During the pre-release hype for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the film itself nearly became buried under talk of high frame rates and Hollywood’s continued 3D push and the questionable decision to turn a two-film book adaptation into a three-movie job — all conversations that director Peter Jackson himself put into play but that ultimately should be secondary to the film itself. After all, what opened this past weekend is just a movie, one that arrives in theaters on the back of some fancy new tech that folks are keen to debate but that will, in the long run, be viewed often at home in good old-fashioned 2D on outdated TVs where the quality of the story being told trumps any concerns about frame rates.*
I wonder how many film critics and writers had that in mind when they watched this movie. I wonder how many became too fixated on the film’s presentation to pay proper attention to the quality of storytelling and craft on display. Because while the reviews of An Unexpected Journey have been mostly mixed, I found myself enthralled and enchanted by every single second of it. EVERY. SINGLE. SECOND.
Bloat? What bloat? Much as The Fellowship of the Ring earned its lengthy run time when it kicked off The Lord of the Rings trilogy way back in 2001, An Unexpected Journey uses its many minutes to cram the screen with images of all kinds — exciting, foreboding, humorous and tender. The film is peppered with clever action beats and touching character moments that sling-shot the narrative along, never allowing it to lag. And I’d argue that from a standpoint of story arc and emotional payoff, Journey feels more like a complete film with with a legitimate ending than does Fellowship, which just sort of beautifully fades out at the end. The first chapter of The Hobbit makes it clear the journey will continue next year, but it also provides our heroes a bit of personal closure that feels earned.
Ah, our heroes. Front and center is Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins, 60 years younger than the version we meet Fellowship (though Ian Holm, who originated the role, does show up for an early cameo). Baggins starts the movie chilling out in the Shire before the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) shows up to send him off on an adventure with a band of 13 dwarves who are hoping to retake their mountain home (and the treasures that wait within) from a deadly dragon. Freeman serves as a perfect anchor to the film, using his rubbery, expressive face to convey both humor and boundless sincerity. And it’s a treat to see McKellen’s eyes all a-sparkle again as Gandalf the Grey. The primary new character here is Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield, a gruff and unwavering dwarven leader who proves to be just as memorable as Aragorn or any of the of the earlier films’ key figures.
Most of the other dwarves are used only for background scenery, though a few are given legit personalities and key moments to shine. I particularly liked the little exchange that develops when Bofur catches Bilbo preparing to slink away from the mission and head back home. The heartbroken look on Bofur’s face when Bilbo reminds him that the dwarves have no home is a good reminder of what all the dwarves have at stake, even the ones who aren’t given much to do. Another highlight is Balin’s proud retelling of the great battle between dwarves and orcs at Moria, where Thorin first squared off against the goblin lord Azog the Defiler, a CGI beastie put to good use in the movie as Bilbo and company’s most immediate threat. Speaking of CGI beasties, Lord of the Rings scene-stealer Gollum is back for one sequence, and it’s a doozy, as well as a reminder of how perfect a match Peter Jackson’s performance-capture tech is with Andy Serkis’s ability to transform into a vividly real yet otherworldly creature.
Much has been made of the extra content that Jackson has ported from various non-Hobbit Tolkien writings and stuffed into this new trilogy, but it all feels organic to the movie. Sure, Jackson could have made The Hobbit without bothering to include Radagast the Brown, an off-kilter nature-loving wizard who first suspects that something dark has returned to Middle Earth, but his inclusion gives An Unexpected Journey extra dramatic heft by creating story threads that will hopefully continue to build through these films and provide a strong connective tissue to The Lord of the Rings. Yet, at the same time, it’s not like The Hobbit is constantly shouting HEY THIS IS A PREQUEL TO THOSE MOVIES YOU LOVE all the time either. There are little moments that tease what is to come — like Gandalf catching a quick glimpse of Bilbo dropping his newly found ring into his pocket — but they do not overwhelm the new story being told here, one that is often lighter and more whimsical in nature.
If I had to nitpick, I suppose I could. My biggest complaint would probably be that the FX-heavy battle in the goblin tunnels borders on overkill, but, even then, Jackson’s flair for staging extravagant fantasy action makes the excessive CG mayhem on display easy to forgive. By the film’s end, I find it hard to fathom that anyone swept up by The Lord of the Rings trilogy a decade ago wouldn’t feel themselves buoyed once more by Jackson and crew’s return to Middle Earth. An Unexpected Journey is artful and spirited and moving … and hopefully a precursor to two more Hobbit movies that prove to be just the same.
*I saw it in good old-fashioned 24-fps 2D and don’t regret it. Though I am thinking about catching a second viewing in 48-fps 3D.