Here we are, back in Middle-Earth again with the first installment of The Hobbit trilogy, An Unexpected Journey, out last week. We get the same old Lord of the Rings feel as before, with a little breath of fresh air to liven it up a little, and it comes off pretty well.
An Unexpected Journey covers the story of Bilbo Baggins, uncle to the now-famous Frodo. For less-than-evident reasons, he is chosen by Gandalf to accompany a group of dwarves on a mission to reclaim their homeland from the clutches of the dragon Smaug. It sounds like a strait-forward enough yarn. And, thankfully, not too much is done to make it more than it is.
This was one apprehension I had going in. The Hobbit was originally a book for children. It is an adventure story, with themes not running so deep as its older (and much longer) brother's. I wondered how the merry company of dwarves in the book would translate onto a screen now used to totally grounded and realistic (in their own world, at least) characters. Enter Guillermo del Toro. His input in the otherwise-Jacksonian script is evident and needed. Thankfully, we never quite reach the seriousness and emotional depth we had in Lord of the Rings. That made that trilogy work; here it would have been off-mark.
That notwithstanding, there is a little more than in the children's book. The action is pretty actiony when it happens, and there is talk of more sinister connections to later events than was ever hinted at by Tolkien. Overall, I think the balance is maintained pretty nicely, which makes it all the easier to sit back and be enveloped in this world. Which, again thanks to del Toro, is even more visually compelling than Jackson could have come up with on his own. Throughout there are some brilliant del Torian fingerprints (think the goblin king) that spice up the screen. It adds the extra element of fantasy the story needs to stay afloat.
Now, as brilliant as the film is visually (the CG characters in particular,) and especially considering how long it runs, I felt that the character development could have used a little more tinkering in some spots. We are spared the constant buffoonery of some of the less-important dwarves, but what were the important ones' names, again? And Martin Freeman is wonderful as Bilbo, but I wish that at some points he had a little more depth to what he was given, especially in some of his key turning points. Now, these are only minor detractions and most of you won't be bothered by them anyway, so I'll move on.
My favorite scene by far was the game of riddles between Bilbo and Gollum. It was just cinematic joy for those ten-or-so minutes, and we learn even more about one of the great characters of fiction. Haters will call this movie too long, that it could have stood further trimming. I agree, potentially, if there were to be only two films. But, since there will be three movies, I say go in deep so the other ones aren't only action scenes. As it is it paces nicely and doesn't seem tedious. And I will remain quiet on the 48-fps discussion. I saw it in good old-fashioned 24-fps 2D and it was just fine. I honestly don't see what it would have gained in 3D or with a higher film speed. It looked beautiful as it was.
So, I do recommend An Unexpected Journey as some great end-of-year fare, especially to those who have been depressed ever since Return of the King came out and there has been no more Aragorn. It works great on its own terms, and is a lot of fun. So I guess we'll be fine, Tolkien-wise. For the next couple of years, anyway.
by Chase Harrison