With “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” Peter Jackson triumphantly returns to the franchise that made him one of Hollywood’s most powerful directors. The strengths and weaknesses are largely the same as those of his “Lord of the Rings” films, though “The Hobbit” differs in that it features a simpler, smaller story. This shift in scope has not stopped Jackson from indulging every bit of Tolkien that he can, however. Sporting a 166 minute runtime, with two sequels to follow, “The Hobbit” might be the first adaptation in cinema history to offer several minutes of movie per page of book.
“An Unexpected Journey” takes place 60 years before “The Lord of the Rings” and follows the adventures of Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), a bookish hobbit drafted into a dangerous, exhilarating mission. Bilbo is recruited by the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) to be the “burglar” for a group of dwarfs seeking to reclaim a precious treasure from a powerful dragon. That treasure clearly serves as a MacGuffin, as “An Unexpected Journey” proves to be about the titular trip, not the desired outcome.
For years, it was reported that a range of other directors, most notably Guillermo del Toro, would be in charge of bringing Bilbo’s adventure to the screen. But after nearly a decade away from Middle-earth, during which he made the wonderful “King Kong” remake and the artistic disaster that was 2009’s “The Lovely Bones,” Jackson’s return to Tolkien proves that he was always the one for the job.
Although “An Unexpected Journey” is weaker than all three of Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” entries, the filmmaker imbues the work with the same sensibilities that made the original trilogy some of the aughts’ greatest cinema. Jackson combines a fascination in the fantastical with elaborate action scenes, an appreciation of the source material, and detailed character work.
Jackson understands both the nobility and kindness of his heroes, and knows how to contrast these traits with the repulsive evil of the villains. With excellent work from the cast, particularly Richard Armitage, Cate Blanchett, Christopher Lee, Andy Sekris, and Hugo Weaving–most of whom also appeared in the “Rings” films–Jackson succeeds at drawing Tolkien’s creations as complex beings whose fates are of great concern to the audience. Additionally, Middle-earth itself, realized with every special effects technique in the book, looks gorgeous projected in standard 24 frames-per-second 2-D (the film is being offered in several other formats I didn’t sample). From the quaint hobbit village to an ominous dwarf fortress, the screen is routinely filled with breathtaking imagery.
Along with the strengths of “The Lord of the Rings” films comes Jackson’s primary flaw: obsessive doting on the source material. Whereas “The Lord of the Rings” books each got their own film, “The Hobbit” is stretched into three, apparently bolstered by filming Tolkien’s notes and other miscellaneous writings. So strained is the narrative to detail every minute aspect of Middle-earth that it becomes difficult for non-fanboys to track (I realized two hours in that I wasn’t totally certain of exactly what Bilbo and company’s mission was). Even more so than in the “Rings” films, which were likewise extraordinarily long, “The Hobbit” series promises to be an all or nothing affair, replete with plenty to see and a lot that one could do without.
As with “The Lord of the Rings” adaptations, “An Unexpected Journey” stubbornly refuses to end at moments that would be dramatically appropriate, with several climactic scenes giving way to further exposition. Adding to the substantial length is Jackson’s tendency to spend as much time rendering action sequences as he does developing characters, which is saying something given how much he dwells on the inhabitants and mythology of Tolkien’s world. While often intricate and thrilling, the action sequences are so numerous and lengthy that one begins to yearn for the quieter moments.
But what an achievement “An Unexpected Journey” is, maintaining an enormous amount of heart through all its scenes of excitement. Jackson’s film, for all its flaws, presents a story of both wondrous awe and surprising personal warmth.