3 out of 5 – An Unexpected Journey is a bit of a nostalgic trip back to the time when The Lord of the Rings was cool. As a film on its own merits, it’s a partial success, with sections of inspired and inventive fantasy interrupted by overly long exposition that could easily have been made on the cutting room floor. Peter Jackson’s direction of large-scale action occasionally becomes a bit disorienting and nauseating, but his handling of the personal stories of the film’s characters almost makes up for it.
I walked into this screening of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (heretofore to be referred to as An Unexpected Journey) feeling as if I’d gone back in time a bit. The crowd that all went crazy for The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) franchise eleven years ago sat all around me, a little older, more grown-up perhaps, but still with a collective glint in their eye that betrays their love of fantasy, and an (un)healthy obsession with Middle Earth in their collective consciousness.
There was a nostalgic air about An Unexpected Journey from the film’s opening frame – even the now-iconic credits proclaiming the film as a Wingnut production seemed designed to evoke the glory days of the past. This new adaptation of Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” has been a long time coming, with rumours of its productions beginning immediately following the release of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King in 2003. Guillermo del Toro was due to direct before the project fell to pieces for a variety of business reasons (including financial woes at MGM) in 2010. Once del Toro exited the scene, Gandalf himself, Sir Ian McKellen, stated that he would not reprise his role unless Peter Jackson was in the director’s chair. Jackson, who to that point had seemed reluctant to return to the Tolkien well, agreed to direct and filming finally began in March 2011.
What’s it about?
Bilbo Baggins (the elder played by Ian Holm, the younger played by the talented British comic actor Martin Freeman) lives a quiet Hobbit’s life in the Shire, a subsistence farming community of tiny people in the fictional world of Middle Earth. As explained to us in the first LOTR movie, the hobbits pale into insignificance when compared to the other exciting, dangerous things that go on in Middle Earth, and are perfectly happy to accept and embrace their place in the world. Happy with a cosy home, good food and ale, as well as the enjoyment of ‘pipe weed’ (they’re all stoners in the Shire), hobbits don’t expect anything exciting to happen to them, and when presented with disruptions to their simple lives, they politely attempt to avert it.
Bilbo decides to write down his memoir of an unexpected journey he was taken on sixty years previously. First he explains (in the film’s first major visual ‘wow’ piece) about how the Dwarf Thror becomes King of a far-off land called Erebor, bringing an era of prosperity to the land that eventually crumbles as the King becomes obsessed with the massive stockpile of gold kept in a mountain. When Smaug the dragon comes to town, he viciously destroys the town and drives the dwarves from their homes while claiming their capital as his own. Thror’s grandson, Thorin (Richard Armitage), sees the elves of Middle Earth, led by King Thranduil (Lee Pace), passively watch their demise before leaving them to fend for themselves.
Shortly after this, Bilbo Baggins is tricked by the wizard Gandalf (Sir Ian McKellen) into hosting a part for Thorin and his posse of dwarves. Gandalf also manages to enlist Bilbo as the gang’s ‘burglar’, joining them on their quest to wrest their wealth away from the evil Smaug.
The rest of An Unexpected Journey covers the first part of the posse’s journey to Erebor. Along the way they encounter Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy in a very nice turn), an eccentric, animal-loving wizard who warns of a powerful Necromancer (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) that is spreading dark magic throughout the forest – Gandalf ignores the scepticism of Saruman and believes this Necromancer is the powerful dark lord Sauron, thought to have been defeated and banished years before. The crew are also assisted by the elves, are kidnapped by goblins and eventually have a giant showdown with Azog, an Orc chief who slayed Thorin’s father and has a massive bone to pick with Thorin.
Is it any good?
The Hobbit is a mixed bag, and I found it plagued by some of the same problems that the LOTR trilogy suffered from. The cinematic grammar that Peter Jackson employs can be dizzyingly effective, but it can also be just plain dizzying – I found the massive scale in which many key scenes were filmed nauseating, particularly in conjunction with a camera that constantly changes your spatial perspective.
Peter Jackson continues to be far too fond of his own work, and his reluctance to cut out anything, even if it impinges upon the effectiveness of the storytelling, is a glaring flaw in his work. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is the first of a trilogy, and I really must question whether there is enough material in that novel to warrant three bladder-busting instalments of around three hours apiece. At two hours and fifty minutes, An Unexpected Journey is overlong, with many parts that could have been excised without any great loss to characterisation or narrative. I understand that the tremendous detail that these films include is part of their appeal – I prefer my films a little more taut and efficient. I agree with Hitchcock’s aphorism that the length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder. Two hours of An Unexpected Journey would have been a perfect length, particularly considering the material covered in this first film.
There are certainly things to recommend The Hobbit. The hobbit, as originally written by J.R.R. Tolkien, is an inspired protagonist for a fantasy novel. Every story, particularly fantasy tales, requires a protagonist that the audience can relate to. Hobbits have values that we feel we would do well to embrace, but also are flawed creatures who bury their heads in the sand when presented with anything that challenges their status quo. The overcoming of that flaw – gaining the ability to rise to the occasion when the going gets tough and we are taken out of our comfort zone – is the theme that permeates much of Tolkien’s work. Peter Jackson does pay service to this aspect of the stories, which is something I appreciate. When compared to something like the woeful Star Wars episodes I-III, LOTR and to a lesser extent The Hobbit are tours de force of character-driven odysseys.
Another pleasing aspect of this production is the acting. The stars of the LOTR trilogy are all back –including a very old-looking Christopher Lee as Saruman – and the newcomers, including Sylvester McCoy as Radagast the Brown, Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield, and Martin Freeman as Bilbo all give worthy performances. I particularly enjoyed the return of the Gollum (Andy Serkis), who shares the best scene of the movie with Bilbo, playing a riddle game that is rich in atmosphere and humour.
The Hobbit has been met with middling reviews and a whole lot less fanfare than its predecessors a decade ago. Perhaps the Lord of the Rings time has come and gone. Time will tell whether these new films will be a valued part of the Tolkien and Jackson canon, or if they will be viewed with disdain and cynicism for stretching a cash cow out to the maximum. For mine, there is enough talent, inventiveness and passion on display in An Unexpected Journey to warrant intrigue in future instalments, but the film is not quite as instantly classic as The Fellowship of the Ring was in 2001.
Editor’s note: This is the first review I have written since packing my bags up and moving to Melbourne – this move is the reason why the site has been so quiet over the past six weeks or so. My new regular cinema is the lovely Sun Theatre in Yarraville, a beautifully preserved old-timey sort of place with affordable pricing and staff that appreciate those that care about the movie-going experience. Highly recommended.