It’s been nine years since The Lord of the Rings Trilogy concluded with the Academy Award winning The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. After countless behind-the-scenes problems and lawsuits, we are finally getting the long promised prequel, The Hobbit. However, The Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson saw it fit to change it into a prequel trilogy. So does the first film in this new trilogy (The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey) live up to the quality of its predecessors? Or with immense expectations, was it doomed from the beginning to be the next The Phantom Menace? I’m happy to report that the case is far closer to the former. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is never able to find the emotional weight of the bookend installments of the first trilogy, but it is another fun installment in the world of Middle-earth.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journeyfollows Bilbo Baggins (played by Martin Freeman in his younger years) as he is convinced by Gandalf (Ian McKellen returning to what will be his most iconic role) to accompany a group of dwarves in a quest to reclaim their kingdom from Smaug the dragon (a barely seen Benedict Cumberbatch in a motion capture performance). Peter Jackson returns to the director’s chair while he and writing partners Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh return as the screenwriters. In the remnants of what was once another vision for this prequel, Guillermo del Toro also gets a writing credit on the film.
While based off a book that is a lot more childish in tone, Peter Jackson makes it clear that this is still one of his Middle-earth films. The pacing, the editing choices, and even the tone (although a bit sillier than the Lord of the Rings films) are pretty much the same as this film’s predecessors. While Jackson will come under criticism for taking this adaptation of The Hobbit a bit too literally, he still has not lost the touch of being able to make the more memorable moments of Tolkien’s books fly off the page. A perfect example of this is the “Riddles in the Dark” sequence, which is actually one of the scarier moments of any of the Middle-earth films (can we just start giving this film series an actual name, like the Red Book of Westmarch series or something?) and yet is still able to make you feel sympathetic to a major villain from the Lord of the Rings films.
The one clear way in which this film differentiates itself from the Lord of the Rings Trilogy is with Jackson’s use of technology. The much talked about use of 48 frames per second was a quite interesting choice. The negatives of the format have been exaggerated to great length. Does it look a little funky for the first ten minutes? Yes, but you do get used to it. Does it make the effects work look bad? Sure I guess but it makes the effects work seem on par with films like The Avengers or Skyfall (and you don’t hear the same critics who criticized the effects work here criticize those films). Luckily, when they really get the effects work down pat (like with Gollum) the picture quality is stunning. That being said claims of this format making the film look as if you are attending a play are also grossly exaggerated. It’s ultimately just a few notches above your standard HD television. Another technology choice, Jackson made was to use a lot more CGI than he did on the Lord of the Rings trilogy. While I would have preferred Jackson’s earlier methods, this doesn’t become a problem until a ridiculous action sequence set in an underground cavern late in the film.
Like its predecessors, this film also has an outstanding cast. Martin Freeman is a great lead. He is perfect for the lighter tone of the film and his comedic timing is put to great use. Not much more can be said about how great Ian McKellen is as Gandalf so I will just say that it was great to see McKellen get a more physical role in this film. Richard Armitage is also fantastic as Thorin Oakenshield. He is obviously supposed to fill the role that Viggo Mortensen had in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and he does not disappoint. While you never get to really know all of the other dwarves in the film, Ken Stott as Balin, Adam Brown as Ori, and James Nesbitt as Bofur do get their moments. The film also has a bunch of fun cameos, but the performance that really steals the show is Andy Serkis in a return to his most iconic role, Gollum. Serkis gets to be much more frightening and leaves a much bigger emotional mark than he has in any of his other turns as Gollum (despite being in the film for only about ten minutes). It is a shame that Serkis gets ignored for awards considration (because of the motion capture process he uses) because this is easily one of the best performances of the year.
While this is easily a distant fourth in Peter Jackson’s Middle-earth set series, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a fantastic return to one of cinema’s most fascinating worlds.