An Unexpected Journey is novelistic in design; it unfolds in chapter-like segments, most of which progress the central narrative thread (and others which place out the groundwork for future Middle-earth installments). By comparison, Fellowship is action-reaction oriented and thus, adheres closer to a conventional three-act film structure. Overall, though, there are actually numerous plot points and elements in the two films that mirror one another, including:
- Opening prologue with narration from a character whose POV informs the story (Older Bilbo vs. Galadriel), followed by a subtitle "The Shire... 60 Years Earlier" vs. "...60 Years Later."
- Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) visits a reserved and uninterested young Bilbo in An Unexpected Journey vs. the friendly reunion with older Bilbo (Ian Holm) in Fellowship.
- Leaving The Shire segues into a subplot involving another wizard (Radagast in Mirkwood and Saruman in Isengard, respectively).
- Cross-country chase sequence (with orcs in An Unexpected Journey, Nazgul in Fellowship) culminates with the central characters arriving in Rivendell.
And so forth. Nonetheless, An Unexpected Journey's layout allows for prolonged enjoyment of the intimate details that distinguish its familiar (formulaic) fantasy-adventure sequences; Fellowship, by comparison, is somewhat "chewy" and packs in so much material (side-plots, supporting characters) it can be overwhelming on an initial viewing. Some (many?) prefer the chunkier narrative, but The Hobbit's less-is-more choice is welcomed by me.
On the other hand, Fellowship does have a drive and immediacy that events in An Unexpected Journey do not possess; the sense of constant danger is taxing, but exhilarating. Moreover, the former does not suffer from the anti-climactic ending to the first Hobbit installment (following the escape from the Goblin tunnels, that is); though, that sequence does serve a purpose in terms of character development, it flails more than necessary, for a handful of reasons.
WINNER: Fellowship of the Ring, for more satisfactory "falling action."
An Unexpected Journey and Fellowship of the Ring unfold in the same fantastical realm, yet Middle-earth in these films feels like two entirely-different settings. In the former, it's a world at peace; one where daily life consists of difficulties, but nothing of a world-threatening nature. Moreover, Middle-earth in An Unexpected Journey feels richer and more properly-realized. Case in point: we bear witness to the tiny creatures that populate the woodlands; orcs speak in their native tongue among themselves (meanwhile, Goblins and Trolls actually speak); even Elvish and Dwarfish culture is legitimately portrayed, through the scenes set in Rivendell, the opening prologue and the behavior/appearances of Bilbo's companions.
Fellowship, by comparison, does not fail to envelope viewers in Tolkien's magical kingdom; part of the installment's enduring appeal is how it creates a living and breathing Middle-earth. However, such locations as the heavenly Elvish locales (Rivendell, Lothlórien), organic Shire and the decaying, hellish caverns of Moria are gorgeous to behold, but Fellowship just has less time to devote to an appreciation of Middle-earth's diverse cultures; thus, they have less of a voice than in An Unexpected Journey.
Much of the propulsive energy and relentless sense of danger that drives the action in Fellowship comes from the setting ("The world has changed," Galadriel narrates somberly during the opening titles). An Unexpected Journey has the opportunity to relish in the experience of visiting Middle-earth. Indeed, it can be a silly, exciting or quiet place, depending on where you're at and who's in the area ("I've found it is the small things, every act of normal folk that keeps the darkness at bay," notes Gandalf during an exchange with Galadriel in An Unexpected Journey).
Winner: An Unexpected Journey.
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