The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the long-awaited prequel to Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, was easily the most anticipated blockbuster of 2012. The level of anticipation was certainly understandable — Jackson’s Rings trilogy was one of the most breathtaking epics to ever grace the big screen, having earned the love of critics and audiences alike. Unfortunately, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey fails to live up to the same level of greatness due to its meandering plot and excessive length.
Set roughly 60 years before the events of The Lord of the Rings, An Unexpected Journey follows the story of a hobbit named Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) who is convinced by the old wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) to join a company of thirteen dwarves on their quest to retake the dwarven kingdom of Erebor from Smaug the dragon. This is only the first instalment in a trilogy, so don’t expect any major plot threads to get resolved by the time the credits start rolling. In fact, don’t expect much of a story either since the whole movie is just a glorified three-hour prologue that merely introduces the viewers to the major characters and plot threads.
The Fellowship of the Ring, the first instalment of The Lord of the Rings, served a similar purpose, but unlike An Unexpected Journey, it also managed to stand on its own two feet without ever getting too tedious (The Fellowship wasn’t a perfect movie either). Sadly, the tedium in An Unexpected Journey lasts until about the last hour — when the story finally picks up the pace and we also get to see Gollum (once again played wonderfully by Andy Serkis).
Speaking of acting — it’s wonderful, even in spite of the limitations set by Jackson’s lacklustre script. Martin Freeman owns the young Bilbo, thanks to his charm and great comical timing. In fact, casting Freeman as Bilbo was a far better decision than casting Elijah Wood as Frodo in The Lord of the Rings films. Ian McKellen is once again amazing as the wizard Gandalf. The same goes for Andy Serkis and his portrayal of the creature Gollum. The dwarf characters were also very well cast, particularly Richard Armitage in the role of the stubborn dwarven prince Thorin Oakenshield.
But just like in The Lord of the Rings films, the real star of this picture is the work done by Peter Jackson’s visual effects studio Weta Digital. We get to witness all sorts of fantastical creatures and landscapes — from trolls and dwarven mines to goblins and their caves. As expected, there was quite a bit of CGI involved in bringing those things to life. In fact, the visual effects are much more plentiful here — even more so than in The Return of the King, the action-packed final instalment of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Yes, even orcs are now CGI creations (in The Lord of the Rings, they were portrayed by actors in makeup).
Unfortunately, the visuals are also much more noticeable in this film — especially if you watch it at 48 fps. The new technology that Jackson has used to film An Unexpected Journey allows for an immensely clear image quality. Due to this clarity, it’s sometimes very easy to distinguish visual effects from reality, making them look incredibly fake and cheap. In a movie that tries to transport its viewers to another world, it’s a very, very bad thing.
However, the real problem with the movie is a narrative that wastes far too much time on extraneous information and characters. For instance, at the beginning, there is a scene that involves Frodo picking up Bilbo’s mail — right before the birthday party that we witness in The Fellowship of the Ring. Frodo has absolutely nothing to do with this story, so why is he in this movie? No idea. Right after that, we spend roughly 40 minutes inside Bilbo’s home, watching the thirteen dwarves eat, sing, and drink, while Bilbo tries to kick them out. The scene is fun, sure, but it stalls the story significantly. The movie is full of such scenes.
The Lord of the Rings the novel is over 1000 pages long and tells the story of an apocalyptic war between good and evil, so it made sense for Jackson to turn it into three epic movies. In contrast, The Hobbit, or There and Back Again, the book that inspired the new trilogy, is just a 300-page children’s story, which could have easily been adapted into a single movie (if we were to use The Lord of the Rings as a ruler). What I’m trying to say is that it just doesn’t feel like Bilbo’s story can sustain three 180-minute epics, and An Unexpected Journey proves that.
If you really crave to return to Middle-earth, give An Unexpected Journey a chance, but if not — stay away.
By: Taras Trofimov