Note: I saw the film in 24fps, and so I cannot comment on the new format.
It’s been nine years since The Return of the King capped Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy (almost to the day) and audiences are lining up for another trip to Middle Earth. But what will they get when they see The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey? How, exactly, would Jackson stretch The Hobbit (which is 3/4 as long as the shortest of its sequels) into a runtime equal to that of the entire LOTR series? What was his plan to address the tonal shift between the two works?
What Jackson does is pad the hell out of the story. He starts the film with a lengthy sequence detailing the history of the dwarves and how they lost their kingdom (taken directly from some of Tolkein’s supplemental material) before getting to the old Bilbo framing device. Once the actual plot gets going though, it’s very good. Jackson adds a bit here and there to help flesh out the story (a seemingly random scene with Sylvester McCoy’s Radagast the Brown that pays off later, Saruman getting pissy with Gandalf about the quest) and beefs up the action wherever possible (every scuffle turns into a battle).
I’m not going to lie – some of what Jackson does doesn’t really work. The framing sequence set the morning Fellowship of the Ring begins, for example, drags endlessly and is incredibly awkward at points (the first lines of the novel don’t work in the context at all). But on the whole, it works quite well.
The two stand-out moments being Bilbo’s meeting with Gollum, which is as perfect as it could possibly be, and the party being captured in Goblin Town. Everything that happens there is just wonderfully fun and captures the spirit of the book more than anything else (until it weirdly turns into platformer video game). Barry Humphries (Dame Edna, Shock Treatment‘s Bert Schnick) is clearly having a blast as the Great Goblin and Andy Serkis hasn’t lost a step in his time away from Middle Earth.
In fact, the performances from the returning faces are all exactly as good as you knew they’d be and Martin Freeman is phenomenal as Bilbo. He may even be more natural as a Hobbit than Elijah Wood was.
An Unexpected Journey isn’t perfect; it tries too hard at times to match up with LOTR‘s tone, and at other times fully realizes the lighter feel of the book. Sometimes leading to some awkward dissonance (these trolls and the trolls the Fellowship fought bear very little resemblance). But there’s enough there that gets it so right that it’s not even an issue, such as including the many songs from the source material but arranging them in such a way that they feel organic to the characters, as though these cultures have their own arts.
As though I really needed to tell you to, go see this movie. It’s not quite as good as the previous entries, but I still wanted The Desolation of Smaug to roll as soon as the credits ended and I can’t wait to see it again.
I give The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey 7.5 OBNOXIOUS DWARVES out of 10.