Regarding its frequent moments of excess and calm pace, An Unexpected Journey is an evident proof that Jackson still has a knack for tales in this world, and that he may have more surprises in store as the rest of this new, unexpected trilogy carries out.
The Hobbit An Unexpected Journey arrives in theaters under a brutal weight of expectations, coming not only after the magnificent Lord of the Rings trilogy, but with the knowledge that there are two more films to come in this adaptation of a very slim novel. It’s impossible to read the maps of Middle Earth and hear Howard Shore’s score and not brace yourself for the sweeping emotions and fights of Lord of the Rings, but anyone who has read The Hobbit knows to expect a lighter, smaller story, one more about friendly dwarves and a grouchy hobbit than stirring calls to heroism.
And even though The Hobbit seems in its initial half very much like a short story stretched far too thin, it gradually settles into its own enjoyable rhythm, a comic quest that’s a good enough excuse to make a return visit to Middle Earth. As Bilbo Baggins, the comfortable hobbit reluctantly dragged onto this quest with a company of 13 dwarves, Martin Freeman is a nicely flustered and quick-witted presence; it takes a while for Bilbo to embrace his call to adventure, but by the time he does, he feels like a guy worth following for two more movies. Completed with returning characters like Ian McKellen’s Gandalf and (however short) Andy Serkis’ Gollum, together with the handful of dwarves who manage to distinguish themselves from that crowded bunch, and An Unexpected Journey becomes a comfortable little journey– and an even better one if you can persuade yourself not to compare it to Lord of the Rings.
Not that the film actually encourages that– it starts on the exact same day as Fellowship of the Ring, with an older Bilbo (Ian Holm reprising his role) preparing for his birthday party and sending his nephew Frodo (a hilarious cameo in the form of Elijah Wood) off to meet Gandalf. Alongside this frame device and a recreation of the fight with Smaug the dragon that lost the dwarves their pile of precious gold in the mountains, it takes much time to get around to the unexpected dinner party Bilbo hosts for the 13 dwarves, and even longer to get the gang on the road toward taking back the dwarves’ ancestral home (and, there are two songs sung during that party. Not one. Two!) Bilbo is a far less willing adventurer than the wide-eyed Frodo, and for the movie’s first hour he’s a grouchy and bumbling presence, clashing instantly with the solemn dwarf leader Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and wishing restlessly he was back home in his hobbit hole. You might wish the same.
Then the group stumbles upon a mean group of hungry mountain trolls and Bilbo and the movie alike finally find a purpose, digging into the awkward group dynamics and setting up Bilbo’s redemption in Thorin’s eyes. The huge battle sequence against Smaug the dragon is being spared for the next movie, but we at least get an incredible cavern full of goblins to run away from, not to mention the return of Gollum, whose “riddles in the dark” sequence is riveting, and Andy Serkis’ performance as incredibly nuanced as ever. Some story details are added from the novel to give more of a sense of classic continuity, like a flashback to Smaug’s takeover of the dwarves’ mountain and a sequence with Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and Elrond (Hugo Weaving) warning of Sauron’s potential rise; the film can’t quite find a natural closing point, but the hints at a bigger story bode well for the coming sequels.
I watched An Unexpected Journey in the much-touted 48fps and in 3D, an experience I would recommend, but maybe only on second viewing. I never adjusted to the look, which makes everything feel more real and closer to you, an effect that’s utterly bizarre when seeing giant trolls or goblins or even a band of tiny dwarves. The technological experimentation may have urged Peter Jackson get excited about a less-bigger-scale revisit to Middle Earth, but its effect on the film is harder to gauge; it’s interesting seeing familiar characters like Gollum move with an unbelievable realness, but also almost impossible to feel as swept away by this adventure to an imaginary world.
When Jackson took over The Hobbit after Guillermo del Toro called it quit in 2010, it felt like an obligation more than the passion that drove him to make the original trilogy. But for its frequent moments of excess and calm pace, The Hobbit An Unexpected Journey is a strong proof that Jackson still has a knack for stories in this world, and that he may have more surprises up his sleeves as the rest of this new, unexpected trilogy unfolds.