The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, directed by Peter Jackson, clocks in at a whopping 2 hours and 40 minutes, if you don’t count the roughly 15 minutes it takes for the end credits to roll. Given that Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy grossed nearly 3 billion dollars and won 14 Oscars in all, it’s hardly surprising that the studio happily green-lit The Hobbit, and didn’t complain when the New Zealand-based filmmaker decided to squeeze three films out of JRR Tolkien’s rather slim 300-page prequel to the Rings saga. But despite its gorgeous sweeping visuals, spectacular special effects, and some terrific action sequences, this first installment in Jackson’s three-film adaptation can’t help feeling long and overblown and stretched beyond limits.
Set 60 years before The Lord of the Rings, An Unexpected Journey opens with a younger Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) enjoying life in his snug hobbit hole when Gandalf (Ian McKellen) pops by. The long-bearded wizard seeks to recruit him in a mission to help a group of dwarves reclaim their ancestral homeland from an evil dragon. But Bilbo, who prefers his books and his quiet life, has no interest in taking an adventure. Pretty soon, however, a band of unruly dwarves shows up at his doorstep and raids his pantry; they toss plates, bang heads, and devour everything in sight. You’re just as surprised as them, when the next morning Bilbo decides to join their brigade, and heads off with them on their mission.
Lasting about an hour, this set up is tedious, but the film becomes more exciting as the actual journey kicks off. Jackson literally leaves no page unturned as the traveling adventurers encounter nasty trolls and orcs and goblins along the way. A sequence that involves two mountains coming to life and fighting each other is one of the film’s most thrilling set pieces, and Jackson knows how to shoot and edit action scenes in a way that you can enjoy them and admire their sheer visual inventiveness.
Yet, the truth is that for all the sound and fury, not a great deal actually happens in this initial episode. Fans universally embraced The Lord of the Rings films because of Jackson’s winning blend of live action, CGI, and performance-capture technology. Those elements are very much in place here, but the story feels mostly padded and unfocused, and if you really think about it, by the time this film closes, the characters end up not much further than where they started.
It doesn’t help of course that our 13 dwarves are not particularly interesting. They’re hard to tell apart with their interchangeable scowling faces and rhyming names – like Bofur, Bifur, Fili, Kili, Oin and Gloin – and Jackson never gives them distinctive individual traits. However, the film benefits considerably from three central performances: Martin Freeman as the warm and affable Bilbo Baggins; Richard Armitage as the proud and brave dwarf-leader Thorin; and Andy Serkis reprising his role as Gollum, particularly in one enjoyable scene where he duels it out with Bilbo in a riddle game.
Other fan-favorite characters make fleeting appearances here, and Jackson shrewdly lays down faint trails that will be picked up in the next two films. I watched An Unexpected Journey in the standard 24 frames-per-second format, and not the controversial 48-frames-per-second format that Jackson filmed in, so I can’t say where I stand in the debate over the merits of this new technology. (Only a handful of cinemas across the country are playing the film in 48 fps). The 3D, meanwhile, is immersive, sucking you into Tolkien’s Middle Earth, but also making the images appear a tad darker than they actually are.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey has little of the awe and shock and wonder that thrillingly accompanied The Lord of the Rings saga. Those films felt new and exciting and unlike anything we’d already seen at the time. Which illustrates exactly what Jackson is up against this time. Still there’s no denying that there’s solid, skilled filmmaking at the heart of this film.
I’m going with three out of five for Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Don’t set your expectations too high, and you’ll come out satisfied.