Anyone familiar with the tortuous development story behind the Lord of the Rings (LOTR) trilogy would probably spare some sympathy for Peter Jackson for the troubles that he had to go through to make The Hobbit a reality: lawsuit with New Line Cinema over profits, Guillermo Del Toro dropping out as director, dispute with actors’ union, not to mention financial troubles at MGM have hobbled Jackson, who if reports are to be believed didn’t even want to direct the prequel in the first place. Yet this new adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic comes to a global audience already wowed by Jackson’s monumental achievements a decade ago, and in those intervening years LOTR‘s standing as the chief supplier of cinematic wonder has been replaced by the likes of Avatar and The Dark Knight trilogy. People’s reception, in short, isn’t going to be quite as rapturous as before, and the critical eye isn’t going to be quite as sparing of An Unexpected Journey‘s flaws. That’s unfortunate, because this first film of the new trilogy is superior in almost every way to The Fellowship of the Ring. Structurally both are very similar: spectacular flashback prologue -> Hobbiton -> perilous adventure on the road -> Rivendell -> perilous adventure in dungeons -> shenanigans with the Ring -> promise of big things to come in the sequel. Thanks to the source novel, and perhaps also due to the fact that Jackson’s already been there and done that, The Hobbit takes itself much less seriously. It’s also much quicker off the mark, there’s more action and adventure along the way, and all the heaviness that bogged down Fellowship is absent. Dwarves make for a funnier company: it’s no coincidence that Gimli was pretty much the only comic relief in the entire LOTR trilogy, and with thirteen of his kin in The Hobbit it’s not short of laughs.
Martin Freeman is excellent as Bilbo Baggins, so much so that it’s difficult to imagine anyone else in the role. The stodgy earnestness and prep-school camaraderie of the four hobbits in LOTR are replaced by genuine warmth and natural humanity that Freeman brings, so that hobbit-only scenes are no longer a chore. The other standout actor is Richard Armitage as the charismatic dwarf prince Thorin Oakenshield: more Leonidas than Aragorn (in that he’s more determined, more sure of himself), Armitage holds things together every time the movie threatens to go off the CG-driven rails. Last but not least is Ian McKellen’s Gandalf, who had lent much-needed credibility to all of Jackson’s Tolkien adaptations, and here again whenever he’s on screen McKellen makes the suspension of disbelief that much easier. The biggest problem with Fellowship and The Two Towers was that the final third of the former and the first third of the latter were sans Gandalf and therefore sagged horribly. An Unexpected Journey doesn’t have this problem and is all the better for it.
Where it does go wrong is in the middle part, when it suffers from what I call the Van Helsing problem. The Hugh Jackman-starring abomination was basically a non-stop continuation of effects-heavy action scenes, where the heroes would escape from werewolves, only to run into vampires, only to fall through the floor to face Frankenstein’s monster, only to fight against giant bats, with zero respite in between, turning the film into one massive borefest. In The Hobbit, once things get going the flora and fauna of Middle-Earth come thick and fast: a fight with trolls, a chase by wargs, an escape from goblins, and a face-off with orcs are not properly balanced with the quiet moments, and towards the end a real fatigue sets in. It doesn’t help that, having seen many of these things before ten years ago, we don’t quite feel sufficiently awed by the spectacle. The Goblin King, drolly voiced by Barry Humphries, is no match for the magnificent Balrog, and there’s no-one like Sean Bean’s Boromir to lend the film some shades of grey that would have been welcome. There’s also the simple problem of the story itself: in LOTR, the characters were fighting to save the world; here, the dwarves want their gold back from a big greedy dragon. It’s churlish to complain when The Hobbit wasn’t meant to be as serious as LOTR, but then again Jackson is giving it the three-film treatment, so the disparity in the weight and scale of what’s truly at stake is more glaring.
Looking at The Hobbit not as a standalone adventure but as the opener to two more films, though, it improves on Fellowship as a more exciting, watchable effort. Many reviews have accused Jackson of filling out An Unexpected Journey with too much little detail to account for the slimmer source material, but it drags much less than Fellowship. The LOTR trilogy started weak but really delivered in the Return of the King, and considering all the stuff that are still left to be shown in The Hobbit trilogy – encounter with Smaug, the Battle of Five Armies – any decisive judgment should be made in two years’ time. The prospect of Jackson bringing to the screen Tolkien’s famed Appendices in the third film is also very intriguing. As a starter, An Unexpected Journey is just fine, and does what a starter is meant to do: leave you hungry for more.