The Common Good

First Look — 'The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey'

This will be a night to remember! 

Dave M. Benett/WireImage/ Getty Images
Cast attend the Royal Film Performance of 'The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey' on Dec. 12.Dave M. Benett/WireImage

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On Monday, I had the opportunity of attending an advance screening of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey with a good childhood friend of mine. I sat in my favorite movie-watching seat (a few rows back and dead center), munching on free popcorn and drinks provided by a fellow moviegoer who wanted nothing more than to ensure that his entire row in the theater was happy and well-fed (not too unlike a Hobbit, really).

Just before the lights dimmed, I remember thinking how perfect the whole moment was. However, as exciting and as wonderful as those final moments of anticipation were, I also couldn’t help but wonder if I might be setting my expectations too high for the film that was about to come.

It turns out I needn’t have worried.

One of the most striking things about the film is just how carefully Peter Jackson manages to balance the childlike qualities of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit – written some 18 years before the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and before much of his mythology for the world had been fully fleshed out – while still maintaining continuity with the darker elements of the first three films. Content from 125 pages of Appendices also written by Tolkien is carefully woven in, helping to create a richer and more complete story.

This first installment of The Hobbit is certainly a little more playful in nature and perhaps a little less epic in scope than its movie predecessors – and that’s OK! Bilbo’s tale takes place in a world not yet in need of saving; the threats that plague the characters throughout the Lord of the Rings are still but whispers and riddles in the dark when Bilbo first sets out from his hobbit hole to help a band of dwarves reclaim their lost homeland.

In fact, the real magic of The Hobbit isn’t found in grandiose battle sequences, or in the imminent dangers of the quest itself (which may or may not include incineration by a dragon). It isn’t even found in the new 48 frames-per-second High Frame Rate that the film is being released in.

Instead, this film finds its true magic and valor in the power of its many small, seemingly insignificant, acts of courage, mercy, and grace.

Indeed, it is Bilbo’s slow transition from a homely hobbit with no worldly experience beyond his maps and books, who faints at words like “incineration” and tries to stop his entire traveling party over a lost handkerchief, to the kind of hobbit that would willingly jump in front of a blade to save friend and companion Thorin Oakenshield that is the driving force of this tale. Because so much of the story rides on these small moments of mounting courage, the casting of Bilbo becomes all the more important, and Martin Freeman proves time and time again with each bewildered glance and every action of steadfast strength that he was made for this role. 

At one point, faced with an opportunity to slay the creature Gollum, Bilbo instead chooses to heed the words of Gandalf that were spoken to him when he first received his blade: “True courage is about not knowing when to take a life, but when to spare one.” He stays his hand. The importance of this decision will eventually come to determine the fate of all of Middle Earth, but for Bilbo this is was but one small act of mercy, born in a moment of pity for a creature in mourning. It is one of the most subtly powerful moments in the entire film.

In the end I leave it to Gandalf to sum up the importance of Bilbo’s character, in all his simplicity, his innocence, and his love: “Saruman believes that it is only great power that can hold evil in check. But that is not what I’ve found. I found it is the small things, everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keeps the darkness at bay – simple acts of kindness and love. Why Bilbo Baggins? Perhaps it is because I’m afraid, and he gives me courage.”

Is The Hobbit worth seeing in 48fps (High Frame Rate)?

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is the first movie to offer the option of viewing in 3D at 48 frames-per-second (High Frame Rate), rather than the standard 24fps. The higher frame rate eliminates motion blur and reduces the flicker that would normally be found in films, allowing for a crisper, more realistic looking movie. For my part, I was both awed and at times slightly distracted by it. There were a few moments I actually wished I could turn the higher frame rate off just to be able to focus on the story without the constant awareness of how very real it all looked! I’d personally still say, yes, it’s worth it, but allow time to let your eyes and brain adjust to the new format.

Is there really enough material for a whole trilogy?

So far it would appear so. Peter Jackson is drawing both from the events of The Hobbit and events that are further explained in the 125-page appendix provided by Tolkien. The appendix was at one point even potentially considered for use in a Hobbit rewrite (that idea was eventually abandoned, but Tolkien was kind enough to provide us with the information anyway). I found the pacing of the film quite enjoyable, and I was glad that Peter Jackson took the time to flesh out all of the characters we will be getting to know over the course of the next two films.

What characters from the original trilogy do we get to see again?

There are quite a few returning characters: Elrond, Galadriel, Frodo, Bilbo (the older, Ian Holmes version who narrates the story), and Gollum, to name a few. Bilbo’s scene with Gollum is one of the best in the whole film. Legolas is not in this first movie, though he is expected to show up in the second film as Thranduil’s son. We also see Lindir, an elf once called “Figwit” in the original trilogy by fans (just Google it).

Do we see Smaug in this film?

**Potential spoiler alert!** 

Unfortunately in this first installment all we really get to see is the aftermath of Smaug’s destruction, though at the very end of the film we are treated to an eyeball and part of his face peering out from beneath a mountain of gold. We do, however, get to catch a few glimpses and hear a few words from The Necromancer, also played by Benedict Cumberbatch. 

When are the next films being released?

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey comes to theaters on Friday. Its two sequels, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug and The Hobbit: There and Back Again will be released on Dec. 13, 2013 and July 18, 2014, respectively.

Krystal Brewer is Resources and Circulation Assistant for Sojourners.

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