Warning: this post contains spoilers. If you don't want to know, don't read it!
"The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" is composed of excellent bits. Indeed, taken as 90%, it's absolutely wonderful. Unfortunately, taken as a piece, as 100%, I'm not actually sure I liked it all that much.
The root of my disatisfaction lies, in large part, in the transformation of these films from an adaptation of "The Hobbit" - that absolutely wonderful children's book - into a prequel to "The Lord of the Rings". Because, amongst other things, prequels suck. But also because in doing so they have significantly transformed the story, its tone and its content, into something that really isn't in the text.
Firstly, the good:
The cast are generally excellent. Gandalf is exactly as we have seen and expect him. Most of the dwarves are spot-on - capturing the slightly bumbling nature of their group while also drawing out their personalities (in a way that the novel generally didn't). Elrond is exactly as he should be, being recognisably the same character as in LotR, without being quite the same stern, forbidding presence as in that trilogy. Likewise, the returning Gollum was just right.
And Martin Freeman is perfect as Bilbo Baggins.
Likewise, the film does a really good job of setting the scene, of explaining why the dwarves are doing what they are doing, and explaining also why these dwarves are doing what they are doing. And the action set-pieces are mostly well set up and executed.
I wasn't overly impressed with Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield. For the most part, he's absolutely fine, and in particular his discussion with Balin about the courage shown by his comrades was excellent. But his dislike to Bilbo really seemed too forced at times. And at times he seemed to be trying too hard to be Viggo Mortensen's Aragorn, where he really isn't. (Indeed, I hope Aragorn barely features in the next two films, because otherwise he's liable to steal the show.)
I was also largely unimpressed with Radagast, although this mostly wasn't the actor's fault. Rather, it was because of a very unfortunate chase sequence featuring Radagast and his chariot and some warg riders - a scene that was both rather confusing and pointless (and seemed designed to show off the special effects trickery), and that also featured some truly bad CGI. (I would say it was made-for-TV bad, but even that would be unfair - I would take the best of "Merlin" to beat that scene quite handily.) But then, maybe that would work better in 3D?
Speaking of showing off the CGI, I also got the impression that much of the segment in the Goblin Village was largely intended to showcase the 3D effects - it featured an awful lot of swinging about, moving camera angles, and falling off of things. In 2D, the impression I got was that they were doing level design for the inevitable "Lego Hobbit: the Video Game", because otherwise it seemed to be mostly superfluous.
Oh, and finally, one nitpick: those "riddles in the dark" seemed awfully well-lit!
But those were my only criticisms of the adaptation of "The Hobbit", and those are mostly pretty nitpicky.
My single biggest issue, though, was the additional material brought in to make this a prequel to the "Lord of the Rings". Now, this is all largely derived from Tolkien's work, being in the appendices to LotR, so it's not entirely invented. However, it suffers from the major problem of all prequels - it's concerning itself with a story that has already been told, and about which very little of any significance can truly be revealed. We don't need to see the White Council, because we already know that Saruman is a bit of an arse. The debate over whether the Witch King has returned, or where that Morgul Blade came from, is pointless - we already know.
And I didn't like the seeming need to shoehorn in so many familiar faces - Frodo, Galadriel, Saruman... This suffers from exactly the same problem as when the Star Wars prequels insisted on including R2-D2, C-3P0, Chewbacca, Yoda... Rather than expanding the canvas on which the story takes place, they actually contract it - it seems that everything of importance in that world happens to the same half-dozen people.
Fundamentally, that story has been told. I would much rather they had instead focussed on telling this story. "The Hobbit" is a great book; it doesn't need to be expanded in this manner.
I wouldn't mind the prequel-isation of the films, though, were it not for their effect on the film. As I mentioned right at the top, "The Hobbit" is a children's book. But the film is 2 hours and 45 minutes in length, and tells only a third of the story. It's too long - indeed, it really felt like I was watching the Extended Edition right there on the screen. But where the LotR Extended Editions are all genuine improvements on the theatrical versions, my distinct impression here was that this film would have been vastly improved had it been half an hour shorter.
The prequel-isation also had an effect on the tone of the film - this was a much more adult story, with a growing sense of impending doom, and a significant amount of violence (in the same vein as in LotR - it's certainly not a gore-fest). But there's barely any violence in the book, and it certainly doesn't get the sort of lingering attention as was the case here. Basically, if your children's book warrants a 12A certificate, something may be wrong.
(Not that I have anything against a more adult film, per se. But it's a question of tone - I no more want to see a kiddified "Hamlet" than I want to see sex, violence, and gore in "The Wind in the Willows". Oh, and I would very much like to see this team get a chance at "Children of Hurin". That could be a truly excellent film.)
I'm actually finding it quite hard to strike the right balance here. See, I did enjoy the film, a great deal. As I said, taken as 90% it was genuinely excellent. It's just that the weaknesses are there, are significant, and I can't really overlook them.
I'll probably be going to see this again at some point (this time in 3D), and I'll no doubt get the eventual blu-ray. So make of that what you will.
In closing, I thought I would note one final, hugely positive aspect of the film. As with the Star Wars prequels, the single best part of this film was the music. Howard Shore has returned to Middle Earth, and like John Williams before him has turned in a magnificent soundtrack - at once distinct from the original and yet clearly of the same species. Good work, and I look forward to using it for gaming purposes.
#52: "The Worldwound Gambit", by Robin Laws