Director: Peter Jackson
Writers: Fran Walsh & Philippa Boyens & Peter Jackson & Guillermo del Toro, from the novel The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett, Andy Serkis
Length: 169 min.
Peter Jackson is certainly a risk-taker. After tireless attempts to bring The Lord of the Rings novels to filmic life, his wish was finally granted in 1999 when principal photography began on the trilogy. His $281 million gamble to shoot the films back-to-back paid off (and then some), with the series grossing $2.92 billion worldwide. And now he intends to do it all again.
This time with an estimated $450 million to play with, Jackson’s master plan involves extending the beloved fantasy novel – and predecessor to The Lord of the Rings – The Hobbit into three epic films, beginning with An Unexpected Journey.
The Hobbit at the centre of this story is the conservative Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) – Frodo’s uncle. After an encounter with wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen), Bilbo’s peaceful, private existence is disrupted by the arrival of 13 dwarves on his doorstep. Commanded by their fearless leader Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), the dwarves plan to assemble a fellowship to reclaim their kingdom from an evil dragon. Bilbo is to become their 14th member.
After a somewhat sluggish start, the adventure begins, revisiting memorable locations from the previous film cycle, most notably the Elvish city of Rivendell, along the way. The familiar faces of Hugo Weaving’s Lord Elrond and Cate Blanchett’s Lady Galadriel appear. While these scenes establish an underlying plot that will run throughout the trilogy, their leisurely pace disrupts the momentum of this adventure, a momentum that is never quite restored. Consequently, the film as a whole is uneven and a little too calculated in terms of signalling the series’ direction, as opposed to the less obvious signposting of The Lord of the Rings films.
Similarly, The Hobbit‘s action sequences are not as smoothly imagined as Jackson’s previous efforts. In particular, the frantically filmed and edited escape from the Goblin lair is a little too implausible, even for a fantasy film. Jackson often overcrowds the frame with visual effects, both for his settings and creatures. The extensive use of make-up and prosthetics for the orcs and goblins of The Lord of the Rings helps establish a fairly realistic danger within the fantasy world; while similar work on the dwarves in The Hobbit is terrific, I question the film’s reliance on CGI for many of its other creatures.
But these nit-pickings should not disguise that The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a fun and engrossing adventure. Both Martin Freeman and Richard Armitage are fitting additions to Jackson’s Middle-Earth, and their characters’ relationship adds some interest and shading to the narrative.
Like its forerunners, the film is a visual feast that showcases the spectacular and magical landscapes of New Zealand. As for the 48 frames per second technology (accessible in Australia in any Vmax or IMAX theatre), it doesn’t seem quite ready to transmit an epic adventure of this scale. Some scenes, particularly those containing many close-ups, look sped up, disrupting the viewing experience. Whether or not we’ve seen its full potential or proper use, however, there’s no denying its superior resolution and clarity in wider, picturesque sequences.
Ultimately, your enjoyment of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is likely to hinge on your faith in Peter Jackson’s vision for the trilogy. For this viewer, this opening chapter sets the stage for another vastly entertaining journey across the next two films, unexpected or otherwise.