The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Peter Jackson’s prime achievement with the Lord of the Rings trilogy was creating a universe that was at once fantastical and connected to ours – epic grandeur tethered to a familiar reality.  By the time The Return of the King rolled around, the world he built felt familiar and lived-in, wonderful and desolate and a little sad, and a simple helicopter shot of the New Zealand landscapes tweaked just so with CGI could evoke tears. So could a few bars of Howard Shore’s beautiful, intensely thematic score.

To fans of Lord of the Rings, the news of a pair of new films based on The Hobbit, with Jackson, Shore, cinematographer Andrew Lesnie, and much of the cast returning, was like a gift – like someone finding two new chapters of a favorite book in an attic somewhere. The news that Tolkien’s skinny children’s story would be split into three films, not two, was a little perplexing, but I figured this team had earned a measure of faith when it came to trilogies. Then I sat down to watch the first installment, An Unexpected Journey, and found it to be a strange experience, one that made me feel like my adoration of Jackson’s work was folding in on itself.

Because here’s the thing, and let me be very up-front: Lightning has not struck twice, at least not yet. Unexpected Journey is not the intense, transporting experience you’re probably looking for. It’s drawn-out and long, every event in Tolkien’s novel turned into some sort of grand spectacle. Its mythmaking feels labored; the stage-setting voiceover longer and less crucial-feeling than its counterpart in The Fellowship of the Ring. Where the theatrical versions of the LotR films exhibited uncannily flawless judgment about how to trim and shape the books, this one seems to have tossed in everything and then some. (Did we really need the weird sight gag of forest wizard Radagast the Brown and his rabbit-pulled sled?) Nothing compares to the emotional highs of the first trilogy: Frodo’s decision to accept the mantle of ring-bearer at the Council of Elrond; a repented Boromir rushing to the rescue of the Hobbits; Sam Gamgee recklessly wading into the river lest Frodo go off on his own. There isn’t the overpowering sense of what’s at stake; of our heroes bravely facing down vast and merciless forces even as all hope seems lost.

And yet I not only liked Unexpected Journey quite a lot, but may even sit through the nearly three-hour film a second time. The main reason is the one I’ve already alluded to: the simple chance to luxuriate in the Jackson/Lesnie/Shore vision of Middle Earth for a little while longer. A few minutes in, I heard Shore’s “Concerning Hobbits” theme and was basically a goner. It was really that easy. Here’s this cinematic world I fell in love with, back again for a little while.

That’s not a ringing endorsement, so let me say that much of the film is quite lovely on its own terms. Bilbo, played with typical wry understatement by Martin Freeman from Sherlock and the Ricky Gervais version of The Office, is a fine reluctant hero. Early on, his Hobbit-hole is invaded, at Gandalf’s behest, by a coterie of dwarves, who make a merry mess and a whole lot of noise, and there’s a nice moment when the lonely quiet of the next morning inspires him to set off on his adventure. Later, he has a confrontation with a technologically upgraded version of Gollum, and it’s wonderful – funny, unexpected, and poignant. Come to think of it, the entire last hour more or less hums with energy (though the emotional payoff involving Bilbo and a noble but skeptical dwarf is kind of botched). And even at its most lugubrious, the film is passable, beautifully rendered fantasy.

(I don’t want to dwell on a subject on which far too much ink has been spilled, but speaking of rendering, let me just briefly refute the weirdly popular notion that the 48-frame-per-second format is jarring or looks like a soap opera or like video or whatever. It doesn’t. It looks dazzling, and it makes 3D finally make sense. See it.)

I wonder, though, what I would have made of An Unexpected Journey had I seen it first. There are enough problems here to make it easy pickings for critics, and many have pounced. One possibility is that the main thing to recommend the film is nostalgia. But so be it.

-- Eugene Novikov

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