By the time the fourth installment rolls around in any movie franchise (be it a continuation, prequel or even a spin-off in some cases), you have to know which side of the fence you’re on. Either you receive personal gratification experiencing the characters, lore and various other qualities of that cinematic world and identify as a fan, or you don’t care all that much. As the first chapter of another three-film adventure in Middle Earth, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” will separate the two: the Tolkien faithful from the Tolkien respectful — the men from the hobbits, as it were.
“An Unexpected Journey” is an ironic subtitle when you consider that after three epic films only 11 years old, Peter Jackson can’t surprise anyone with his aesthetic approach nor his storytelling technique in bringing J.R.R. Tolkien’s tale to life. “The Hobbit” has the same exact look and feel as “The Lord of the Rings” minus the advancements in digital effects over the last decade. With the same DNA and the same filmmaking philosophy in hand, the continuity between the last trilogy and this new one is rather astounding. To some, this will provide great joy and comfort — to others, it might get … long.
As many may know, “The Hobbit” is a short book, a straightforward fantasy adventure with a narrative that moves rather swiftly from point A to B to C etc. following a company of 13 dwarfs, a wizard and a hobbit as they journey from the peaceful Shire to the Lonely Mountain to defeat the dragon Smaug and reclaim a lost treasure. Odd then, that Jackson should choose to expand the book to three films when he had barely enough time to tell all three “Lord of the Rings” books in one film each.
The implication here is that there’s a lot of filler in “An Unexpected Journey,” and parts of the story are drawn out. Jackson and writers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens (along with Guillermo del Toro) take time to visually present the backstory as well as setup subplots that will play out in the other two films. In general, however, most of this “filler” is added lore and careful explanation of Middle Earth history that frames the stakes of the dwarfs’ quest with a greater sense of urgency than Tolkien accomplished in so few pages.
We begin with old Bilbo (Ian Holm) telling Frodo (Elijah Wood) the story of his great adventure that he’s held onto for so long. Flash back 60 years and we see young Bilbo (Martin Freeman) unexpectedly eaten out of house and home by 13 dwarfs led by rightful dwarf king Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen). Although they quite displease Bilbo at first, he takes up their offer to join them as a “burglar” on their journey in which they encounter trolls and goblins, all the while being chased by a pack of vengeful orcs.
It’s harder to defend the slow start of “An Unexpected Journey,” but you can easily defend Jackson’s choice to slow down the narrative and flesh it out with the qualities that make a film an epic, such as the aforementioned stage-setting for the next two films and ultimately “The Lord of the Rings” involving the wizard Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy). It’s in these moments that each viewer’s interest in Tolkien’s lore will be tested. Those fascinated by it will surely not lose any interest in these diversions, while other will wait impatiently for more action.
There are some wowing sequences worthy of “The Lord of the Rings” to be sure, and if viewed in the higher frame rate of 48 fps, these sequences and especially the sweeping scene pans are pretty incredible cinematic experiences. In HFR 3D, the clarity of the action is astounding (you’ll never want to tolerate motion blur again), and the overall detail of the picture is as though you are right there with the characters. It can be jarring and definitely requires an adjustment, and with the way CGI is rendered some of those CGI-heavy action sequences look a little off, but the technique calls so much attention to the film’s exquisite detail in costumes, makeup, props and sets.
Advances in CGI since 2003, especially in motion capture, make mo-cap’s first great success story in Gollum a real highlight when Andy Serkis reprises his role for the “Riddles in the Dark” scene. It’s a tense, exciting and even funny scene that Jackson enhances with physicality in order to keep the film’s momentum going. We were overexposed to Gollum in the “Lord of the Rings,” yet he’s as fresh and exciting as ever in this movie.
Seeing McKellen reprise his role along with cameos from so many other fond characters from “The Lord of the Rings” is a treat, but the best work comes from newcomers Freeman and Armitage. Freeman’s outstanding range of emotions, use facial expression and humor makes Bilbo more engaging a protagonist than Frodo and Armitage absolute nails the rough, distrusting exterior of Thorin that masks his vulnerability. Considering the script goes out of its way to humanize Thorin through several interrupting flashbacks, it’s a good thing he always appears to be carrying all that backstory with him in all his actions.
“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” indulges those who wish to get swept up in the expanse of Middle Earth. The book is flimsy, but that doesn’t mean a to-the-point imagining would suit it best. For all of Tolkien’s revered writing skills, plot flow and character depth are not among his book’s laudable qualities. By expanding it, Jackson can work on a scale similar to “Lord of the Rings” story-wise, which better fits the visual scale he and his crew dazzles with yet again.
As a lighter, more comical adventure than “Lord of the Rings” and given its simpler themes and subject matter, it’s tough for “The Hobbit” to match its predecessors on those basic grounds alone, never mind that it doesn’t get to benefit from the novelty that those films had by simply being the first to expose us to Middle Earth. Nevertheless, that very continuity offers a familiarity and nostalgia to an extent that’s unparalleled in blockbuster filmmaking. Coupled with even more progressive visuals and Jackson’s dedication to this world, “The Hobbit” trilogy promises to be another helplessly engaging cinematic adventure.
Directed by Peter Jackson
Written by Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro, J.R.R. Tolkien (book)
Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage