Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy rightly made stars of its cast and crew, and in creating the definitive big screen Middle-Earth the director wove a thrilling and visually stunning tale with the highest of stakes and the grandest of visions. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey does suffer from some of the perils of being a prequel, that of the fate of some of the characters and, in this case, the tale feeling a little smaller, as well as a number of very familiar narrative beats.
The arrival of the Company of Dwarves is a perfect introduction to Martin Freeman’s Bilbo Baggins and throughout the film his mixture of reticence and a latent adventurous spirit are tremendously endearing. Ian McKellen is a lighter shade of Grey here though there are seeds of doom laid down throughout the story which link the two trilogies but not overtly so. Hugo Weaving’s Elrond is far sprightlier and much less dour than he is in Frodo’s company. There is evidence throughout of the pains Jackson, along with Fran Walsh, Phillipa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro, took to create a new aesthetic and atmosphere while retaining much of the seductive nature of their Middle-Earth.
The early scenes of the Dwarf stronghold of Erebor are stunning, as are many of the locales visited by the company. In mining the rich mythology and histories J.R.R. Tolkien created for his world Jackson allows a context for this quest, though some of these are rendered almost identically to his previous trilogy. There will be questions as to the narrative validity of stretching the source material to make three long films, Sylvester McCoy’s earthen, Radagast the Brown will test the patience of many and towards the end there a number of natural endings which are then trumped, which has the effect of dulling the emotional pangs rather than prolonging them.
There will inevitably be much discussion of the higher frame rate of 48fps, but it is certainly worth seeing this film in this format if you can. It is a jarring experience, when we see Bilbo scurrying through Bag End I genuinely thought the film was being played at double speed. The clarity and detail which appears when this visual conflict settles down (which it does quickly, though not completely) is astonishing. Where it works best is in Jackson’s epic battle scenes, flying through the goblin kingdom and across the wilds of Middle-Earth there is a new level of immersion.
It is a shock to the system, a lifetime spent processing film at 24fps is instantly undone and unforgiving so. The claim that the film looks less cinematic (“like TV” was a regular complaint) is a false one. The film is certainly cinematic, the precision of the picture has little to do with this though it will take a while for some to adjust. It is time worth spending though as the format offers something genuinely new and makes an enormous difference.
From Rivendell to Gollum’s cave to the sacking of Moria there is much for fans of the first trilogy to enjoy here, which oddly present problems for this film as the narrative never feels as cohesive, nor as so blood quickeningly propelled. Jackson’s narrative abilities never fail him however and he does a good job of keeping us acquainted with a difficult cast of characters and as hinted at before Martin Freeman’s reluctant hero is a fine creation. The visual splendor of Middle-Earth is luxuriant as ever however what drives the story, the vengeance and the struggles, do not engage as well as they might. Some of the dialogue seems needlessly expository and when compared to the Rings trilogy, rather prosaic.
It is unusual to return to a world crafted by many of the same hands as before but The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a welcome one. It is not as stirring as its big-screen predecessor, nor does it triumph over many of the comparisons which will inevitably be made. It is however hugely enjoyable, lighter in tone and fresher in spirit than our last outing in Tolkien’s world. It is worth remembering that it is one part of a larger story. This does not help the disjointed tone and stretched narrative overly, but Jackson brings us back to a world unmistakably his, and it is, at times, some of the best work he has done. A tighter hand (and one less film in the mix) may have helped this first film somewhat but there’s no doubt that the first step taken on our journey with The Hobbit is an enjoyable and visually stunning one.