The prequel trilogy to Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy commences with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. It is based on the novel by J. R. R. Tolkien, of course, but it also features material from the appendices and from many of the author’s notes. It is clear that Jackson is a big fan of the material, so much so that his cinematic sensibilities take a backseat to squeezing as much in as possible.
As far as I can tell, there is no convincing reason to expand what is a 310 page novel largely meant for children into three monstrous motion pictures beside the push for more box office. The third flick is said to be comprised of material largely from the end of The Return of the King, which leaves An Unexpected Journey and the upcoming The Desolation of Smaug to deal with the heart of the matter.
The picture opens on Bilbo Baggins’ (Ian Holm) 111th birthday. He has finally decided to record the events of an adventure he had 60 years ago. After an extended introduction, we’re put back in the time of the adventure. Bilbo (Martin Freeman) is approached by the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and a band of Dwarves to help them reach the Lonely Mountain.
After initially resisting, Bilbo joins the Dwarves on their quest to reclaim their home. The company goes through a number of adventures, including encounters with Trolls. It is believed that a Necromancer has been infecting the forest with dark magic, so that causes even more monsters to appear. Eventually, Bilbo comes face to face with Gollum (Andy Serkis) and a ring that holds significant value.
Much of the buzz about An Unexpected Journey focuses on the aesthetics, with Jackson shooting at 48 frames per second. This, according to some, gave the movie a hyper-real look. Others appreciated it. For my purposes (on Blu-ray), things are back to “normal.” But that doesn’t mean the movie looks good, especially in contrast to the seemingly less artificial core of The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
The movie looks more contained and less impressive, with the fantastical world of Middle Earth having lost some of its lustre. The creature effects are dull at times, sloppy at others, giving the whole thing a fan-fic aura that lacks the care and detail of its predecessors. The action sequences are often off-kilter and perplexing, with odd shot choices sprinkled throughout. The 3D feels opportunistic, even when you’re watching it without the added dimension, with scenes like Bilbo’s popping buttons feeling crass.
Along with the less-than-convincing visual angle, An Unexpected Journey lumbers through its story with all the grace of a Troll crashing through a CGI forest. There are moments of wonder, like Bilbo’s extensive (and chilling) first encounter with Gollum or the amusing Dwarf party back in The Shire, but most of the movie’s chasing-around is tedious. Even Rivendell, a place so vital to Bilbo in Tolkien’s universe, underwhelms.
It’s also astonishingly short on the titular character, which may be hard to believe. Jackson’s desire to give the audience the inside track on various scenarios, like the conversation between Saruman (Christopher Lee), Elrond (Hugo Weaving), Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), and Galdalf, deflates the pacing to a considerable degree.
Instead of revealing the secrets of Middle Earth with Bilbo as our guide, we see Freeman’s character largely in the margins until the time comes for him to do something really important. This zaps the movie of its delight (and of Tolkien’s creative sing-songy flora) and sinks it in a tone that is much murkier than the original trilogy.
An Unexpected Journey is not without its respectable points, with some firm performances from McKellen, Freeman and Serkis, but it’s largely a distended giant of a movie with precious little to do with Tolkien’s humbly clever world of the very small. With so many ventures down so many gratuitous paths, this hobbit is a long way from The Shire indeed.