Just after 10 years since the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Peter Jackson returns to Middle Earth in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. It tells the story of the titular hobbit, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman, Sherlock, The Office) as he is caught up in a quest with the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen, X-Men, Richard III) to reclaim the dwarven homeland of Erebor. Led by the exiled king Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage, Robin Hood, Spooks), the band of dwarves must then return to the Lonely Mountain to face a deadly dragon.
Tonally, the film is very different to that of the original trilogy, but that works in An Unexpected Journey’s favour. It’s not as apocalyptic, and feels much more light-hearted like the children’s book it is based on. It still keeps some links to the Lord of the Rings, particularly McKellen’s return as the wise wizard, but also some additional appearances from some familiar faces. For the most part, they worked, apart from some slightly unnecessary cameos from Elijah Wood and Ian Holm as Frodo and an older Bilbo Baggins respectively, which I felt didn’t add anything by being there.
Freeman does a spectacular job as Bilbo by making him a relatable and witty protagonist. He really captures the idea of Bilbo being caught up in the whirlwind of adventure, and his initial reluctance of going. Armitage gives a solid, if not entirely original, interpretation of Thorin as a brooding, militaristic leader. But as for the other dwarves, they felt underdeveloped and no more than sight gags, with the exceptions of James Nesbitt and Ken Stott as Bofur and Balin, since they had a larger role and more lines than the others. Sylvester McCoy (Doctor Who) also appears as Radagast the Brown, another wizard that lives a secluded life with animals, and McCoy brings him to life with his eccentric mannerisms.
There were some criticisms of the executive decision to split the book into a trilogy, and this does have an impact on the film’s pacing. It suffers from a really slow start, an anticlimactic ending, and feels a little padded at times. But there are some truly great scenes as well, particularly the set pieces in Goblin Town and the riddles in the dark sequence with Andy Serkis (Rise of the Planet of the Apes) returning as the psychologically unstable Gollum.
Aesthetically, An Unexpected Journey is beautiful, with some gorgeous sweeping landscape shots of New Zealand. This is over layered with a stunning soundtrack; the Misty Mountains song was spine-chilling. But there is a slight dependence on CGI at times, and made me miss the original trilogy’s use of practical effects. This is most clear with the presentation of the Pale Orc, one of the antagonists that should have been intimidating, but came across as fake. And having seen it in both regular 2D and the controversial High Frame Rate 3D, I can say that while being beautiful and using the new technology to its advantage, the HFR 3D didn’t really add anything to the experience.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey keeps most of what was great about the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but with a generally more optimistic tone and lighter colour palette. Yet it suffers from problems that arise from the film laying ground for the following sequels in the franchise, resulting in a dragged out opening and an awkward cut-off point.