Home > Reviews > THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY – Howard Shore


December 17, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

thehobbitaujOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

They say you can never go home again, but that’s not true for Howard Shore, the multi-award winning Canadian composer of the music for The Lord of the Rings. Prior to the release of the first LOTR film, The Fellowship of the Ring, in 2001, Shore was a respected but generally little-known composer, best known for writing a series of dark, brooding scores for director David Cronenberg, and thrillers like Seven and The Silence of the Lambs. Even when he was first announced as the composer for Fellowship, many commentators questioned whether Shore had the thematic strength to write the broad and expansive music the films required. Fast forward a decade, and Shore is a three-time Oscar winner and international film music superstar, with impressive album sales, sold-out concerts, and massive critical acclaim. When director Peter Jackson announced that he was making a new Middle Earth trilogy based on JRR Tolkien’s book The Hobbit, it was never a question of whether Howard Shore would return to score the films, but whether the music would stand up to the massive hype and sense of expectation that inevitably came with it’s release. For better or worse, the Lord of the Rings scores have become some of the best-loved of the new millennium, and for many fans whose first experience of film music came through those films and Shore’s now-iconic themes, there was bound to be an unimaginable sense of anticipation. So does The Hobbit continue the trend of excellent music in Middle Earth? The answer is yes and no, but not for reasons you might think.

The Hobbit takes place 60 years before the events of The Lord of the Rings, and essentially tells the story of how Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit of the Shire, came to be in possession of the One Ring which acted as the catalyst for the action of that trilogy. Jackson has split the book into three films, with this first installment, subtitled ‘An Unexpected Journey’ being followed by Part 2, The Desolation of Smaug, in 2013, and the final part, There And Back Again, in 2014. The plot concerns Bilbo (Martin Freeman) being visited in his home by the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen), and effectively coerced into accompanying Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and a company of 12 dwarves on a dangerous journey across the wilds of Middle Earth, towards Erebor, the ancient home of the dwarf lords. Generations before, Erebor was overrun by a vicious dragon named Smaug, who claimed the city’s vast treasures of gold and left the dwarves essentially homeless. Thorin, for his part, has resolved to kill Smaug and restore the dwarves to their rightful home. Along the way, Bilbo and company visit Rivendell, the home of the elf king Elrond, are menaced by trolls and goblins and an especially nasty tribe of vengeful orcs, and encounter a curious creature named Gollum (Andy Serkis) deep beneath the Misty Mountains, from whom Bilbo acquires a mysterious golden ring. Not only that, but the company begin to realize that a darker power is emerging in the form of a nameless necromancer, whose shadowy presence begins to affect everything in Middle Earth…

To state this upfront: for the most part, An Unexpected Journey is a pretty good film. Martin Freeman, Andy Serkis, Richard Armitage, and most of the cast are more than acceptable. The film is visually spectacular, and the splendor of New Zealand remains unparalleled as a fantasy location. The ‘riddles in the dark’ scene between Bilbo and Gollum is wonderful and filled with menace and tension, and the extended cameos from Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett, Christopher Lee, Ian Holm and Elijah Wood ensure that thespian continuity between the trilogies is maintained to excellent effect.

The main problems I have with An Unexpected Journey as a film are twofold: firstly, Peter Jackson generally fails to adequately combine the much more light-hearted and comedic elements inherent in Tolkien’s original story – which was, lest we forget, intended to be children’s book – with the necessarily darker and more menacing aspects which foreshadow the events leading to the rise of Sauron at the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring. It’s jarring to go from scenes of happy dwarves throwing around crockery and singing drinking songs, to scenes of Radagast the Brown fighting off wannabe Ringwraiths, then back to scenes where the dwarves encounter a trio of comedy trolls with South London accents and an obsession with cooking. Jackson clearly wants to capture everything at once, but the juxtaposition of slapstick comedy and occasionally quite dark and disturbing action doesn’t work as well as it needed to, resulting in a film that has a muddled overall tone.

Secondly, the special effects for some of the fantasy characters are, quite frankly, appalling, looking more like video game characters than the realistic menaces that inhabited Lord of the Rings. The chief antagonist Azog, the Warg beasts that Azog and his orcs ride, and the Great Goblin king are especially poor in this regard, the latter coming across as the bloated CGI love child of Jabba the Hutt and Boss Nass from Star Wars. Some of the action sequences are also terribly cartoonish, with no real sense of peril on the part of the protagonists. The dwarves’ escape from the goblin city seems awfully contrived, while the convenient deus ex machina resolutions to several seemingly impossible situations, most of which involve Gandalf, smack of lazy writing, despite the ideas originally having sprung from Tolkien himself.

The issue of the score is complicated, because the score you hear on CD and the score you hear in the film are markedly different. For issues that can only relate to last-minute editing, there are scenes in the film which contain leitmotivic thematic statements that are wildly at odds with what’s going on on-screen, while significant portions of the music heard on the soundtrack album do not feature in the film at all. It’s frustrating, because Shore spent so much time in Lord of the Rings carefully crafting an elaborate musical tapestry of interlinking ideas that connect characters, locations and concepts so specifically, that when (for example) you hear the Nazgûl theme from Fellowship in a climactic scene in The Hobbit that has absolutely nothing to do with the Nazgûl, it sort of destroys the point of Shore taking so much care and attention to the structure of the music the way he did. This is one of several examples the clear-eared will be able to notice during the film, and to be perfectly frank it spoils the effect a little. The majority of casual listeners and cinema-goers will not notice, or care, but for those of us who do it makes it an exasperating experience.

On CD, however, the score really shines. As one would expect, An Unexpected Journey inhabits exactly the same sonic world as The Lord of the Rings trilogy, with a full symphony orchestra augmented by various instrumental soloists, unusual percussion items, and vocalists carrying a vast array of interwoven thematic ideas, new and old. A great deal of the score is familiar and comfortable, with multiple performances of multiple themes Shore originally wrote for the Lord of the Rings trilogy, although Shore does take care not to simply re-state themes verbatim, instead hinting at them, re-orchestrating them, or playing around with different tempos and counterpoints.

The idyllic Irish-inflected themes for The Shire appear in much of the score’s opening, notably in “My Dear Frodo” and “Old Friends”, and there is a rambunctious re-worked version later in “The Adventure Begins” that echoes the “Shortcut to Mushrooms” sequence from Fellowship, where Frodo and company’s adventure also began. The mystical theme for the elves of Rivendell, complete with angelic voices and harp glissandi, appears in a beautifully lush setting during “The Hidden Valley”, and is joined by Galadriel’s elegant theme in the low-key but complex “White Council” sequence – listen for the almost subliminal single performance of the brass line of the Isengard motif at 2:15 when Saruman makes his presence felt! A soft woodwind performance of the “In Dreams” melody from Fellowship appears during the first half of “Over Hill”, and there’s even a quick blast of the Lothlorien motif on low brass towards the end of “Warg-Scouts”, before the familiar snake-like theme for the One Ring makes a cameo appearance during “Riddles in the Dark”, illustrating to the audience it’s malevolent influence over the pathetic life of Gollum.

The enormous Gothic outbursts of orchestral and choral power that accompanied many of Lord of the Rings’s battle scenes are also very much in evidence here, from the Erebor flashback sequence in the second half of “My Dear Frodo” – which has more than a hint of “The Bridge of Khazad-Dûm” to it – to the overwhelmingly dark “An Ancient Enemy”, the loping and muscular “Warg-Scouts”, the dramatic “A Thunder Battle”, “Under Hill”, and the enormously exciting conclusive trio, “Brass Buttons”, “Out of the Frying Pan” and “A Good Omen”. Shore regularly goes all-out in these battle sequences, pitting beds of screaming brasses and dissonant string phrases against relentless, pounding percussion rhythms; “Out of the Frying Pan” stands out especially for its astonishingly complicated and ferocious trombone parts, and its soaring performance of Thorin’s theme in its most heroic setting yet.

Shore also has fun in setting up what you think is going to be a performance of an existing theme, playing maybe the first three or four notes, or a familiar chord progression, before taking it off into a totally different direction. “The Hill of Sorcery”, for example, threatens to head off into a rendition of “The Breaking of the Fellowship” at one point, and I lost count of the amount of times this happened elsewhere, but it’s all very much in keeping with a great deal of the film itself, foreshadowing themes, characters and events from later in the overarching story’s timeline.

thehobbitauj-specialThe score’s main new theme is the Misty Mountains theme, representing the heroism of the dwarves – although, ironically, the theme was not written by Shore, but by David Donaldson, David Long, Steve Roche and Janet Roddick, who have worked together as composers and songwriters in the Wellington, New Zealand music scene for over 25 years under the collective title Plan 9. The theme’s first appearance is as an acappella song sung with hymn-like solemnity by actor Richard Armitage and the cast of dwarves in “Misty Mountains”, before becoming an orchestral leitmotif for the dwarves in the underscore proper. In the film the fanfare version of the theme appears at several opportune moments, usually when Shore wants to capture the nobility and bravery of the dwarves in action, but on CD the appearances are more frugal: it appears in its full form in just three cues – “The World Ahead”, “Roast Mutton” and “Over Hill” – with “Roast Mutton” placing it into an action setting with a flurry of accompanying brass as our heroes attack the aforementioned gastronomic trolls, and “Over Hill” providing the most majestic performance, complete with accompanying brass triplets and a broad, spectacular mountain vistas on-screen.

Several other new themes are worth noting. “Radagast the Brown” has a frenetic, tempestuous theme that captures his scatterbrained and slightly dotty demeanor with high strings, ticking percussion and a children’s choir, but it hints at the strength of his wizarding power underneath it all during its second major appearance in “The Hill of Sorcery”. A secondary, more thoughtful and restrained brass theme for Thorin Oakenshield appears in “Axe or Sword?”, an ascending scale which becomes a recurring element as the score progresses and the weight of Erebor’s history and the enormity of the task begins to take its toll on the dwarf’s psyche. There’s a playful new theme for Gandalf’s mischievousness which appears in both “Old Friends” and “An Unexpected Party”, which sounds like a refugee from Shore’s Oscar-nominated score for Hugo, all stuttering phrases and fluttery pizzicato effects. Conversely, there is a much more brutal motif for the film’s main antagonist, Azog the Pale Orc, which gets its most prominent performance in the vicious-sounding “The Defiler”, during which the brass section plays evil-sounding chords at the lowest possible reaches of their register. There are more fleeting, more elusive thematic markers for the dragon Smaug, and the mysterious Necromancer, but their musical identities will surely be explored further in the next two films.

The score concludes with a performance of “Song of the Lonely Mountain”, an updated and re-jigged version of the Misty Mountains theme performed by Neil Finn of the New Zealand rock band Crowded House. The new age vocals of Enya, Emiliana Torrini’s insidiously emotional Gollum song, and even Annie Lennox’s “Into the West” all contributed positively to the Lord of the Rings trilogy’s end credits sequences, but Finn’s contribution here is massively out of place. With it’s grating “ay-yi-yi-yi-“ chant, hand claps, and pseudo-rock guitars, it feels about as far from Middle Earth, musically, as it’s possible to be, and single-handedly knocks a half star off the rating of the album as a whole. It’s the musical low point of the entire franchise to date.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this review, the music for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is slightly frustrating, and likely to be divisive, with those who loved the music in the film wondering where all the grand performances of the Misty Mountains theme are, and those who loved the music on CD first wondering where all the new themes are in the film. In the end, I have to review the CD as a standalone product, and on those terms the score is a surefire success. The score for An Unexpected Journey fits confidently within the pantheon of Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings universe, regularly alluding to the existing themes, manipulating them once in a while to keep them fresh and interesting, and blending them seamlessly with the half dozen or so new musical identities specific to this film. Anyone who enjoyed the music of original Lord of the Rings trilogy will find a great deal to their liking here too, as its layers, depths and complexities reveal themselves more and more with repeated listens.

Note: This review concentrates mainly on the ‘standard’ 2-CD set of the score, but mention should also be made of the special edition expanded version, which contains an additional half an hour of music, and features extended and in some cases alternate versions of “Old Friends”, “An Unexpected Party”, “Radagast the Brown”, “Roast Mutton”, “Moon Runes” and “The White Council”, and a new dwarfish drinking song entitled “Blunt the Knives”, as well as four bonus cues: “A Very Respectable Hobbit”, “Erebor”, “The Dwarf Lords” and “The Edge of the Wild”.

Rating: ****

Buy the Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • My Dear Frodo (8:04)
  • Old Friends (4:29)
  • An Unexpected Party (3:52)
  • Axe or Sword? (5:57)
  • Misty Mountains (performed by Richard Armitage) (1:42)
  • The Adventure Begins (2:04)
  • The World is Ahead (2:19)
  • An Ancient Enemy (4:58)
  • Radagast the Brown (4:54)
  • Roast Mutton (4:02)
  • A Troll-Hoard (2:38)
  • The Hill of Sorcery (3:50)
  • Warg-Scouts (3:02)
  • The Hidden Valley (3:50)
  • Moon Runes (3:20)
  • The Defiler (1:13)
  • The White Council (7:19)
  • Over Hill (3:43)
  • A Thunder Battle (3:55)
  • Under Hill (1:55)
  • Riddles in the Dark (5:21)
  • Brass Buttons (7:37)
  • Out of the Frying-Pan (5:54)
  • A Good Omen (5:46)
  • Song of the Lonely Mountain (performed by Neil Finn) (4:09)
  • Dreaming of Bag End (1:49)
  • My Dear Frodo (8:03)
  • Old Friends (EXTENDED) (5:00)
  • An Unexpected Party (EXTENDED) (4:08)
  • Blunt the Knives (performed by the Dwarf Cast) (1:01)
  • Axe or Sword? (5:59)
  • Misty Mountains (performed by Richard Armitage) (1:42)
  • The Adventure Begins (2:04)
  • The World is Ahead (2:19)
  • An Ancient Enemy (4:56)
  • Radagast the Brown (EXTENDED) (6:37)
  • The Trollshaws (2:08)
  • Roast Mutton (EXTENDED) (4:56)
  • A Troll-Hoard (2:38)
  • The Hill of Sorcery (3:50)
  • Warg-Scouts (3:02)
  • The Hidden Valley (3:49)
  • Moon Runes (EXTENDED) (3:39)
  • The Defiler (1:14)
  • The White Council (EXTENDED) (9:40)
  • Over Hill (3:42)
  • A Thunder Battle (3:54)
  • Under Hill (1:54)
  • Riddles in the Dark (5:21)
  • Brass Buttons (7:37)
  • Out of the Frying-Pan (5:55)
  • A Good Omen (5:45)
  • Song of the Lonely Mountain (EXTENDED) (performed by Neil Finn) (6:00)
  • Dreaming of Bag End (1:56)
  • A Very Respectable Hobbit [BONUS] (1:20)
  • Erebor [BONUS] (1:19)
  • The Dwarf Lords [BONUS] (2:01)
  • The Edge Of The Wild [BONUS] (3:54)

Regular Release Running Time: 107 minutes 42 seconds

Special Edition Running Time: 127 minutes 23 seconds

Regular Release: Watertower Music 39372 (2012)

Special Edition: Watertower Music 39373 (2012)

Music composed and conducted by Howard Shore. Performed by The London Philharmonic Orchestra, London Voices and the Tiffin Boys’ Choir. Orchestrated by Howard Shore. Misty Mountain Theme written by David Donaldson, David Long, Steve Roche and Janet Roddick. Recorded and mixed by Simon Rhodes, Peter Cobbin and Sam Okell. Edited by Jonathan Schultz. Album produced by Howard Shore.

  1. Felix
    December 18, 2012 at 12:40 am

    I really rather like the song. Much better than the Annie Lennox song from RotK, in my opinion.

  2. Gorbadoc
    December 18, 2012 at 4:46 am

    I don’t understand how you cannot give this score 5 stars (especially since you don’t mention anything negative about Shore’s work – he has nothing to do with Neil Finn’s song): I find this score to be at least as good as the music for “The Lord of the Rings” and it’s the best I heard since … well, The Return of the King.

    In my view, Shore is the only one who truly delivers in an astonishingly disappointing movie. The fact that he reaches (or even exceeds) the level of brilliance of LOTR deserves much more praise than he seems to be getting from some people (who only seem to have heard the score in the [butchered] context of the movie … so I’m not referring to the reviewer here :)).

    Nothing short of a masterpiece that keeps getting even better and better with each listen.

    • December 18, 2012 at 7:58 am

      The star rating is less important than the content of the text.

  3. Thomas Allen
    December 18, 2012 at 7:04 am

    Excellent review!

  4. December 18, 2012 at 10:22 am

    Would you recommend the regular release over the extended cut?

    • Josh
      December 18, 2012 at 10:46 pm

      It’s a bit of a tradeoff because the bonus tracks at the end of the extended cut are really excellent. On the other hand, the extended tracks often don’t help the flow of the score.

      • December 19, 2012 at 8:24 am

        I agree with you Josh. Those bonus cues are really great. Nice clear statements of the new themes Shore created for the film. This album situation is a bit of a mess in all honesty. It’s looking more and more like the only way to get the best representation of the score is to get both versions and create your own playlist.

  5. December 18, 2012 at 5:40 pm

    I personally would, just because I prefer shorter and more condensed albums these days – who has time to sit and listen to 2 hours and 7 minutes of score in one sitting?! – but that’s just a me thing. The music on the extended cut is just as good as the music on the regular release, and if you want (and can tolerate) more, there’s nothing wrong with the longer version.

  6. December 19, 2012 at 8:29 am

    Another great review Jon! I agree this one took multiple listens to really unearth all the interesting things Shore did with the score. Even the more subdued tracks have a lot of elements going on within them. And I’m in the minority, but I don’t think the song is that horrible. It’s the same theme as the Misty Mountain theme, the words actually have something to do with the story. Yeah it’s a bit poppy, but it’s also catchy that way. Could they have done something different? Sure, but it’s not the abomination some folks have been making it out to be. I still wonder if the strumming guitars and hand-clapping is a silly nod to the old Rankin/Bass animated version of the “Hobbit” and it’s oh so 70s score.

  7. Sheri
    January 2, 2013 at 11:42 pm

    Enjoyed reading your review. I relate to what you said about the Nazgul theme being used for a climatic scene in the Hobbit. I was thinking… “ah wait… why?” I really felt there needed to be some new material in that scene. (Actually would have liked to hear even more new material personally)
    As for the song, I can understand the grumblings, but I actually enjoy it. To me it has a bit of a “60’s vibe and reminds me of the Tolkien hippie fandom of that era.

  8. Richard Reese-Laird (Rick)
    January 10, 2013 at 8:07 pm

    Great review! I totally enjoyed Edmund Meinert’s review over at Tracksounds, he did a great job- but your review really hits a nerve. Everything I said about the film, and everything I said about the music, was reflected in your review. The difference is, you illustrate everything quite clearly, whereas I just had some fuzzy, nagging thoughts I could not quite articulate.
    I would actually say this is one of the better reviews of the FILM I’ve read!
    Excellent- glad I finally got around to checking out your site. Cheers!

  9. Brad
    February 17, 2013 at 7:53 am

    More soundtracks at http://newfilmscores.com/

  1. December 20, 2012 at 10:46 am

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