Nine years after the release of the Oscar winning conclusion to The Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Return of the King, director Peter Jackson returns to Middle Earth in the first part of a new trilogy that adapts JRR Tolkien's first novel in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.
On the day of Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) 111th birthday, he is caught by his nephew Frodo (Elijah Wood) writing of his adventures in the Misty Mountains 60 years previous. The young Bilbo (Martin Freeman) is approached by the wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) and invited on an adventure, which he refuses. Gandalf ignoring his decision invites a company of 13 dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) to Bilbo's home at Bag End and they discuss taking back the lost Dwarf land of Erebor from the terrible dragon Smaug.
The Lord of the Rings mythology, both in literary and film versions has a huge following. One of the primary fears of an adaptation of The Hobbit is that it might fall foul of the same problems that effected another great franchise that decided upon a prequel trilogy. Fans of JRR Tolkien's work can breathe a sigh of relief then as The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is not Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace. It does struggle however to live up to the huge levels of expectation created by the original The Lord of the Rings films.
It has not been a simple journey to have The Hobbit adapted to the big screen. Having initially installed Guillermo Del Toro as director, Jackson had to step in due to a delay in filming over an extended rights battle. Having filmed the initial two The Hobbit films back-to-back, Jackson discovered he had enough footage to expand the films into a trilogy by drawing on extra story elements from Tolkien's appendices. The stretched nature of the narrative does not really effect The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey as Jackson has filled this first installment with plenty of action that keeps the plot zipping along. It's a clever trick, because when actually look back on the story not a great deal has happened for a 3 hour film, but at no point does it drag, which is a testament to Jackson's direction. His creative genius' at WETA Workshop have once again struck gold giving The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey a new, yet familiar design.
The cast are all solid with Freeman the standout, proving that Jackson's decision to rearrange his filming schedule to match his lead actors was well worth it. This Bilbo plays to all Freeman's strengths, funny but full of drama, nervous but full of stoic bravery. It's the part he was born to play and he nails it. The dwarves are fine, but because of the sheer number of them are quickly sidelined to minor parts with only Richard Armitage's flawed leader Throrin, Ken Stott's veteran Balin and James Nesbitt's Bofur given anything substantial to do. When compared to The Fellowship of the Ring's company of heroes, the dwarves fail to match-up. The meat of the dramatic work is therefore carried by the excellent Ian McKellen as Gandalf, with small but effective parts for Galladrial (Cate Blanchett), Elrond (Hugo Weaving) and Saruman (Christopher Lee). Sylvester McCoy's demented nature-centric wizard Radagast the Brown has some fantastic moments that immediately establish him within the landscape of Middle Earth, while Andy Serkis almost runs away with the film as Gollum in his superb duel of wits with Bilbo in the caves beneath Goblin Town.
One of the most controversial decisions by Peter Jackson was to show The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in 48fps (frames per second), which is twice the speed of normal cinema showings. Early footage reports suggested audiences suffering from headaches and sickness. It appears that these reports were unfounded, the strangeness of watching something in this definition should not be overstated however. It gives an incredible clarity of action, which makes it easier to keep up with the fast-moving action scenes, but also gives an almost lifelike reality. This sounds impressive, but really it's distracting and almost makes it feel like you're watching a television show rather than a feature film. This is disconcerting at first as that clarity becomes an almost super-reality, giving everything a plastic sheen. It's not the end of the World, but years of watching at 24fps make the step up to 48fps an unusual viewing experience. Hopefully with future installments the audience will be more accustomed to this style of presentation.
Still considering The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey represents one third of a book one third of the size of The Lord of the Rings, director Peter Jackson does an excellent job. Hardcore Tolkien fans will love the attention to detail and the extended running time, while casual fans will just be happy it's not The Phantom Menace. Hampered by a more childish source material that is more a standalone adventure than the World-effecting epic that is its successor, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey desperately tries to make its story seem more grandiose than it is. Still it's film-making on an epic scale and Jackson proves once again that he is one of the most talented action-adventure directors of all time.
Rating: * * * *