As Peter Jackson’s long-awaited prequel to his The Lord of the Rings trilogy begins, we return to the Shire, where Elijah Wood and Ian Holm briefly reprise their roles as Frodo and Bilbo Baggins, seen preparing for a party. Bilbo takes a moment to consider a memory from his past and the film opens up a new story and introduces us to Martin Freeman as the young Bilbo for the remainder of the running time. In this tale, Bilbo is forced by a horde of Dwarves to partake in a long journey, which will result in his obtaining a mysterious ring from a slithering monster, who call is it his “precious.”
This is the first of three new films that Jackson will release annually, creating a new franchise based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, a respected but slim fantasy novel. Since he reinvigorated the fantasy novel adaptation into an event movie, Jackson made the underappreciated remake of King Kong, and the wrong-headed The Lovely Bones.
His return to the world of Tolkien is best approached with seriously lowered expectations, as it’s a mixed bag from start to finish. Following the dozens of fantasy books-turned-movies made since The Return of the King won the Best Picture Oscar in 2003, this isn’t as fresh or exciting as it once was.
There are some amazing sights but compared to any film in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, this feels like an afterthought. An Unexpected Journey is handicapped by two serious problems: the unlikeable new characters and the visual overkill of the viewing formats. Of the former complaint, Freeman is too low key and rather unimpressive in the lead and the cluster of unlovable Dwarves are less endearing than the seven who saved Snow White.
The best scenes feature the old gang, as Ian McKellen still conveys warmth and authority as Gandalf and the lengthy Gollum sequence is simply terrific. The original cast is missed, particularly the charisma and warmth that Viggo Mortensen and Sean Astin added.
Regarding the latter problem, some theaters will release this in 45 frames per second (up from 25), a format Jackson has touted as cinema’s future. Making the movie appear like its being watched on a high-definition TV, its mostly a distraction. It gives The Hobbit the same look as afternoon soap operas or a Renaissance Fair shot on home video.
The CGI effects are so good, they blend well with the live action footage but seeing this nearly 3-hour film in 45 frames per second and 3D is like watching a $100 million episode of Fairytale Theater. The format stinks and is a ways off from being perfected. I recommend checking out the no-frills, 2D version first.
Jackson fills the screen with stunning vistas, real and created, and can still stage a pulse-quickening action sequence. You’ll get chills seeing Gandalf smack down his staff or the Elf-haven of Rivendell again but the story lacks the gradual sense of discovery, anticipation and character humor of the original. Here, everything feels heavy handed, like they’re trying too hard.
Die hard fanboys who speak Elvish and regularly watch the initial trilogy in 10-hour blocks may savor this and there are a few nail biting cliffhangers near the end. Yet, after years of wannabes like Eragon and The Spiderwick Chronicles, not to mention Harry Potter installments, this sort of movie is no longer unique.
You can excuse this uneven first installment by optimistically stating, “it will get better with the second and third film.” That may be the case, but for now, Jackson’s new trilogy is off to a wobbly start.
Rated PG-13 / 169 Min.