Living a peaceful life in The Shire, hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Freeman) is content minding his own business. Everything changes, however, when he’s recruited by Wizard Gandalf The Grey (McKellen) to accompany 13 dwarves – lead by Thorin Oakenshield (Armitage) – on a mission to reclaim the Lonely Mountain…
More than a decade on, Peter Jackson’s Lord Of The Rings trilogy stands as an incredible filmmaking accomplishment. Having elevated the fantasy genre in triumphant fashion (hell, even ‘normal’ viewers were won over), each instalment remains a thrilling epic worth revising on an annual basis. All of which, combined with mountains of expectation, makes it so sad to report that The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is an unexpected disappointment. Playing lighter, Jackson admirably tries to bridge the gap in tones between the books (essentially, The Hobbit is a straightforward ‘kid’s’ book), but the result is uneven and often feels sillier, geekier and more frustratingly cartoonish than we’re used to.
Importantly, it’s not Phantom Menace-level disappointing. But while it’s initially great just to be back on Middle Earth, there’s a nagging sense that the magic is gone and that we’ve been here – and back again – before. The sort of film where you keep waiting for it to come good, The Hobbit never dazzles in the way its predecessors did on such a regular basis. Aside from a few glimmers which threaten to spark into life (such as Sting glowing blue for the first time or Howard Shore’s familiar music cues), there aren’t many memorable moments.
While it doesn’t feel too long, The Hobbit could have benefited significantly from a trim. With far less source material to draw from (The Hobbit is also a much shorter book) and several unnecessary scenes, it doesn’t need to be three hours long. After all, do we have to see Radagast resuscitating hedgehogs? Conversely, it also feels, to quote Bilbo previously, like butter scraped over too much bread, while even the set pieces drag and lack the rousing danger which Jackson installed previously. As for the pioneering higher frame rate (it was shot at twice the conventional rate to give more clarity), this draws attention to the artifice on show, making you too aware that you’re watching actors dressed up in fake beards and fantasy gear.
On the plus side, Martin Freeman makes for an excellent Bilbo Baggins, even if there’s not enough focus afforded to him. Elsewhere, Richard Armitage stands out as the Aragorn-y dwarf King-in-waiting, but once again Andy Serkis steals the movie as Gollum. Without question, the Riddles In The Dark sequence is the film’s highlight. It’s riveting, scary, funny and gripping, but what’s particularly telling is that you don’t want it to end. The rest of the cast are fine, but they’re more comedy sidekicks than actual characters. Moreover, many of the trolls and goblins are played for laughs too, but worse still is the frustrating decision to realise them with CGI (why Peter? Why?). The presence of ‘man’ is also missed.
While it’s a joy to be back on Middle Earth, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is, well, an unexpected disappointment. Let’s hope The Desolation Of Smaug gets us back on track…