No matter how sacrilegious this may sound, I’ve always preferred The Hobbit over The Lord of the Rings’ literary density. For as robust and profound as it is, I’ve felt The Lord of the Rings was an interesting tale blown out of proportion. I respect Tolkien’s efforts to construct a fully realized world, but the miniscule details felt superfluous, making the novel more of a chore than a vessel of discovery. I can feel the disdain and contempt you hold for me, but I appreciated The Hobbit’s simple structure and story far more than the overbearing nature of Tolkien’s assumed masterwork. One should take note- I hold the aforementioned stance only on the novels. Otherwise, I absolutely love Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Somehow, Jackson miraculously condensed and fashioned Tolkien’s work into 9 hours of pure cinematic bliss. Surely, if given the opportunity to return to Middle-Earth, Jackson could make another masterful film out of The Hobbit, right? How about stretching the small novel, plus additional notes and musings from Tolkien, into three separate three-hour films? My heart wanted to say yes, but my apprehensive mind mightily corralled expectations.
Once my three-hour return to Middle-Earth ended, I left the darkened theater feeling optimistic about the next two installments of The Hobbit, if only because An Unexpected Journey ended on a rollicking rampage of technical wizardry and heightened storytelling. Yet, as I look back on this first chapter, I can’t help but feel the film is at odds with itself. When the film tries to expand the source material, it fails to establish any form of pace, but when the end is in sight, it’s absolutely fantastic. Initially, our return to Middle-Earth is comforting and familiar. Shots of the Shire and Howard Shore’s enchanting musical cues remind us of the majesty found in Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Greatness will surely be bestowed upon the viewer… forty five minutes after we’re introduced to a gauntlet of characters that are nothing more than walking punch lines and exquisite exercises in costume design and makeup. Jackson tepidly introduces us to Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), sixty years before the events in the Rings trilogy, and the tale of a dragon named Smaug, who rules over Lonely Mountain, the former home of a race of dwarves.
Led by Gandalf (Ian McKellan) and Thorin (Richard Armitage), a dwarf king in the making, a troupe of dwarves descend upon Bilbo’s quaint home in the Shire, hoping to elicit help from the comfortably meek hobbit. Moments of genuine hilarity nearly rescue the film’s laborious start, which feels like nearly 45 minutes of Bilbo waffling and Thorin sending ocular daggers to our titular hero. Once the stalling ends, An Unexpected Journey takes flight, until it grounds itself with a weak subplot. But then the narrative starts to rise again, and is then grounded by another subplot. Up until the film reaches the Misty Mountains and reintroduces us to Gollum, once again impeccably portrayed by Andy Serkis, An Unexpected Journey refuses to maintain any form of narrative momentum. In many ways it’s like a nightmare road trip, where we’re stopping every couple of miles so someone can lay waste to their bodily fluids. Thankfully, Peter Jackson steps on the accelerator once Bilbo separates from Gandalf and the dwarves.
Stemming from the separation is a mesmerizing scene that finds Bilbo exchanging riddles with the always frighteningly charismatic Gollum. It’s arguably the film’s best scene, and perfectly encapsulates Jackson’s greatest strength: blending special effects with deft writing and tonal control. It’s a scene the first half of the film so desperately needed. Outside of the special effects and fantastic battle sequences, the only constant in the film is the presence of Martin Freeman. In his first major tent pole role, Freeman completely embodies the earnest qualities of Bilbo, as well as his ferocious lust for carving out a larger life. Not to mention, Freeman has impeccable comedic timing, and adds a great deal of aloofness to the film’s dark vibe. Because of Freeman’s talent, as well as a fantastic finish, An Unexpected Journey deserves a passing grade. Despite Peter Jackson gorging on precious minutes and needlessly expanding and stalling the adventure from time to time, An Unexpected Journey ropes us into a familiar world that has plenty left to discover.