Nearly ten years after Peter Jackson wrapped up his vision of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy with the Best Picture-winning Return of the King, he’s taking us back to Middle Earth with the first entry in The Hobbit trilogy, An Unexpected Journey. With a few familiar faces in front of the camera and a handful of fresh ones to lead the adventure, Jackson manages to capture some fantastic moments here but still can’t shake the feeling that this story didn’t need to be stretched over three movies.
There are many jokes to be made about how, despite this film’s title, many elements of it actually feel familiar and quite expected, but we were almost spared those comparisons because this project came close to looking drastically different from what ended up on screen. Pan’s Labyrinth director Guillermo del Toro spent years developing the story of The Hobbit with Jackson, Fran Walsh, and co-writer Phillipa Boyens in order to direct it himself, but with MGM floundering in bankruptcy and the project not receiving an official greenlight, del Toro had to step down and take on other projects in 2010. The ship eventually righted itself at MGM and Jackson reluctantly stepped into the director’s chair, and decided to stretch the story from two films into three, presumably so he could incorporate elements from the appendices from “The Lord of the Rings” and make this trilogy his last hurrah in Middle Earth.
Many critics will likely write about how this movie feels slight in comparison to The Lord of the Rings, but that’s just the nature of adapting the source material. The stakes in LOTR are as high as they come – the safety of the free world is up for grabs – but here, the mission is to find a better land for a band of dwarfs who, by their own admittance, already have a pretty good life as it is. There’s no real urgency in this journey, and the treasure at the bottom of the faraway mountain with a giant dragon guarding it is barely more than a setup for future entries into this series. This movie is lighter and a little funnier, representative of the fact that the book it was based on was essentially a children’s story.
Martin Freeman, who you may know from the brilliant BBC series “Sherlock,” is wonderful as a young Bilbo Baggins, bringing just the right amount of stuffiness and agitation to the part as he’s thrust out of his safe little hobbit hole and joins a company of dwarfs who seek to reclaim their homeland. Richard Armitage plays Thorin Oakenshield, the dwarf leader, and though he spends most of the film brooding over the loss of his land, he generally does a good job. Thorin is one of the only distinguishable dwarfs among the company of 14, and thankfully Jackson doesn’t spend any amount of time trying to make us identify with each one; he keeps them bunched into groups, and wisely only concentrates on Thorin’s backstory.
Ian McKellen returns as Gandalf, disappearing for large chunks of time before popping in and saving the day in increasingly ridiculous ways, while Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett, and Christopher Lee all have extended cameos while the dwarfs hang out in Rivendell before they stray too far outside of The Shire. Fans of LOTR might get a kick out of seeing this group of returning players, but along with an Elijah Wood appearance in the movie’s opening scene, they didn’t seem entirely necessary. In fact, much of the nearly three hour runtime of An Unexpected Journey feels that way, as if Jackson has to remind people of why they liked the first trilogy instead of moving on and telling this story on its own. There are some pacing issues, as the middle section of the film tends to fall on the boring side, but an inspired cave battle and the return of Andy Serkis’ Gollum are highlights that bring things back up to speed. (Serkis, who is fantastic yet again as the devious Gollum, actually directed the second unit action sequences.)
Fans of on screen battles should be relatively pleased, because there are a ton of them as this film rolls on. From dragon raid flashbacks to orcs to goblins to Necromancers, there are battles aplenty, and Jackson relishes the opportunity to have his heroes behead as many villains as possible. (I counted at least five.) Though the stakes may not be as high this time around, Jackson continues to impress with his immense sense of scale and scope. Still, there’s a feeling that not every single detail of this journey needed to be seen.
Howard Shore returns to compose the score, and while much of it sounds like the same music that we’ve already heard from him (I’m sensing a pattern here), the “Misty Mountains” theme is catchy, captivating, and a terrific piece of work. It’s used over and over again throughout the movie, dominating the aural landscape, but it’s tough to nitpick about how often we hear it because it’s so great.
When the ending comes and – spoiler alert – the company is still ridiculously far away from their destination, it doesn’t quite feel like a slap across the face, but if you listen very closely as the closing credits roll, you can almost hear greedy studio executives cackling in the background, counting their pile of gold they’ve just made as we’ve paid for one third of a journey. An Unexpected Journey has some memorable moments and some that I’d rather forget (Radagast the Brown, anyone?), and though it doesn’t exactly feel like Jackson was phoning it in or anything, it’s tough to be thrilled by a story that doesn’t have much of its own arc. As a passive fan of the LOTR trilogy, I’m more curious than excited about where Jackson and his team are going next. Until next time…