An Unexpected Journey might as well describe the arduous process of bringing J.R.R. Tolkien’s celebrated novel, The Hobbit, to the silver screen. The adaptation languished in development hell due to legal entanglements and the dire financial straits of MGM, who were co-producing it with New Line Cinema. While Peter Jackson stayed on as producer and co-writer with collaborators Philippa Boyens and Frank Walsh, the directorial reins were handed over to Guillermo Del Toro. However, after two years of pre-production in New Zealand, Del Toro departed and Jackson returned as director. Not to disparage the man’s undeniable talents, but a fresh pair of eyes may have done wonders for The Hobbit.
Jackson’s remake of King Kong received similar criticisms to his LOTR prequel in that both were lambasted for being self-indulgent and overlong. Things might have turned out differently had The Hobbit been filmed first as originally intended. The novel was a lighthearted adventure aimed at children whereas The Lord of the Rings was an expansive trilogy that weaved a rich and incredibly complex mythology. Jackson and his team somehow took what was necessary and jettisoned the extraneous to craft three pictures that stand as remarkable cinematic achievements. Now that he’s given the audience a taste of mammoth spectacle, Jackson may have felt obliged to do the same with The Hobbit. The question remained how Jackson would adapt one book and some extra material into a new trilogy.
Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) lives a simple and quiet life that is interrupted upon the arrival of the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellan). Gandalf practically shanghais Bilbo into a quest with a band of dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage). They seek to take back their kingdom of Erebor from the dragon Smaug that drove them from their land and treasure years ago. Along the way, they are pursued by a bloodthirsty Orc named Azog the Defiler (Manu Bennett), who killed Thorin’s father during a battle at the gates of Moria.
It’s truly wonderful to return to the world of Middle-Earth as envisioned by Peter Jackson. Once the nostalgia fades, you realize just how laborious the story is. The Hobbit takes its time introducing the protagonists and Bilbo doesn’t embark on his adventure until about half an hour. Characters given only a passing reference in the book, such as Azog and Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy), are expanded upon for the movie. The quest itself takes numerous detours including an interminable stop at Rivendell where Gandalf seeks council with Elrond (Hugo Weaving) and Galadriel (Cate Blanchett). The majority of the sequence doesn’t advance the plot, but merely serves as a setup for later installments. There’s also a scene depicting the elderly Bilbo (Ian Holm) and Frodo (Elijah Wood) set just before the events of Fellowship of the Ring that should have been reserved for the Extended Edition Blu-ray. Jackson threatens an additional twenty minutes of footage for that version.
Freeman’s Sherlock co-star Benedict Cumberbatch receives a prominent credit for playing Smaug and the Necromancer. Yet, he doesn’t appear at all or speak a single line.
While Jackson may not be the most judicious writer, he does have a remarkable eye for action. There’s a scene where two mountains come to life and clash against the backdrop of a torrential thunderstorm with Bilbo and the dwarves helplessly caught in the middle like insects. Another sees the heroes fight their way through an underground goblin den.
Despite the inordinate runtime, the large company of dwarves are hardly flesh out save for Thorin though most get a smidgeon of personality. Owing to a lack of doom and gloom, Gandalf is a less portentous character in the prequel. He’s a little looser and more whimsical, allowing McKellan to have some fun with him. The same goes for Hugo Weaving as Elrond. The real star of The Hobbit is Martin Freeman who is perfectly cast as the unlikeliest of heroes. Freeman has great comic timing and the right amount of nervous reluctance. Even with all the amazing set pieces, the highlight of The Hobbit is the sequence where Bilbo and Gollum (Andy Serkis) challenge each other to a game of riddles. These scenes run the gamut of emotions from humorous to frightening. A lot of that is owed to both the performance of Freeman as well as Serkis with an assist from the motion capture artists. Technology has grown to allow Gollum a more expressive and ghoulish visage.
Speaking of technology, The Hobbit is the first feature film shot at 48-frames per second (aka High Frame Rate), which is double the industry standard. Thus, audiences have the choice to see it in plain old 2D, regular 3D, HFR 3D, IMAX 3D, and HFR IMAX 3D. I saw The Hobbit first in 2D in order to avoid any visual distractions. That would be my preferred format. The HFR version features exceptionally clear picture quality and a far more defined depth of field for the 3D. On the other hand, the resolution is so sharp that the movie looks more like a high definition broadcast of a theatrical play. There are times when the characters move as if they are on fast forward. I haven’t mentioned the eyestrain it caused me from time to time. Maybe when James Cameron shoots Avatar 2 and 3 at 60FPS the tech will have improved, but for now HFR should be considered a work in progress.
After shooting Star Wars in 1977, George Lucas didn’t return to the director’s chair until he filmed The Phantom Menace over twenty years later. Fans immediately decried the prequels as drivel that emphasized special effects over genuine emotion. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey certainly isn’t as awful as any of the Star Wars prequels, but it hardly holds a glowing blue sword to the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The Hobbit simply didn’t need to be told on such a grand scale.