Directed by: Peter Jackson
Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellan, Richard Armitage and Andy Serkis
I reviewed this film for Next Projection.
"In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit". So goes one of the most recognizable openings in English literature. Back in 1937, when J.R.R. Tolkien first put pen to paper to create his sprawling fantasy universe, little did he know that it would spawn one of the biggest film franchises of all time.
Now, 11 years after first introducing audiences to his interpretation of Tolkien's world with The Lord of the Rings, director Peter Jackson returns to helm the prequel to his epic trilogy.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a solid and enjoyable outing, albeit one that struggles to recreate the magic of the original trilogy. Those films -- like catching lightning in a bottle -- were a pop culture phenom that captured the imagination of filmgoers from around the globe for three years. And, with his assured direction, Jackson makes The Hobbit work, for the most part.
Set 60 years before the events of The Lord of the Rings, we first meet Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) leading a solitary life in his small burrow in The Shire. When the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellan) appears requesting that he join him on an adventure, Bilbo is hesitant -- and rightfully so. Gandalf wants Bilbo to act as a burglar for a group of 13 dwarves fighting to reclaim their home, the kingdom of Erebor. Hobbits, being fleet of foot, are able to move about sight unseen, sound unheard -- making young Bilbo the ideal candidate for such a dangerous venture.
Having faced a ruthless invasion at the hands of the fearsome dragon Smaug, the dwarves were run out of their kingdom and left homeless. While Smaug lords over Erebor and the dwarf treasure, a plot is set in motion to reclaim their territory by any means necessary. Although riddled with anxiety, Bilbo agrees to leave his idyllic settings for unchartered terrain with a band of bloodthirsty, yet charmingly brash, dwarves.
Freeman is a natural fit for the lead role. He instills Bilbo with a nervous charisma that is as amusing as it is moving. Riding in on the coattails of the immensely popular BBC series, Sherlock, Freeman's fanbase will undoubtedly grow exponentially thanks to his spot-on characterization of one of literature's most popular heroes.
Returning in the role of Gandalf, McKellan manages to make his wise wizard feel younger and more spry than he appeared in The Lord of the Rings. He gives a thoughtful performance with a character he's already perfected.
Adept at capturing even the tiniest details of Middle Earth, it seems only natural that Jackson would return after original director Guillermo del Toro bowed out due to scheduling conflicts. For the sake of continuity and the overall look and feel, it's fitting that Jackson complete all six films himself. However, the decision to stretch a tiny children's book into three feature films is being called into question.
By the time all the expository information is laid out in the first two acts of An Unexpected Journey, the material has started to stretch a little thin. The meandering plot will likely keep true Tolkien devotees satisfied but may alienate general audiences. The film gains some traction in the third act when much of the action focuses on Gollum and then the epic battle between dwarves and orcs -- but by then the film is nearly over.
However, for all its spectacle and excellent performances, An Unexpected Journey is gaining a fair bit of buzz for the medium in which Jackson chose to film his trilogy.
Jackson made the controversial decision to film his latest Middle Earth outing with a high projection rate of 48 frames per second, which adds up to about twice the normal speed. It's akin to watching the clarity of a high-definition TV show. It will astound as many viewers as it will anger and disappoint. While there are those who will gripe about the 48 frames, there's no denying the often glorious effect it has on specific scenes in the film.
An Unexpected Journey is an enjoyable piece of cinema and you'll be happy that you've returned to Middle Earth -- even if it isn't quite as magical as the first time around.
FINAL GRADE: B+