When it comes to blockbuster trilogies that deliver on nearly every conceivable level there are two definite splits. For one generation it was Star Wars, where the sci-fi genre was meshed with the adventure tale to deliver a geek film embraced by the masses. For another it’s been Lord of the Rings which meshed the adventure tale with the fantasy genre to an insane amount of box office revenues in the era before 3D inflated the box office grosses of many a film. And now, after King Kong underperformed and The Lovely Bones didn’t find an audience, Peter Jackson has returned to the land of Middle Earth with the first of a new trilogy with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.
The film takes place 60 years before Lord of the Rings takes place, before a new threat would rise, and focuses on the adventures of Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman). Years before he became an old man and advised Frodo (Elijah Wood) in the Fellowship of the Ring he would go on a journey of his own in Middle Earth. Gandalf (Ian McKellen) has recruited him to help a company of dwarves to free their ancestral lands from a dragon who has taken them over. The film, the first of a new trilogy, follows as Bilbo’s life changes as he joins a group of battle-hardened dwarves into the rough patches of Middle Earth (and the monsters therein).
The film, originally scheduled for two films and expanded into three before release, is one that tries to find the magic of the LOTR trilogy and succeeds for the most part. On a technical scale Peter Jackson has made perhaps his finest film in terms of a pure visual experience. Middle Earth is still beautiful to gaze at and he shoots it so wonderfully that one could make three hours of just landscape shots and be enthralled. Everything in this film is shot wonderfully; Jackson knows this world and wants to connect the two on a number of levels besides the obvious storyline ones. One imagines that you could view all six films eventually and not see a noticeable difference in tone and setting from this film to Return of the King. Everything fits together in a clear and unforced manner, unlike the pair of Star Wars trilogies, and Jackson has a fidelity to his universe that is commendable.
The story itself is solid as well as Jackson is looking at this as a trilogy centered on the elder Baggins in a similar manner to the LOTR trilogy being focused around the younger one. This is a coming of age for him, shedding light on the adventures of Bilbo as a young man and giving some grander context to his early moments in Fellowship of the Ring with Frodo. This is a man who’s been through a wild journey of his own that changed him forever and it gives a new context to the character from the first trilogy. As someone who didn’t read any of Tolkien’s novels it makes the interactions from the original LOTR that much more interesting now. We could only speculate on Bilbo’s past when we see him first; seeing it makes it that much more interesting now.
The film’s big drawback is pacing. This is a film clearly meant to be told in two parts forced into being the opening part of a trilogy. The film is clearly padded and winds up feeling bloated. The film’s pace is choppy at times because it feels like it was found in the editing room to make it into three films as opposed to coming out organically. There’s a sleek two hour film with an ending designed to set up a big second part in An Unexpected Journey and not the opening to a second epic trilogy.
Peter Jackson didn’t recapture the magic of the first trilogy, and probably never can, but what he’s done is crafted a film fans of the series can enjoy alongside those who aren’t.
Director: Peter Jackson
Writer: Fran Walsh & Philippa Boyens & Peter Jackson & Guillermo del Toro, based on the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien
Notable Cast: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellan, Richard Armitage, Andy Serkis, Ian Holm, Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett, Christopher Lee, Elijah Wood, Sylvester McCoy