Peter Jackson has finally returned to give us The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the kickoff film in his long-awaited cinematic adaptation of The Hobbit, which arrives 11 years after the release of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, the first installment in Jackson’s LOTR trilogy. This time, the stakes aren’t as high, the band of heroes is comprised mainly of dwarfs and Jackson’s special effects house, Weta, gets to show their stuff in cinematic 3D. But does The Hobbit live up to its legendary predecessor? Not quite.
The story centers around Bilbo Baggins, Ian Holm in LOTR and Martin Freeman in this chapter. Bilbo is a young hobbit who enjoys a relaxing life in The Shire until everyone’s favorite wizard, Gandalf (Ian McKellen), shows up at his doorstep. Soon Bilbo’s house is filled with nomadic dwarfs (Richard Armitage, Ken Stott, Graham McTavish, William Kircher, James Nesbitt, Stephen Hunter, Dean O’Gorman, Aidan Turner, John Callen, Peter Hambleton, Jed Brophy, Mark Hadlow, Adam Brown) and our young hobbit is tossed in the middle of a quest to defeat a dragon and restore a dwarf kingdom to its former glory.
Obviously, the film is visually gorgeous. Jackson doesn’t mess around when it comes to stunning CG and it’s quite cool to see how he utilizes 3D here. Some of the effects can occasionally seem video game-ish, but that’s not out of the ordinary for heavily computer animated films these days.
The performances are all good, with each of the characters carving out a niche in the group, be it comic relief, heart, or even “the fat one.” McKellen is great, as always, in the role of Gandalf and Freeman plays Bilbo with the same wonderful snarkiness and subtle comedy that made me fall in love with him back when he was playing Tim on the original UK version of The Office. Andy Serkis also returns as Gollum, a highlight of the film. Superfans will be delighted to see Flight of the Conchords’ Brett McKenzie back, though his character actually gets a name and a sizable speaking part this time around. Some of the OG ringers are back too, with Elijah Wood, Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchet and Christopher Lee all appearing in the film.
But now for the downside. The original LOTR trilogy centered around the ultimate battle between good and evil, the fate of all people in Middle Earth, not just one tribe of people trying to reclaim what’s theirs. For that reason, the stakes seem much lower here and it’s hard to get as enthusiastic about the heroes accomplishing their quest.
In addition, the film feels long. Very long. And this is coming from a girl who loves the extended editions of all three LOTR movies! This first chapter, An Unexpected Journey, is only one of three films that will tell the story of The Hobbit. Let’s not forget that the original story by J. R. R. Tolkein is only one book, not three like with Lord of the Rings. There’s really no reason why this has to be three movies and, in fact, it makes the ending of this first film feel rather unsatisfying. So, they walk and walk and fight a few times and they don’t really do anything to get closer to defeating the bad guy? Personally, I’m not a huge fan of waiting until 2014 for some kind of resolution. All the LOTR films had a natural conclusion (escaping the Moria, the battle at Helms Deep and, of course, the final destruction of the One Ring) but An Unexpected Journey feels like one big tease to get us back in theaters in two years to finally see a pay off.
Maybe my problem is that, after the cinematic masterpiece that was Jackson’s LOTR trilogy, my expectations were astronomically high for this film. Technology has advanced, Jackson has proven to be a heavyweight in the filmmaking game and people have been clamoring for this flick for over a decade, but it fails to live up to its predecessor. It’s certainly not a bad film, it’s just not as good as I was hoping it would be.
Jackson’s got my attention, but next year’s The Desolation of Smaug better provide something more enriching than this first entry in the trilogy.