The Lord of the Rings is the holy grail of epic fantasy, both in print and on the big screen. When I heard Peter Jackson (originally Guillermo del Toro) was bringing us The Hobbit as a prequel, I was naturally excited. I grew less excited when I heard it was being made into two films, and even less excited again when I heard it was being stretched into a trilogy.
With the exception of greed, the decision didn’t make much sense. The Hobbit is a tiny book compared to any one of the three volumes of Rings, and yet they were going to make three movies out of it? Despite assurances that they were going to expand Middle Earth and add in a bunch of details from Tolkien’s other writings and appendices and so forth, it didn’t strike me as a recipe for success.
As it turned out, the first film of the new trilogy, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey justified both my excitement and my scepticism. On the one hand, the film did bring back some of the best memories from Rings and reminded me why it will likely never be topped as the best fantasy franchise of all time. On the other, at a whopping 2 hours and 49 minutes, it was unnecessarily bloated, occasionally tedious and sometimes, dare I saw, even boring.
Jackson replacing del Toro meant that we were likely to get a continuation of the Middle Earth established in Rings as opposed to a fresh interpretation of Tolkien’s universe. This was the correct assumption, as An Unexpected Journey looked and felt exactly like the world we were still immersed in when Return of the King departed our cinema screens nearly a decade ago.
For those unfamiliar with the story, The Hobbit centers around a young Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman — the old one was played by Ian Holm in Rings, who also has a cameo to kick things off here), who travels with Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and 13 dwarves (led by Thorin Oakenshield — Richard Armitage) to recapture a treasure-filled dwarf kingdom guarded by the dragon Smaug. It happens years before Frodo’s adventures and first introduces us to the powerful ring that would become the centerpiece of the books.
Apart from a whole host of familiar faces (I won’t spoil who they all are for those who like surprises), An Unexpected Journey is full of nostalgia. You can tell Jackson is trying very hard to recapture the magic of Rings, and as a result there’s also a strong sense of deja vu. Everything from the sets to the costumes to the plot progression feels eerily similar (if you want an explanation with minor spoilers see below after the rating).
But The Hobbit is not The Lord of the Rings and it shouldn’t have tried to be. For starters, the difference in length means An Unexpected Journey should never have been 2 hours and 49 minutes, which might have been perfect for fanboys who spray their shorts over the extended DVD cuts but not for casual fans and regular audiences.
In fact, the whole film felt like an extended DVD cut. I think the running time would have been OK if there were only two films rather than three, but there’s no reason why An Unexpected Journey had to be nearly three hours long, especially not when it traverses so little of a story that takes up only 275 pages in a paperback.
The result is a really long and uneventful introduction and significant chunks where uninteresting conversation dominates the action. It’s not that the first couple of hours of An Unexpected Journey is bad — it’s just not that good when compared to the high standards set by Rings.
That said, the final hour of the movie is brilliant and as exciting as the Mines of Moria from Fellowship of the Ring, the battle of Helm’s Deep from The Two Towers and the siege at Minas Tirith from The Return of the King. I don’t want to reveal too much except to say I wished the rest of the movie was just like it.
Martin Freeman, whom Jackson said was the only choice all along, is pretty good as the young Bilbo, while Ian McKellen doesn’t miss a step as a slightly younger and seemingly less mature Gandalf. Richard Armitage is solid as dwarf prince Thorin Oakenshield, but he’s no Viggo Mortensen as Aragorn, though to be fair no one could have been that freaking awesome. The rest of the dwarves are generally quite forgettable, and I still haven’t figured out why only two or three of them look fairly normal while the rest are plastered with prosthesis and look like absolute freaks.
The special effects are of course seamless, though without having seen the original trilogy again I don’t think they are too different to the effects from 10 years ago. A change this time is the decision to create all the orcs and goblins using CGI as opposed to real actors with makeup, but they are all done so well that the difference is negligible.
I was one of those people that made a conscious choice to watch the film in 2D and at 24 frames per second, as opposed to the 3D at 48 frames per second that was on offer. I’m well and truly over 3D now, and I was not curious about 48 frames at all after hearing all the negative comments, from the nausea to how everything look too fast and real and how the props looked fake because of it. Besides, if you really want The Hobbit to be a continuation of The Lord of the Rings wouldn’t you want to experience it the same way?
On the whole, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a mixed bag. It contains flashes of brilliance and a final hour that rivals the best of The Lord of the Rings, but at the same time there’s also too much unnecessary fluff at the beginning to prevent it from ultimately living up to the hype. As the first entry to a new trilogy, however, I think it holds promise and should hopefully open the door to two sensational sequels.
3.75 stars out of 5
(Minor spoilers) PS: The Hobbit follows the trajectory of The Fellowship of the Ring very closely. It starts off in the Shire as a gentle but reluctant hobbit is dragged onto an adventure after a visit from Gandalf. He is pursued by dangerous enemies throughout his journey, runs into trolls and goes through an underground mine before finishing up in the woods with an epic battle. It’s exactly the same!