Peter Jackson returns to Middle-Earth, this time to tell the tale of a younger Bilbo and his unexpected journey to The Lonely Mountain. An ancient dragon, Smaug the Magnificent, has invaded the dwarven city of Erebor and ousted the king under the mountain. Thorin Oakenshield, the heir to this throne, has banded together a group of dwarves to reclaim their home and his birthright. All they need is a burglar, and the dwarves turn to Gandalf the Grey to help them find one.
Let me preface this by saying that The Lord of the Rings is kind of my thing. It is true I have many ‘things’, ranging from observing fire ants to putting up scaffolding, but if I were forced to pick just one ‘thing’ from amongst this rather impressive spectrum of ‘things’, it would be cheese-rolling. But lo, if you were to press the matter, or perhaps even refine the matter’s restrictions, I would undoubtedly pick The Lord of the Rings as my one and only ‘thing’.
My point is that I was heavily invested in this movie from day one and, as it turns out, I was not disappointed. This in itself is remarkable, especially after a year of stupidly-hyped yet ultimately disappointing movies (Prometheus, The Dark Knight Rises), but when you consider how highly I regard LotR, my satisfaction with An Unexpected Journey is nothing short of a Christmas miracle.
I saw An Unexpected Journey in good old 2D and 24fps and loved every minute of it. Everything that brought middle-earth so vividly to life over ten years ago is in full-force once more. Peter Jackson and co have again done such an incredible job creating a living breathing Middle-Earth that it’s like the last ten years never happened. As soon as the music kicked in and “The Hobbit” appeared in the familiar ruined-stone lettering, all my fears and Phantom Menace Again! fever dreams evaporated: I was in good hands.
Of course it never reaches the lofty heights of LotR and I never expected it to. Based on the source material alone it would be foolish to expect something as grand and character-driven as the original trilogy. Of the newly introduced characters, only Thorin (Richard Armitage) and Balin (Ken Stott) could be said to have any depth, the remaining dwarves struggle to break the surface. This is understandable considering their number, but anyone hoping for a large amount of round characters, such as in FotR, will be disappointed. Sir Ian McKellen, Andy Serkis, Hugo Weaving, Ian Holm, Elijah Wood, Cate Blanchett and the ever-withering Christopher Lee are all wonderful in their reprised roles. Martin Freeman, while definitely not treading any new ground, is perfect as the bumbling, tea-and-biscuits Bilbo and Armitage captures the inner turmoil of the dwarf prince Thorin beautifully.
The film is visually breathtaking, as expected. The sweeping on-location landscapes, the incredibly intricate sets, the costumes and makeup are all top notch. Something that was mildly disheartening however was a large increase in the use of CGI over the practical/prosthetic effects of the original trilogy. In particular, the CGI that makes up The Pale Orc Azog stood out like a sore thumb amongst all the more grounded, prosthetic-wearing orcs. For the most part it’s not an issue, although I fear this second trilogy will not date anywhere near as well as the first.
Tonally, An Unexpected Journey treads a fine line between the source material and the original films. In the end however I felt that the more child-like aspects of the book, the silly songs, creatures and general light-heartedness, was melded successfully with the more adult nature of Jackson’s Middle-Earth. I was afraid the ‘Riddles in the Dark’ scene would fail to unnerve considering Serkis’ take on the character being somewhat comic, as well as familiar, but I underestimated him. The gleaming eyes and guttural splutters of Gollum are as chilling as ever, making Bilbo’s encounter with him no laughing matter (except when it is).
There wasn’t a single moment where I tuned out or became bored. Honestly. However, I can understand how people could’ve become frustrated. I’m talking specifically of the opening scene with old Bilbo and Frodo, the scenes involving the white council at Rivendell, and Radagast. I’m sure with another viewing my opinion might change, but I had no problems with any of this ‘padding’ as a million people seem to be calling it. Dismissing the opening scene as an enjoyable but unnecessary Jackson let me try and explain why the other two are important.
While Radagast won’t be winning any character of the year awards from me, he definitely isn’t LotR‘s answer to Jar Jar Binks, and for that I think we should all just be very, very thankful. The kooky wizard-hermit is little more than a plot vehicle in this first film, he exists only to deliver information to Gandalf, but he will undoubtedly have a larger part to play in the later films, particularly when the party enter his domain: the forest of Mirkwood. As for the gathering at Rivendell, for the most part I was in awe of those involved (both the characters and actors). The rather heavy exposition that took place in this scene was once again setting up some rather large divergences from the book in the next two films. I have no doubt that The Necromancer and his fortress of Dol Guldur will get a lot of screen time and their presence would be very confusing for audiences if scenes like the one at Rivendell did not take place. There is a lot of stuff that goes down in that area that, while not in the book version of The Hobbit, is covered in fair detail elsewhere and will more than likely be expanded upon in the films.
Speaking of The Necromancer, I was ecstatic with how he was handled. They didn’t show a flaming eye or his horse-skull armour, just a subtle but unsettling black outline down a warping hallway: perfection! On the other hand, and this is possibly my only problem with the film, the CGI ghost of the witch-king seemed very out of place. The prosthetics they used for the Weathertop scene in FotR are so iconic (for me at least) that when you see the exact same thing rendered in CGI it was jarring.
Howard Shore’s score is great and yet not nearly as good as his previous work. He reuses themes from the original trilogy, which is fun for those familiar with them but ultimately it creates nothing noteworthy. The real standout is ‘The Song of the Lonely Mountain’ and its orchestral version, which are used to great effect. I feel we were spoiled somewhat however, as this song features prominently in the trailer and aside from the wonderful ‘Radagast the Brown’, it’s the only really impressive new piece of music.
I feel I’ve said far too much and at the same time not nearly enough. The film is long and there’s a lot to take in, especially for those of us familiar with the extended legendarium. Looking back this is more an ejaculation than a review, and for that I apologise. I suppose a score may seem arbitrary after this veritable torrent of praise, but that won’t stop me giving it one. An Unexpected Journey may not be your thing, but if it is your thing then you’re in for one hell of a ride.
5 out of 5
“That’ll do it” – The Goblin King.