Among a wave of fan hype and critical cynicism, Peter Jackson’s first entry into his much-debated Hobbit trilogy is here, giving us a glimpse into the director’s process moving forward while also providing a few questions – and a healthy dose of scepticism – for what is to follow. An Unexpected Journey, the first near-3-hour dose of Tolkein we’re going to get over the next 18-or-so months, does plenty to highlight most of the trepidations pundits and fans alike have had about Jackson’s three-film approach, and though the film is enjoyable to a point, it’s difficult to escape the feeling that it’s an unnecessarily drawn-out if industriously-produced exploitation of the Rings fanbase.
An Unexpected Journey begins by introducing us to Bilbo Bagins as we remember him from Lord of the Rings (played by Ian Holm), as he sits about the Shire and briefly chats to his nephew, Frodo (featuring the briefest of brief cameos from Elijah Wood). Jackson then sends us back 60 years to face a youthful Bilbo (Martin Freeman), who is minding his own business when he meets the series’ trusty wizard, Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen), who then poses the titular journey, to venture with a band of thirteen merry dwarves to the Lonely Mountain and recover a lost treasure guarded by a fearsome dragon, Smaug.
Running in at 169 minutes, The Hobbit Pt. 1 is of comparative length to each of Jackson’s prior Lord of the Rings films, a point of simultaneous curiosity and scepticism for many Rings fans and commentators, given that The Hobbit’s source material isn’t even as long as any single book in Tolkein‘s Rings series. To distend that out into three films – buffed out by narrative appendices taken from the Rings novels – certainly seems like an act of crass commercialisation above all else, and this first film doesn’t exactly make pains to acquit itself of that charge. It’s a leisurely jaunt and not at all dense in terms of narrative, and that’s because The Hobbit was always a brisk adventure story, which Jackson has attempted to transform into an epic on the scale of Tolkein‘s subsequent magnum opus with mixed results.
It’s the expository back-stories of the various characters and pigeon-holed flashbacks that allow us to really feel the narrative straining at the seams, giving much of The Hobbit’s first act a drawn-out, laborious feel. The film is one-third over before Bilbo, Gandalf and the dwarves even leave the Shire. This eventual exit allows Jackson to finally wield the more pronounced elements of his arsenal, and that’s the extravagant, effects-driven set-pieces.
As a spectacle, does it succeed? To a point; Andrew Lesnie’s lush lensing is crisply warm, and it’s certain to say that CGI monsters have come a long way since Return of the King; Azog the Defiler, a villainous mega-orc, looks especially fantastic. Similarly, there are some crazy, though not always very coherent scenes in which the visual effects are splendidly implemented; an ailing hedgehog and a rabbit-sleigh are particularly trippy highlights. One encounter with a trio of superbly-rendered, hungry trolls is good fun, even if in retrospect it feels like meandering filler in a film that already has plenty of it.
There are sure times when the film doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be; should it be true to the lightness of the novel, or should it aspire to be a towering, Rings-esque epic? As a result, Jackson’s script – co-written with Guillermo del Toro, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens – runs a fine line between wit and outright silliness. The Japes are often rather pantomime-like, especially during a repetitive early sequence in which the dwarves invite themselves into Bilbo’s home and he just stands around incredulously. When the dwarves travel through Rivendell later on, one takes a look at the Elven food – largely consisting of greens and fresh food – and asks, “Have you got any chips?”. It’s a perilous tightrope walk between eye-rollingly daft and cheekily playful, and not one that Jackson performs all that well.
The dwarves themselves prove problematic in that, aside from Richard Armitage’s steely contribution as the leader of the Dwarves, Thorin, it’s really a challenge to tell most of them apart, an unfortunate aspect of the film given that they’re pretty much the only characters whose fates we’re likely to be concerned about, knowing Bilbo, Gandalf and Gollum‘s survival as we do. The dwarf make-up effects, however, are uniformly excellent.
The narrative also unsurprisingly doesn’t feel as water-tight as Jackson’s Rings films, at one stage fielding out an onerously trite dialogue about the duality of good and evil, and then one head-smackingly obvious moment of foreshadowing about knowing when to show mercy. The meat of the story – its vertiginous action – meanwhile relies on a lot of convenience; Gandalf is a literal deus-ex machina on at least two occasions, as are a rabble of giant eagles who appear out of nowhere with no explanation later on.
Then there’s the cameos from Elrond (Hugo Weaving), Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and Saruman (Christopher Lee) that are milked well past saturation point, and the typical fantasy nonsense that you just have to buy into – dialogues about moon runes and a sword that glows blue whenever Orcs are nearby – and if you can’t, then you’re probably watching the wrong film. Jackson also struggles to rustle up any independent iconography for the series precisely because it’s so invested in the superior story that follows; to this effect, it would seem unfair to compare the two, but then Jackson does himself no favours by trying to fashion this trilogy as an at once competing and complementary “epic” rather than a different, more pared-down narrative in its own stead.
After getting bogged down for far too long in Rivendell for the sake of a cameo carousel that would best be left for the inevitable Extended Edition, Jackson gets back on track for a thrilling battle royale between three rock giants while Bilbo and company desperately try to keep a foot-hold. The arrival at a labyrinthine goblin kingdom late in the day also makes for one of the film’s strongest set-pieces, a high-wire, acrobatic all-out battle that sees the intrepid heroes facing down the grotesque – and gorgeously rendered – Goblin King.
Still, the show-stealer – and really, Jackson’s secret weapon – is the eventual presence of fan favourite Gollum (Andy Serkis) at the two-hour mark, the One Ring in tow as he becomes locked in what’s best described as a “riddle-off” with Bilbo, with each trying to outsmart the other. Serkis, the master of performance capture, is an entrancing presence as the tragic, manic figure, transfixing for every drop of his 15-minutes of screen time, even if the actual riddle game does rather go on a bit. Though Serkis runs circles around his scene partner, it’s in these moments that Freeman really comes into his own; he’ll inevitably be compared to Elijah Wood’s portrayal of Frodo, but he carves out a fine niche for himself as a tepid every-man who just might have what it takes to be a hero by trilogy’s end.
Much like Jackson’s Return of the King, it revels in its own distended sense of narrative, teasing an end-point countless times before actually committing to one. Though very nearly arriving at a suitably downbeat climax to keep us on edge for Part 2, Jackson instead settles on a thoroughly earnest one that isn’t nearly as engaging. The final shot, a tease for what’s to come, at least promises that we might see more of the mysterious Smaug next time. Tolkein nerds are unlikely to be swayed by any negative publicity, and even lesser Rings fans are likely to find it a pleasant enough jaunt, though understandably, An Unexpected Journey is unlikely to garner the series any new fans. This film is pure excess that’s almost definitely motivated by studio greed, but it’s light entertainment that will please fans, and Andy Serkis damn-near runs away with the film during his exemplary third-act appearance as Gollum.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is released in the UK on December 13th, and in the US the very next day.
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