a trilogy.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Last year’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey unexpectedly re-ignited my dormant Lord of the Rings fandom, as I had not watched any of the original trilogy films in nearly a decade. After seeing Unexpected Journey I practically escaped to my own hobbit hole in the ground, spending an entire weekend marathon viewing all three Lord of the Rings films. We’re talking the extended director’s cuts here, as in the ones that have as much as 50 minutes of additional footage. 

But that was not enough to satisfy my Tolkien-needs. No, I also had to watch every single special feature on the DVDs, which I had somehow never viewed before. Plus, at the risk of officially over-sharing because this is where it gets really sad, after watching the extended editions proper I even re-watched them with the DVD commentaries from director Peter Jackson and co-screenwriters Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens. 

Lord of Rings Legolas
Fun aside: They, too, think Legolas’ odd “they run as if the very whips of their masters were behind them” line from the beginning of Two Towers doesn’t quite work.

While my experience is inarguably on the extreme side of things, I know from anecdotal evidence it is also not an entirely unique response to Unexpected Journey.

As the first film in a new prequel trilogy, Journey was tasked with the burden of re-establishing the cinematic universe of Middle Earth and bridging the gap between the original films and the new.  As a result, it begins with a lengthy voice-over and extended cameo from Ian Holm’s Bilbo Baggins, who we see writing his book and preparing for his birthday party – you know, the birthday party he has at the beginning of Fellowship of the Ring. Once Elijah Wood shows up to say a quick hello before going off to surprise Gandalf (Ian McKellan) on the road into the Shire, ala their first scene in Fellowship of the Ring, you’d be forgiven for wanting to jump into the screen and merely follow Frodo through the door as he departs for the beginning of his own amazing adventure. 

But, alas, we were stuck with a meandering tale of a young Bilbo (Martin Freeman, doing his basic Martin Freeman performance) and bunch of interchangeable dwarfs running from things, but not before they’ve had a good meal, cleaned the dishes, and looked off into the distance during a solemn sing-a-long. Gimli was awesome and hilarious. These guys?  Neither particularly awesome nor annoying; merely present, save the thick slab of smoldering man-meat that continues to be Richard Armitage’s Thorin.

However, this was largely unavoidable based on the source material, the 300-page children’s book The Hobbit, and Peter Jackson & Co.’s extremely curious decision to split it up into three films instead of two.  The Hobbit is a novel in which the hapless protagonists pretty much keep getting captured and almost killed, saved on almost every occasion by either Bilbo or Gandalf, the latter of whom disappears for stretches at a time seemingly just so Tolkien could bring him back to save the day.  It culminates in a genuinely awesome confrontation with a dragon and a subsequent messy land claim squirmish between various factions who ultimately have to combine their forces against a common enemy (aka The Battle of the Five Armies).

The destination of this particular hero’s quest is to fell a dragon for the purpose of reclaiming a homeland and bounty of gold. Those are solid, if basic story ingredients; they’re just nowhere near as compelling as Rings’ heightened tale of battling the most evil thing in all of creation in order to save the world.

Smaug is but a potential ally to the ultimate evil, Sauron, who we know as the big giant red eye in the sky.

So, The Hobbit is a story which is comparatively lacking in character, narrative stakes, drama, and action. It’s a far lighter story pitched more to children, thus necessitating a more low-brow humorous set of villains like the three trolls. However, there is enough there to make a perfectly enjoyable, if inferior couple of movies, but three of them?

For a 300 page book?

This is where narrative license comes into play. After having lovingly brought Tolkien’s creation to life in the Rings trilogy, Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens are arguably now the world’s leading experts on Tolkien (except for maybe Stephen Colbert).Their decision to turn this into a trilogy likely comes from a pure place of passion for the material and intention to take more risks this time around.  They have drawn upon Tolkien’s infamous Appendices which describe the history of Middle Earth to integrate further exploration of Gandalf’s frequent extended absences from the travelling party as well as raise stakes of the story.  They have also elaborated on some things and just flat out created entirely unique characters and scenes of their own.

J R R Tolkien
Tolkien tried to re-write The Hobbit in 1960 to fall more in line with the tone of Lord of the Rings until his publisher made him stop.   Jackson & Co. are largely doing that for him now.

Yet Jackson & Co. seem to have lost their mojo through the opening hours of An Unexpected Journey, which while not horrible is rather nondescript and unquestionably padded with needless exposition and needed-to-kill-some-screen-time action sequences (like the fighting mountains).  They were largely hindered by just how many familiar Lord of the Rings story elements show up.  It is difficult for our new characters to establish themselves when they are preceded by Frodo and the original Bilbo and later encounter those with which we have far more history, like Elrond, Sarumon, and Galadriel in a familiar location (Rivendell) with a familiar musical score. It might actually work better if you’ve never seen Lord of the Rings, and these are just random god-like entities who show up for a bit and then are gone. However, the film’s lack of explanation for these people indicates they assume its audience has seen Rings.


You’d still be hard-pressed to even know the names of any of the dwarves except for Thorin and Balin (the old one with grey hair who gets the back-story speeches). Beyond that, you could maybe describe some of them (e.g., the one with the unibrow, the one with the funny hair and mustache, the brothers who don’t actually have beards).

Then Gollum shows up around the 2 hour mark, and Unexpected Journey takes on a whole new life. Andy Serkis’ motion-captured performance again presents Gollum as an oddly menacing but pitiable creature.  His riddles in the dark with an increasingly clever Bilbo (Martin Freeman) crackles with an edge-of-your-seat energy, partially because you might be straining to understand all of Gollum’s garbled lines, but also because the tension is ratcheted up so effectively you fear for Bilbo’s safety despite knowing he clearly survives the encounter.

Hobbit-Part-1-An-Unexpected-Journey-2012-gollumFrom that point forward, Unexpected Journey barrels forward with enthralling action, going out on a high note that is only slightly undercut by the honest question that can pretty much unmake both The Hobbit and all three Lord of the Rings: if Gandalf can enlist the aid of the eagles to fly them from danger why on Middle Earth can’t the eagles just fly them all the way to their destination? There is an in-universe, ultra-geeky Tolkien-riffic explanation involving the society of the eagles (though the films never actually give that explanation), but the real answer is because if the eagles did that then there’d be no story. However, based on what Unexpected Journey offers there’s not much of a story here anyway.

The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug

Journey fails to completely justify its own existence, beyond mere Lord of the Rings nostalgia, before pulling it all together in its final third and whetting our appetite to finally see the damn dragon they kept talking about. Now, it is a year later and The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug is here, opening to fewer box office dollars than Unexpected Journey but  more enthusiastic reviews. This is supposed to be the bigger and better sequel, the one which finally feels worthy of the Rings franchise.

Unfortunately, with Smaug Peter Jackson & Co. again struggle to know how to start their story, but again make-up for it with an astounding final third which ends so abruptly the audience at the screening I attended seemed to unanimously respond with incredulous laughter, one person shouting, “Oh, come on!” That at least means we all wanted to see how this was going to end, even if we already read the book/appendices and have guessed where this headed. However, it’s also means Smaug is ultimately all rising action with no climax.

There is no great ending speech from a character tying everything together

Smaug attempts in its very first scene to shift Journey’s focus on Bilbo to a focus on Thorin for the sequel. So, we open with Gandalf and Thorin’s first meeting a year prior to the events of Journey. In this short scene, we learn the plan to reclaim The Lonely Mountain is pretty much entirely Gandalf’s idea, and we witness how low Thorin had fallen, dining alone at The Prancing Pony with mercenaries closing on him from all sides.

We then pick up the story sometime after the events of Journey. Azog the Defiler (Manu Bennett) and his pack of arcs are still hunting Thorin and the dwarves, but Azog and Gandalf quickly vacate this plot line to instead be inserted into a parallel story involving the rise of the necromancer, who commands Azog in non-corporeal form from a ruined fortress and who Gandalf and Radagast (Sylvester McCoy, toned down and more enjoyable this time around) suspects might actually be Sauron.

Left on their own again, the dwarves predictably get lost, captured, almost die, Bilbo saves them, rinse and repeat. This formula encompasses both an encounter with some nasty looking giant spiders as well as an extended stay with the wood elves, whose king is Captain Douchebag (okay, he’s actually Thranduil played by Lee Pace from Pushing Daisies, but my nickname is an accurate assessment of his characterization), aka, Legolas’ heretofore unseen dad.

Empire Hobbit Header
Left to Right: Lily, Bloom, and Pace as Tauriel, Legolas, and Thranduil

The inclusion of Legolas here is enjoyable though not entirely necessary. This slightly younger, more naïve Legolas continues to be a delight to see in action scenes. Less successful is his shoehorned love triangle with a completely unique character to the films, Tauriel (Evangeline Lily), a Lady-Sif-from-Thor-like female warrior who is captain of the guard.  Complicating their mutual affection is Kili (Aidan Turner), one of Thorin’s dwarves who forms a bond with Tauriel even from behind the bars of a wood elf prison cell.

Aidan Turner as Captain Smolder, I mean Kili

This feels like material inserted to provide romance to a source material which has none. However, Tauriel is such a scene-stealer and general bad-ass that a love triangle or romance of any kind seems completely unnecessary. She’s already captivating enough without also having to field the advances of two doofy guys.

I can’t help but notice we haven’t gotten to the dragon yet?

Yeah, keep waiting. Before we get there we have to watch an admittedly fun action sequence involving draws in barrels, preternaturally graceful and badass elves in pursuit, and a raging river. Then we meet Bard the Boatsman (Luke Evans). Stephen Fry shows up to suck up screen time as an extraneous semi-villain, a leader of a drab placed named Laketown.

Mercifully, this all eventually gets us to Smaug, the most perfectly realized dragon yet captured on film, with a frame that is as astounding to the viewer as it is to Bilbo. While his voice has clearly been digitally enhanced, Benedict Cumberbatch signature baritone is instantly recognizable, and while he’s not Scarlett-Johansson-in-Her-good his sly and foreboding Smaug is the best part of this movie.

Smaug is this movie’s Gollum, with Bilbo’s encounter with Smaug granted almost as faithful a treatment as his riddles with Gollum.

Other aspects of the narrative are more difficult to assess as they, more so than in The Two Towers, are all set-up with no pay-off.  Everything we learn about Bard and Laketown and Thranduil and the Wood Elves will likely pay off in the next film.  Evans does make for an interesting addition as Bard, although he and Armitage together on the same screen is perhaps more brooding than the film can handle.  More progress is made with Gandalf’s investigation of the necromancer, which does build to an genuinely awesome action sequence.  However, it, too, is left as mostly set-up. 

The performances from the actors remain reliable, with the returning actors good-to-great (Armitage, Freeman, McKellan, Bloom, Turner) and some of the new truly standing out (Lily, Evans). Unfortunately for a film called The Hobbit, Freeman actually gets a little lost in the shuffle, overshadowed by the likes of Legolas and others before getting his showcase with Smaug.  However, Freeman’s one real moment in the film of a hint of the ring’s corruptive influence is played beautifully in an extended, speechless reaction shot.

The special effects are cutting edge, with seamless transition between practical footage and effects and completely computer-generated. Smaug, in particular, is astounding. The 3D adds depth, an errant bee being the most notable exception of throwing something directly at the screen since it’s 3D. If you see it in 3D HFR, know that the experimental high frame speed continues to present unexpected consequences, such as inducing nausea in audiences as well as actually drawing unwanted focus to the artifice of the sets and effects.  I saw it in 3D HFR and adjusted rather quickly.


Screencrush recently argued the Hobbit films are not real movies but instead exploitation films for Tolkien nuts and Lord of the Rings enthusiast . Our potential enjoyment of them, the argument went, is “more of an involuntary reaction to exposure to certain elements, not the summation of a film.” There is a fair bit of truth to that argument.  However, neither An Unexpected Journey nor The Desolation of Smaug make for completley unenjoyable viewing experiences.

Both films suffer from cold starts but benefit from hot finishes. Smaug is the better paced and more thrilling of the two, though by comparison Journey seems more adept at maintaining Bilbo’s place in the narrative and providing him with an emotional throughline. In both cases, there is too much waiting for the film to finally start clicking. Smaug happens to click earlier, and its best parts are far superior to Journey‘s best parts.

Tolkien purists will have far more to complain about with Smaug than any prior Lord of the Rings/Hobbit film. Jackson, Walsh and Boyens have put their own stamp on the story with entirely new characters, backgrounds for existing characters, plot points, etc. However, once you get to that dragon…behold his splendor! Just don’t expect any closure.

Of course, that’s to be expected from the middle installment of a trilogy, but Smaug doesn’t end on a series of downnotes like Empire Strikes Back. It just stops, which feels oddly appropriate since at the end of the day all involved might have been better off simply stoppping after Lord of the Rings and leaving The Hobbit alone. But, hey, that dragon’s pretty damn cool.


What did you think?  Like it?  Hate it?  Let us know in the comments section.


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