Peter Jackson returns to Middle Earth in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the first entry in a new trilogy of films adapted from J.R.R. Tolkien’s beloved children’s novel The Hobbit, which served as a prelude to the noticeably darker and more complex Lord of the Rings trilogy. Following years of development, lawsuits and delays — resulting in the regretful loss of initial director Guillermo Del Toro, who moved on to Pacific Rim but retains a co-writing credit here (with Jackson, Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh) — to say the film arrived with high expectations is an understatement, particularly here in New Zealand where it employed the majority of our film industry (and awkwardly represents a large tourism campaign). As with the majority of such feverishly anticipated tentpole films, An Unexpected Journey struggles to meet these expectations, and then some. This is due in part to Jackson’s hubris in assuming audiences are game for an unnecessarily expanded trilogy based on one brisk 300-page book, resulting in an inexplicably long near-three-hour run-time that is self-indulgent even by his standards, as well as his bold but ultimately misguided decision to shoot and screen the film in 3D at 48 frames-per-second (twice the speed of a regular film), which proves to be just another distracting gimmick that places the film in the creatively bankrupt arena of George Lucas-esque theme-park-cinema and lacks the majesty of his previous trilogy.
Set 60 years before the events of The Fellowship of the Ring, the film follows Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) as he is swept into an epic quest to reclaim the lost Dwarf Kingdom of Erebor. An Unexpected Journey mirrors the two-tiered opening of Fellowship, with one prologue focusing on an elder Bilbo (Ian Holm) as he attempts to write a novel of his adventure — with another LOTR cameo from Elijah Wood, in case you hadn’t yet realised these films are linked! — while the other depicts the ancient destruction of Erebor by the fearsome dragon Smaug (who is barely seen here). We are then introduced to the younger Bilbo as he is visited out of the blue by our familiar wizard hero Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen), who insists that it’s time the pedantic and sheltered hobbit got out of his comfort zone and experienced the wide world. Bilbo soon finds himself unexpectedly entertaining 13 dwarves, much to his chagrin, who jovially eat and drink him out of house and home as they gather to plan a dangerous mission to their former home in the Lonely Mountain. Aside from their brooding warrior leader, Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), none of these new characters really manage to standout and their lame jokes soon prove tiresome. One scene in which the dwarves burst into song around the fire — a solemn ballad called “Far Over the Misty Mountains Cold”, longing for their homeland — is a welcome and tasteful change of pace from the clumsy japes and gags, but its jarring appearance within this goofy first act highlights the film’s wildly uneven tone and it runs on for too long, providing an apt microcosm of the entire experience.
After an exhaustively tedious first hour, the company finally leave the Shire and embark on a journey to the East, with Bilbo joining them at the last minute despite his gnawing reservations. Along the way they must contend with some hungry giant trolls and a horde of vengeful orcs — led by a new, and rather cliché, CGI nemesis named the Azog the Defiler aka the Pale Orc — not to mention ominous whispers of a shadowy evil spirit known as the Necromancer who will come into play later. They also encounter the cross-eyed hippie wizard Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy), a ridiculous and cringeworthy addition who rides a rabbit-powered wooden sled through an unsightly CGI-heavy forest and literally has birdcrap in his hair. Another digressive and expository stopover in the Elvish stronghold of Rivendell allows for more LOTR cameos from Lord Elrond (Hugo Weaving), Lady Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and Saruman the White (Christopher Lee) — the latter two rather unnecessarily — before Jackson finally kicks up the leisurely pace for a considerably stronger third act. The company eventually find themselves captive in the goblin tunnels — with a humourous appearance by Australian comedy legend Barry Humphries as the hideous Goblin King — and must fight for their lives to escape, as Bilbo encounters an altogether different creature in the depths and comes across a certain ring.
The scenes shared between Gollum (Andy Serkis) and Bilbo are easily the best of the film, as the two exchange a tense, often funny, and always fascinating game of riddles. It’s during these moments that we at last see hints of some the greatness we expected following Jackson’s landmark LOTR trilogy, and it’s during this encounter that the film feels most faithful to its source material, although sadly this is but a few fleeting scenes. Serkis is once again terrific in his all-too-brief performance, bringing real poignance to the character and further cementing his reputation as the greatest motion capture actor, and Gollum looks more spectacular than ever thanks to the latest cutting-edge visual effects from the wizards at Weta Digital. For his part, Freeman is a fine fit for Jackson’s Middle Earth, gradually growing into the character of Bilbo with an affable performance that complements McKellen’s reliably understated turn nicely, and he ends up being better company than Wood’s wide-eyed Frodo was in the LOTR films. It’s just a shame that Bilbo’s story has been hijacked by Jackson’s preoccupation with epic battles, often favouring the much duller dwarves instead. Armitage does his best with the stoic and humourless Thorin, but he can’t help but come across as a second-rate Aragorn (with none of Viggo Mortensen’s charisma). The rest of the dwarves can be difficult to differentiate, although Irish veteran James Nesbitt manages to at least make an impression as Bofur, and Dean O’Gorman and Aidan Turner — Kili and Fili — are clearly filling Orlando Bloom’s shoes here as “the handsome ones”. Despite some attempts at grand scale, the action sequences for the most part are the same type of empty exercises in hyper-kineticism that we see in every 3D Hollywood feature lately and bring nothing new to the table.
Without spoiling too much, An Unexpected Journey ends unsatisfactorily as the company only just have their Lonely Mountain destination in sight after a punishing 170 minutes — marking the end of Chapter 6 in the 19-chapter book. This drawn-out take — we may as well call it a “director’s cut” — is actually more of an elaborate prequel to Jackson’s LOTR films than it is a faithful adaptation of the novel, with the screenwriters mining Tolkien’s extensive Lord of the Rings appendices — they don’t have the rights to The Silmarillion — and adding their own tweaks to expand the scope of the story and present a much more epic vision of Middle Earth. While this may suit some diehard fans just fine, I’m positive that many would have preferred a more faithfully concise retelling of The Hobbit, and certainly most audiences given the choice would vote for either a shorter film (if it must be a trilogy) or more story this time around in order to get it done in two features as initially planned. I can’t help but wish that the undeniably talented Jackson was told “No” more often by either his producers, co-writers or editors, as each of his films seem to be progressively embracing the “more is more” approach to filmmaking. His experiment with 48fps is an intriguing one and I don’t begrudge the rationale behind it, as it certainly does brighten up the often murky 3D images and will no doubt encourage more young people to head to the cinema, but this is no more the future of filmmaking than the equally gimmicky 3D trend. While some of the images are strikingly vivid, the majority of the film looks flat and weird in a distracting manner — doing a disservice to the fantasy world of Middle Earth by bringing everything into focus, including glaringly obvious props and costumes — and I can’t recommend the format.
Overall, Jackson has not only failed to prove why this story needed to be three films long, but also why these prequel films need to exist at all. Sure, there are enjoyable moments and performances, with plenty to admire for fans of the LOTR trilogy and the promise of more exciting things to come, and it never sinks quite as low as George Lucas’ abysmal Star Wars prequels, but is that really enough? In the promotion leading up to An Unexpected Journey, I couldn’t help but shake the feeling that this entire enterprise was just a crass, arbitrary and passionless project that exists purely to line the pockets of all involved (including the New Zealand government, who might as well be listed as a co-producer) and maybe give Jackson and his colleagues some fancy new toys to play around with. It turns out that might not have been far from the truth.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is out now worldwide. Watch the latest trailer below.