It’s been nine years since The Return of the King. Nine long years filled with lawsuits, lost directors, politics, and health issues all conspiring to keep The Hobbit from being made. And now, finally, Peter Jackson’s done it: it’s time to return to Middle-Earth. But after all these years, after all these delays, and after the masterpiece that is the original trilogy, can any film live up to expectations?
It depends on what kind of film you’re expecting.
An Unexpected Journey is not The Fellowship of the Ring, just as The Hobbit is not The Lord of the Rings. The prequel book was a very different creature than the trilogy, with a different subject and different goals. The dissimilarity of the two works can be felt immediately in An Unexpected Journey. While the film’s title sequence uses the original The Lord of the Rings-style font, the opening music is eager and light where the original’s was chilling and weighty. I think the best way to put it is that An Unexpected Journey is not an epic. Instead, it is an adventure tale, like a story your mom or dad read to you when you were a kid. The film has a lot to offer as long as you know what to ask of it.
Being back in Middle-Earth is a joy. Peter Jackson’s world is brighter and happier than the more sobered age that will follow in Fellowship, and it’s evident in the humorous, bushy-tailed tone of the film. It’s a simpler time with a smaller-scale story; however, with this smaller-scale story, it’s surprising that the film’s pace feels much closer to that of the extended editions of The Lord of the Rings rather than the theatrical versions. The decision to extend The Hobbit into three films means the movie can take its time as it adds elements from The Lord of the Rings and its appendices. Some will call it slow, but once I adjusted, I found it enjoyable.
A slower pace also means more time to appreciate the depth of New Zealand’s landscapes, the intricate sets, the complexity of the costumes, and the artistry of the CGI. Nothing is rushed, and that also means the action sequences last longer. It’s all wonderful, and even though it takes its time with its 166 minute running time, the film feels a half an hour shorter. That’s always a good sign.
The term ‘visual feast’ has never been more appropriate. The trilogy pioneered much of the special effects it utilized, and while the effects in The Hobbit aren’t as ground-breaking, they represent only the best in visual wizardry. Gollum, in particular, is flawless, with Andy Serkis’s performance coming through even clearer than it did in original films.
As for the music, most of Howard Shore’s score is made up of motifs from his work on the trilogy. The trilogy’s score is one of the best of all time, but An Unexpected Journey’s nostalgia for that soundtrack means the film’s score feels like a greatest hits of the original trilogy rather than its own creation. The film’s main theme is its own, but it’s repeated many times in lieu of newer music. I’d have appreciated a wider range of new themes, so the music surprisingly ranks as one of the weaker aspects of the film.
With a company of dwarves, one wizard, and one hobbit, the traveling party of An Unexpected Journey numbers six more than that of the Fellowship. Accordingly, characterization is approached differently, with Bilbo, Gandalf, and Thorin receiving the most development as the rest of the dwarves are relegated to an amusing band of misfits. My understanding is that the original novel developed them even less, so I can’t imagine fans feeling slighted on this point – and it’s clear that the dwarves’ actors are clearly enjoying themselves, anyway.
Gandalf is his usual stoic but whimsical self, growing more serious as he starts to sense the return of Sauron. Despite being the titular character, Bilbo’s role is mostly to be an observer the Thorin’s arc. We’re only one film in so this could easily change, and Bilbo still has his moments to shine, particularly during his encounter with Gollum. Martin Freeman’s performance is very familiar, echoing his previous roles; it seems his time spent as Arthur Dent and John Watson have prepared him perfectly for Bilbo Baggins. Still, Thorin’s clearly the main player as he gathers his company together and leads them to reclaim his home. It is this story line that I suspect will carry this new trilogy.
An Unexpected Journey was worth the nine year wait. It’s not The Fellowship of the Ring, but it’s not trying to be. The Hobbit is a softer adventure, but one of the highest caliber. And with two more films to go, I’m certainly onboard as a believer.
Verdict: Movie Win
A Note on 48 fps - My screening was in 2D, so I cannot speak for the quality of the film’s 3D, or the 48 frames per second version. I was able to tell much of the film is designed for 48 fps, as several shots have observable judder that might have been noticed if they were filming in 24 fps in the first place. Judder is a blurring effect that occurs during rapid motion, but I don’t know if anyone who isn’t a film student would notice. I plan on seeing the film in 48 fps when it goes intro wide release later this month.