Nine years after the last Lord of the Rings movie, director Peter Jackson returns to Middle Earth with An Unexpected Journey, the first in a planned trilogy based on the slim children’s novel The Hobbit. When Jackson announced in 2006 that The Hobbit, a novel that’s barely 300 pages long, would be split into two movies, most fans responded with trepidation. When it was announced earlier this year that the duology would become a trilogy, that trepidation turned to anger with many wondering if this new trilogy was a desperate cash grab with no possible way that a source material so light could be spread out in three films. While those fans had a right to worry, I’m pleased to say that An Unexpected Journey should end those fears. The film, set 60 years before The Lord of the Rings, follows Bilbo Baggins, who is recruited by Gandalf the Grey to join Thorin Oakenshiled, heir to the King Under the Mountain crown, and his band of Dwarves on quest to reclaim their homeland, of Erobor, a Dwarf kingdom that was taken over by a vicious dragon, Smaug, centuries ago.
While the film (and it’s source material) is lighter in tone and scale, it still manages to raise as much wonder as any of the Lord of the Rings movies.
Martin Freeman, as Bilbo, is a joy to watch onscreen. His growth from a peace loving hobbit to one who acquires a thirst for adventure is an excellent contrast between him and his nephew Frodo, the hero of The Lord of the Rings.
The film features many of the trademarks that made The Lord of the Rings so famous among moviegoers (exciting battle sequences, gorgeous art direction, eye-popping visuals, a fantastic score by Howard Shore and a main character who’s easy to root for).
The action scenes though, were so CGI heavy that they feel disorienting, a sensation that I imagine would be worse had I viewed it in 3D. It didn’t help that several of the effects look outdated.
Even with these drawbacks, the action scenes were nonetheless exciting. A battle between stone giants is enough to draw awe, and the underground goblin kingdom (where much of the third act takes place in) is beautiful to look at.
As for the content of the film, despite a runtime of 160 minutes (shorter than any of the Lord of the Rings movies) it actually manages to fly by. Director Peter Jackson and his co-screenwriters expand on several things that author J.R.R Tolkien skimmed over in his novel by adding additional material that was in the appendices (a section located at the end of the novel Return of the King that provides additional backstories to a lot of events in Middle Earth). This serves to flesh out the narrative as well as to bridge the series with The Lord of the Rings.
Because of this, characters who were only mentioned in The Hobbit, such as the eccentric wizard Radagast the Brown, actually get plenty of screentime. We even get to see the Necromancer, a dark entity in Middle Earth who was only mentioned in passing by a few characters in The Hobbit, but the film foreshadows his upcoming role in the battle for Middle Earth.
Sadly, despite the long running time and a lot of the backstories for several characters being fleshed out, some of the characters don’t benefit from it.
One of the additions to the story is the orc warrior Azog the Defiler, a character who wasn’t even in the novel. His presence is more of an attempt to give the film a villain, so his role isn’t exactly justified, making him feel unnecessary.
As for the company of dwarves, with the exception of Thorin and one or two other standouts, they get lost amid the narrative. I was hoping that all of the dwarves would get their individual moment to shine, but most of them are reduced to comedic relief characters whose names I don’t even remember. The most memorable thing about them is how attractive some of them are.
Perhaps it’s for the best. After all, this is Bilbo’s story, and its hard to complain when all of this leads to an undeniably exciting third act that features a deadly game of riddles between Bilbo and the creature Gollum (in a scene-stealing performance by Andy Serkis) that will have deadly consequences for the next generation of all in Middle Earth. All of which leads to a well-earned emotional pay-off at the end.
However, one of the biggest issues I had with the film involved the conclusion. Each Lord of the Rings movie was able to find a way to make each entry in the series feel like a complete, self-contained movie and not an interruption, while in The Hobbit, that’s exactly how the ending feels, an interruption.
If The Desolation of Smaug and There and Back Again (the next two films in the trilogy) are as enjoyable as An Unexpected Journey, it’ll be hard for audiences to complain though. The film includes everything that made the original Lord of the Rings trilogy so memorable as well as some fun character cameos from the original trilogy. Overall, Peter Jackson has once again presented audiences with a captivating and exciting trip to Middle Earth that’s worth taking.