Nine years, eleven Academy Awards, and two massive cinematic disappointments. Since wowing the world in 2001 with The Fellowship of the Ring, the first entry in his adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy series The Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson has amassed an impressive tally of goodwill and squandered the lion’s share; as a consequence, his return to Middle Earth, a similar treatment of Rings precursor The Hobbit, has been speculated over with alternating degrees of trepidation, iconoclasm, anticipation, and blatant excitement. Given Jackson’s previous artistic and commercial success playing in this particular fantasy sandbox, as well as his subsequent failures (2005’s King Kong, 2009’s The Lovely Bones), it’s difficult to imagine a scenario where expectations could be any more significant for the lord of the ring.
Which brings us to the good news: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a marvel and a delight. At the same time, every mixed critique you’ve heard about bears a kernel of truth– it’s very, very long, and jam-packed with characters, lore, locations, weapons, spectacle, and portents to boot. Whether these details feel like stumbling blocks is entirely up to you. After all, eleven years ago they were considered essential characteristics that drew cheers from critics and audiences alike, so the real question you’ll have to answer before heading into the theater is simple: what should you reasonably expect of a Jackson-helmed interpretation of The Hobbit? More of the same, but filtered through the more child-like lens Tolkien employed when he wrote and published the novel seventy five years ago.
Yes, The Hobbit is a prequel. Yes, The Hobbit follows many of the same themes and ideas as the Rings movies, and largely plays out in the same “heroes on a quest” vein as those pictures. Most importantly, though, The Hobbit reminds audiences why they fell in love with Jackson’s trilogy of epics over a decade ago. This time, our focus lands squarely on the minuscule shoulders of Bilbo Baggins, the hobbit– the hobbit– with whom we had such a brief acquaintance in the original films. There’s a tale in his heart, one of dragons and dwarves and homesickness and courage, and The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey tells us precisely how Bilbo came to be wrapped up in the worldly affairs of, well, folk other than his neighbors– as well as the specifics of how he stumbled upon a certain innocuous piece of sinister jewelry.
Of course, nobody knows about that little trinket, not yet; it’s the film’s shiny MacGuffin. The real story involves a troop of dwarves, deracinated from their mountain-carved kingdom over a hundred years ago by Smaug the dragon (who we only see in bits and pieces here despite his immensity) and eager to reclaim it. Bilbo (Martin Freeman) figures into their plot courtesy of Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen), who persuades the hapless halfling to join in the quest in his blithely charismatic way; the dwarves need a burglar, we’re told, and nobody can burgle better than a hobbit, at least in theory. And so the company sets out, though their journey is fraught with more perils than just the endgame threat of a dragon– the usual CGI-rendered assortment of fantasy heavies, orcs, goblins, wolves, and trolls all harry our heroes and give chase through the woods and across (and beneath) mountain ranges. To think that at the end of their toil, they’ll still have a winged, fire-breathing reptile to slay.
It’s funny that a story about stepping outside one’s door and into a big, new, alien world should feel so familiar to us. At the ground level, An Unexpected Journey and Fellowship of the Ring feel like kinsmen; both films take their time getting started, engaging in meticulous, elongated character and narrative set-up before plucking a hobbit from his comfortable abode and dropping him into a broader universal of magical wonders and mortal dangers. Ultimately it’s the details that separate them from one another. The fate of the world doesn’t hang in the balance here– just pride, of which there’s plenty to go around. Bilbo, hailing from a race of peace-loving homebodies and gardeners, wants to prove himself to this cadre of dwarven war veterans; meanwhile the dwarves, led by the gruff, brooding prince Thorin (Richard Armitage), want to avenge their homeland and ancestors.
They have their work cut out for them, courtesy of Jackson. Along with his usual partners in crime, Fran Walsh and Phillipa Boyens (as well as Guillermo Del Toro, who originally had director duties on the project before dropping out two years ago), Jackson has drawn a long and risky road to glory. He’s also littered it with generous helpings of the whimsy and humor that’s native to the original story’s tone. It should go without saying that you’re best off watching The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in a theater with really comfortable seats, but if you can easily sit through any of the theatrical Rings movies– or their home video extended cuts– The Hobbit is a breeze. It’s still quite packed, of course, but overstuffed frameworks are part and parcel of these pictures; you may as well decry a slasher for being exploitative. Nothing here is any more drawn-out than the small-scale skirmishes and chases of Fellowship or the act-spanning battles of Return of the King.
What’s demonstrably different about The Hobbit is a matter of presentation. It feels unfair to compare the film’s HFR 3D to a telenovella, but it distinctly rings of soap operas and sportscasts, so much so that even viewers accustomed to that flat smoothness might find it jarring. Sometimes, the effect is positive; sometimes you won’t notice it at all; and sometimes it’s truly, irredeemably repellant. Any references to Benny Hill you may have read elsewhere are apt, particularly in a chase scene between a pack of orcs and a zany, tree-hugging wizard named Radagast (Sylvester McCoy).
But it feels a shame to waste too much time on frame rates when audiences can just as easily buy a ticket to see the film in good old-fashioned 24 FPS instead. (Which I heartily recommend for less-adventurous viewers.) The content, at least, is up to snuff, whether it’s Jackson’s exquisite world-building and technical sorcery or the excellent performances of his cast. We should expect greatness from returning Rings veterans– McKellen, of course, and also Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, Christopher Lee, Andy Serkis, Ian Holm and Elijah Wood for the briefest of moments, and the unforgettable Bret McKenzie– but the newcomers turn out equally impressive performances. Freeman proves most noteworthy in adopting the ticks and habits of Holm’s elder version of Bilbo in his own portrayal of the character, but stand-out dwarves– Armitage especially, but also Ken Stott, Graham McTavish, and James Nesbitt– round out the cast with their individual charms and nuances.
When all is said and done and the first leg of the Jackson’s new trilogy wraps things up, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more lively cinematic ensemble this year outside of Lincoln. Nor will you easily find a more engrossing, rousing adventure. It’s appropriate that Jackson chose to do away with the subtitle of Tolkien’s book– “There and Back Again” hardly fits with a film that only gets a third of the way through its source material. But be that as it may, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey has put us on the path to our destination and our return journey to the Shire. The introductions and preparations have been made, and the course has been set; a quarter of an hour of set-up has kicked off Jackson’s latest odyssey through Middle Earth in earnest. We’ll see if it will have been worth it in a year and a half, but for now The Hobbit makes for a good start.