Director: Peter Jackson
Runtime: 169 minutes
The source material for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey may not have the darkness, depth, or length of Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy, but that certainly hasn't stopped Peter Jackson from trying to repeat the same success from a decade ago. An Unexpected Journey marks the first of three (originally two) films based on Tolkien's lighter, slimmer novel. Is the three film to one book ratio a cash driven gambit? Most likely. It allows Jackson and company to flesh out and explore more of Tolkien's world and characters, to be sure, but at what cost to the storytelling quality? Yet ultimately, though this first installment never reaches the heights of Jackson's last journey into Middle Earth, An Unexpected Journey, warts and all, stands as proof that there's no one better suited to take audiences through Tolkien's universe.
Though decidedly lighter in tone, the film still possesses the trademark Tolkinean grandeur. This is best evidenced in a flashback/prologue sequence detailing the history of the great Dwarven stronghold of Erebor, and how it fell after an attack by the vicious dragon Smaug (to be voiced by Sherlock star Benedict Cumberbatch in the rest of the trilogy). With the dwarves scattered, some find leadership in the grandson of the deposed king, Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage). Time passes, and eventually a small band of Dwarves under Thorin's command decide that the time is right to try and reclaim Erebor from Smaug, who has remained dormant. With the help of their ally Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellan, as effortlessly compelling always), they find their way to the home of Bilbo Baggins (played by the other Sherlock star, Martin Freeman).
Initially upset by the bawdy Dwarvish ensemble mucking about in his kitchen, Bilbo eventually succumbs to the promise for an adventure, one that Gandalf promises will leave him forever changed (if he survives, that is). And once Jackson finally gets Bilbo on his way and the fellowship of the Dwarves begin their long (long, long) trek to The Lonely Mountain, An Unexpected Journey finally develops a sense of purpose. The opening stretches of the film are - Dwarven backstory aside - the weakest, as the reinforce the idea that this three film enterprise is nothing but shameless indulgence. Rather than simply settle in to the fall of Erebor, Jackson inserts a completely unnecessary framing device involving the old Bilbo (Ian Holm) writing down his tale, which is little more than an excuse for an Elijah Wood cameo.
The opening also introduces us to one of the film's other shortcomings, albeit on the technical front. This is Tolkien in the age of digital cameras, and even without seeing the film in 48 frames per second, there were times when the difference was palpable. Most jarring are some of the visual effects. Gone, for the most part, is the use of miniatures and models to create epic cities and structures. Complete CGI is often king here, and coupled with the digital camera technology it can produce some displeasing aesthetic effects. Most notable is in the the Fall of Erebor, where the entire flashback sequence possesses a strange, faded glow, as if someone smeared a jumbo-sized jar of Vaseline on the camera lens. Elsewhere, the blend of sets and CGI backdrops is often too saturated and smooth to register with the same artistic majesty that so bolstered the Rings trilogy.
Despite the occasionally distracting aesthetics, An Unexpected Journey does, thankfully, improve as it goes along. Not all of its side ventures (some of which are designed to create tie-ins to Rings) are as compelling as others. The bits involving Radagast the Brown and his sled pulled by Olympic-speed rabbits, for example, feel too cartoon-y and broad. Yet, on the other hand, when Jackson rekindles that old magic from 10 years ago, it connects. A flashback involving a failed Dwarven siege of the Mines of Moria is well-handled, and establishes Armitage's Thorin as a compelling equivalent of Viggo Mortensen's Aragorn. Later set pieces also come through, including a sequence where the troupe finds itself riding on the ridges of several gargantuan stone giants in the midst of a battle.
Yet the film's shining moment comes without the slightest bit of violence or spectacle. Bilbo, separated from Gandalf and the Dwarves, stumbles upon a tiny golden ring, as well as its deranged owner, Smeagol/Gollum (Andy Serkis). Serkis is as good in the role as he's ever been, manic mood swings and all, and his game of riddles with Bilbo is the film's high point. Coupled with the big action sequence/chase and the surprisingly chill-inducing final confrontation involving Thorin and an Orc lord, and you have a film that truly reaches its purpose in its last third or so.
Even when the film falters, however, Jackson's grasp of the world remains strong, and his performers are plenty engaging, even if some of the Dwarven band blend together. Freeman makes a wonderful Bilbo, the odd man out among a group of people with a goal more personal than he can ever know. Returning cast members McKellan, Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, and Christopher Lee are nail their material, as limited as some of it is. Yet it is Armitage who emerges as the most compelling figure of the bunch. Unlike Aragorn, who was almost dragged into fulfilling his role as king of Gondor, Thorin starts the story with a purpose, one tied to both duty and pride. Jackson's indulgences with flashbacks may throw some off, but those concerning Thorin do at least give a concrete sense of what this protracted journey means to him.
When all is said and done, it might be difficult to fully judge An Unexpected Journey until parts two and three (Dec. 2013 and July 2014, respectively) arrive, and we can step back and view Jackson's entire treatment. Until then, we're left with this first slice of a story that, for better and for worse, has been inflated in an attempt to match the glory that the director and his collaborators achieved a decade ago. For the sake of audiences everywhere, I wish them the best of luck.