If The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is any indication of what's to come, Lord of the Rings faithfuls have reason to be hopeful that the director will create another captivating round of adventures.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is the first installment in Peter Jackson's new Middle-earth trilogy - once again based on the beloved fantasy world created by author J.R.R. Tolkien. After director Guillermo del Toro left the project, Jackson returned to the director's chair and expanded the would-be film series - originally conceived as a two-part adaptation of The Hobbit storyline - into a full-on Lord of the Rings prequel trilogy.
While the plot of Part 1, An Unexpected Journey, and Part 2, The Desolation of Smaug, offer a relatively straightforward storyline, the mystery surrounding Part 3, There and Back Again, has left many fans wondering if Jackson and New Line Cinema sacrificed a quality Hobbit adaptation in favor of a third opportunity for box office earnings.
There and Back Again is set for release in summer 2014, so it'll be awhile before we can definitively weigh in on that trilogy decision; however, if The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is any indication of what's to come, Lord of the Rings faithfuls have reason to be hopeful that the director will create another captivating round of adventures in Middle-earth. An Unexpected Journey does not match the scale established in Lord of the Rings, but there are still plenty of eye-popping visuals, enchanting action set-pieces, and intriguing character cameos, to prevent the film from being the underwhelming (and cheesy) experience that some skeptics were anticipating. In fact, the more intimate storyline, centered around reluctant/adventure-loving hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), his thirteen dwarf companions, and the renowned Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen), often outshines similar plot beats from The Fellowship of the Ring.
In The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, a pre-Lord of the Rings Bilbo Baggins has abandoned his thirst for adventure in favor of a safe and comfortable life in The Shire. For years, Bilbo has preferred the quiet of Bag End, his Hobbit-hole, a well-stocked pantry, and the warmth of his fireplace to the beauty and terrors of the lands beyond his home - until Gandalf the Grey knocks on his door.
The wizard invites the hobbit on a quest to help a band of dwarves retake their homeland, The Lonely Mountain, from a ruthless and dangerous dragon, Smaug. Unwilling to resist the chance for adventure, Bilbo agrees to accompany the group, which is led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), heir to the King Under the Mountain crown. The company faces challenge after challenge, and - unbeknownst to even the wise Gandalf - bears first witness to a dangerous sequence of events that will haunt the next generation of hobbits, dwarves, elves, and men.
Unsurprisingly, there are several similarities between An Unexpected Journey and The Fellowship of the Ring, most notably the core premise (a ragtag group of heroes on a life-or-death quest through the wilds of Middle-earth); however, Jackson's latest installment is differentiated by a number of smart filmmaking choices and solid character dynamics that were present in the Tolkien source material - especially the multifaceted Bilbo Baggins.
Freeman gives a sharp and charming performance as the brave hobbit - adding nuance to a role that draws stark contrast to Elijah Wood's turn as Frodo (who enjoys an especially light-hearted cameo return). Unlike the Lord of the Rings protagonist, Bilbo revels in his adventure - even when he's in over his head - with a solid balance of wit, humor, and bravery that translates into genuinely entertaining (as well as emotionally impactful) scenes. Even though the tone of The Hobbit novel is a bit lighter compared to Lord of the Rings, the film version of Bilbo easily fits into Jackson's darker overarching movie universe - which should be a relief to viewers that were put-off by the rowdy dwarf antics that have dominated the movie adaptation's marketing.
In fact, the dwarves successfully walk a very fine line between jolly goofballs and downright tough-as-nails warriors. Many of their respective combat sequences aren't just exciting, they include unique action beats that are especially impressive when you take into consideration the blend of camera tricks, CGI, and practical prosthetics used to make onscreen interactions look believable when dwarf, goblin, hobbit, and wizard parts all collide in battle. A flashback sequence that establishes Thorin as the leader of the dwarf company is especially impressive, and could rival fan-favorite battles from Return of the King - cementing the character as one of the toughest brawlers in Middle-earth.
Several subtle (and some not-so subtle) changes lead to tense and exciting action sequences, complete with imaginative visual spectacle, helping to ratchet up the relatively modest Hobbit source material storyline - and produce a film experience that matches the thrill and breadth of the original film trilogy. That said, franchise fans will also appreciate many iconic character moments in An Unexpected Journey - notably the fateful game of riddles between Bilbo and Gollum (Andy Serkis). Jackson manages to provide even the quietest scenes with weight - as certain developments carry impact far beyond the short-term Hobbit-centric storyline.
Unfortunately, not all of the Hobbit/Lord of the Rings bridging serves the story at hand - resulting in a lengthy film (169 minutes) that contains a few overlong or disjointed scenes. All of the Lord of the Rings foreshadowing is interesting, but at times it undercuts the importance of the current objective (Smaug and the Lonely Mountain). It's clear that The Hobbit story could have likely been told in two films and, as a result, viewers will probably be mixed on the success of the bridging scenes in An Unexpected Journey, The Desolation of Smaug, as well as There and Back Again; however, the extra content hardly undermines the quality of Jackson's latest effort - even for especially cynical moviegoers.
Adding to the controversy is the director's choice to shoot in 48 frames-per-second - a format that results in hyper-realistic visuals but, as many filmmakers argue, is so true-to-life that it can actually be a distraction - depriving filmgoers of immersion. We've put together a separate editorial discussing the successes and shortcomings of The Hobbit in 48fps but, with regard to a review recommendation, without question the format is worth experiencing - if for no other reason than to form your own opinion (assuming there's a HFR 3D-ready theater near you). 48fps can be disorienting at first, but An Unexpected Journey makes smart use of the presentation - delivering a number of jaw-dropping visual set pieces. There are plenty of movies that we would not want to see in 48fps and, much like 3D, filmmakers should be smart about when to use and avoid the format, but Jackson's Hobbit movie is a worthy (and encouraging) trial run.
In the long run, The Hobbit prequels could be weakened by Jackson's expanded three film plan, but if Part 2 and Part 3 are as enjoyable as An Unexpected Journey, it'll be hard for moviegoers to complain. The film includes everything that made the original Lord of the Rings trilogy so memorable - action-adventure, charm, humor, and breath-taking fantasy battles. Sure, a few extemporaneous Lord of the Rings elements slow things down and distract from the core Hobbit storyline, but overall, the director has once again presented audiences with a captivating and exciting trip to Middle-earth.
If you’re still on the fence about The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, check out the trailer below:
Let us know what you thought of the film in the comment section below. If you’ve seen the movie and want to discuss details about the film without worrying about spoiling it for those who haven’t seen it, please head over to our Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey Spoilers Discussion.
Follow me on Twitter @benkendrick for future reviews, as well as movie, TV, and gaming news.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is rated PG-13 for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence, and frightening images. Now playing in 2D, 3D, IMAX, and 48fps theaters.