Kiwi filmmaker Peter Jackson effectively revolutionised fantasy cinema with his awe-inspiring The Lord of the Rings series. Eleven years later, Jackson returns to Middle Earth with an equally groundbreaking – though ultimately disappointing – liberal adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien’s first book, The Hobbit. Set 60 years before the events of The Lord of The Rings, we find a young, mild-mannered Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) who, whilst puffing on the finest weed in the South Farthing, encounters wizard Gandalf the Grey (a returning Ian McKellen) who believes that Bilbo is in desperate need of an adventure – despite his protestations to the contrary.
This inevitably leads to Bilbo joining a band of merry-making, exiled dwarves who, despite reservations about our pint-sized hero’s abilities, allow him to join their quest to reclaim their lost home and treasure in the Dwarvish mountain stronghold of Erebor. The technical marvel that Jackson achieved with his original trilogy has been pushed even further with the dual choice of shooting both at 48 frames per second (HFR) and in 3D. This certainly leads to a more immersive and ‘realistic’ visage, yet the unfamiliarity of the technology makes the initial effect disconcerting.
Rather than lapping up the stunning vistas of the idyllic Elfish realms and cavernous plunging mines of the Dwarves, your eyes near-reject the images. Even after finishing An Unexpected Journey’s 169-minute runtime, you never fully adjust, with some of the characters’ movements appearing all too rapid. Whilst the technical aspects of the film see Jackson once again pushing the boundaries of cinema, his adaptation of Tolkien’s original text is at worst deeply over-indulgent. Already there have been questions about why a 280-page book requires three films, but after this first instalment it’s easy to see why.
Efforts have undeniably been made to retain the child-like quality of The Hobbit whilst attempting to weave in the epic nature of Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. This includes a multitude of additional subplots, where characters recount tales that lead to cut-scenes within the main narrative, in an attempt to aggrandise what Tolkien originally intended to be a whimsical fairytale for Hobbit-sized kids. Although it can be clumsy, it does at least mean that the story now includes a distinguished female character in an otherwise almost exclusively male cast, in the form of Cate Blanchett’s Elfish queen Galadriel. However, this also leads to a tonal tug-of-war between Tolkien’s childish tale of gallivanting Dwarves and the far grander narrative of an ancient, returning evil.
In terms of on-screen performances, McKellen’s Gandalf has arguably lost some of his majesty – now back to being far more a bumbling conjurer of cheap tricks – and the Goblins and Orcs are once again all voiced with a (sometimes embarrassing) cockney lilt. In better news, Freeman has been well cast as the young Bilbo, providing a sense of British indignity accompanied by his slightly gormless, gob-smacked facial expressions, whilst Andy Serkis’ Gollum cameos in a precious, film-stealing riddle scene. Whilst the majority of the star turns are good-to-strong, Jackson’s pacing does feel slightly off due to the reworked episodic nature of the elongated tale.
Despite Jackson’s protracted approach, fans of the blockbusting director’s original stay in Middle Earth will be contented, for the most part, by this opportunity to return once again to the land of axe-throwing Dwarves and malevolent Orcs. However, if you go into The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey expecting that same feeling of jaw-dropping wonder first kindled by 2001’s The Fellowship of the Ring, steel yourself for some potentially mild disappointment.