Rating:More than 10 years have passed since Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy stormed theaters with its legions of orcs, elves and hobbits, creating an excitement in our culture parallel to the Star Wars craze of the late ‘70s/early ‘80s. However, these three films eclipsed George Lucas’ concurrent, sputtering return to a galaxy far far away as Jackson infused his decidedly Hollywood films with rich characters, strong emotional resonance and an immersive world unseen in most popular filmmaking.
Jackson and his creatures now return with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the first of three films derived from J.R.R. Tolkien’s slim novel that served as prequel to his grand LOTR trilogy. Charged with stuffing three long films with material, Jackson has admitted that his trilogy won’t hew exactly to its source material, but also draw from the multitude of appendices that Tolkien wrote to buttress his Middle Earth. Those familiar with Tolkien’s work will know The Hobbit is nowhere near as a grim or violent as the LOTR trilogy, but how will moviegoers respond to a trilogy that is less so? Are we living in times where a cuddly Hobbit will fail to live up to its forebears?
While still sweeping, An Unexpected Journey doesn’t radiate with the same urgent energy that marked Jackson’s LOTR films. Hobbiton is a glossy place where young Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) spends his days relaxing and filling his larders. While Middle Earth popped off the screen as a world alive and three-dimensional in The Fellowship of the Ring, here it feels more like an idealized Candygram, a place of juvenile wonder where the grass is too impossibly green.
Jackson’s decision to shoot An Unexpected Journey in 3D and at 48 frames per second adds a disorienting effect to the film. Rather than take on the feel of sweeping epic, the film had the look of The Elder Scrolls meets “Masterpiece Theatre” in its look. It is hard to describe, but Jackson’s decision to shoot the film this way robs it of its magic. It is too in our faces, giving the feeling of realness to something that should be far away or fantasy. Yes, some of the special effects are downright fantastic, but instead of acting like a film, Jackson’s technology gives it the feeling of theater. There is something wrong with that.
For those unfamiliar with the story, An Unexpected Journey begins when young Bilbo is conscripted to go on a quest by the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and a gang of dwarves to serve as their “burglar.” Like the LOTR trilogy, The Hobbit is a bilsdungroman, a story where its protagonist matures into a hero, leaving the comforts of home and thus maturing through experience. Freeman, a comedic actor, gives a fine performance as Bilbo, a character much more likable and less angsty than Elijah Woods’ tortured Frodo Baggins. LOTR veteran Ian Holm returns as the older Bilbo in the film’s extended prologue, creating a frame structure for this new tale.
While An Unexpected Journey does offer a plethora of exciting action sequences, it feels more scattershot than Jackson’s prior films, a pastiche of set pieces that don’t add up to a unified story. We get orcs, trolls and goblins, but nothing really new this time around. The film’s best sequence is also its most tense, Bilbo’s inevitable encounter with Gollum (Andy Serkis) where he procures the ring. The two characters engage in a game of wits that could eventually lead to disastrous results.
By the film’s end, Jackson does well to set up the next installment, hinting that dangers such as Smaug and an evil Necromancer are still out there, waiting for our band of diminutive heroes. And while Jackson does not plumb the emotional depths he plundered in Fellowship (the 13 dwarves are not really given much to do), we know that tough times await Bilbo. Though somewhat stilted and very silly, An Unexpected Journey still makes those 12 months that separate the next installment a very long time indeed.