Misty Mountain Hop: Middle-earth Revisited in Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

The returning Gollum (Andy Serkis) isn’t too sure yet what to make of The Hobbit.

Fans have been clamoring for it for almost a decade, through numerous delays, changes in the director’s chair, and alterations in the general concept. Pan’s Labyrinth mastermind Guillermo del Toro wanted to shoot it, but eventually The Lord Of The Rings veteran Peter Jackson gave in and decided to travel to J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantastic Middle-earth once again. Now it’s finally here – An Unexpected Journey, the first part of his long-awaited The Hobbit trilogy and the first ever 3D movie with a higher frame rate. Expectations have been gigantic, but can the blockbuster really deliver?

Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) is a typical Hobbit. He lives in a cozy little hut in the Shire and generally enjoys life to the fullest. Much like his fellow ethnic brothers, Bilbo is not an adventurous character by any means. He’d rather stay at home and have a good, rich meal than go out see the world. All of that changes, however, when one day the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and a bunch of dwarves show up at his doorstep. First they mess up his house. Then they try to convince him to join them on a dangerous undertaking – to defeat the dragon Smaug and regain control of the Lonely Mountain.

Peter Jackson’s three The Lord Of The Rings movies were fan favorites. They won 17 Oscars and have grossed almost three $3 billion since the release of the first part in December 2001, thus making them one of the most successful franchises of all time. Like that trilogy, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is based on a book by legendary author J.R.R. Tolkien. Initially, his children’s novel by the name of The Hobbit, or There and Back Again was supposed to be divided into two films. Peter Jackson, however, scrapped these plans and conceived them as another trilogy following Guillermo del Toro’s exit.

Consequently, one problem with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is that it definitely has its lengths. Tolkien’s book contains less than 100,000 words – 95,022 of them, to be precise. The opening part of the film series lasts 169 minutes. Some of them seem like fillers, or maybe a slightly desperate attempt to come up with enough material. The exposition at Bilbo’s place in Bag End, for example, feels utterly drawn-out at times. Yes, it’s lighthearted, and occasionally, that’s a positive. It was probably the director’s intention to evoke sympathy for the dwarves and their cause, but alas, in the process he certainly overdoes it on the humorous side.

Comic relief is a good thing when timed perfectly, but in this instance, there’s simply too much of it. Sadly enough, that sometimes makes Peter Jackson’s blockbuster look borderline ridiculous. There are moments, particularly in the early stages of the movie, when The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey appears to be a little schizophrenic or uneven at best. The film doesn’t seem to be entirely sure what exactly it wants to be. Is it a tale for children like the very novel it’s based on or an all-out fantasy adventure for mature audiences? For a while, that hangs over the movie like one from the myriad of dark clouds above the Misty Mountains.

Fortunately, we get the answer to that question during the second half of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. By that time, it has come closer to the (somewhat) darker and broodier atmosphere of Jackson’s earlier trilogy, The Lord Of The Rings. It also helps that several characters and actors from that series are brought back in minor roles. Other than Ian McKellan as Gandalf, those include Hugo Weaving as Elf lord Elrond, horror legend Christopher Lee as Saruman, Elijah Wood as Frodo Baggins, Ian Holm as the older Bilbo, Oscar winner Cate Blanchett as Galadriel, and Andy Serkis as Gollum.

The reappearance of the latter is, in fact, one of the highlights of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey – and despite all of its flaws, there are numerous great moments. Gollum has long been one of the favorite characters from Tolkien’s universe in the eyes of many fans, and performance capture ace Andy Serkis nails the complexity and schizophrenia of the creature once more. The encounter between Bilbo and Gollum is a key moment in the movie, if only because it foreshadows The Lord Of The Rings, which is set roughly 60 years later, and finally shows us precisely how the storied Hobbit takes possession of the prized treasure.

The film’s biggest strength, however, is probably that it’s a joy to behold and to listen to. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey excels in the audiovisual department, even though it probably doesn’t completely match the high bar set by Peter Jackson’s earlier trilogy. Still, Middle-earth looks awesome in 3D, overall. Yet – as with the storytelling – there are a couple of times early in the movie that might make you cringe from a visual standpoint, only because the high resolution and frame rate simply lead to an unforeseen clarity. While that should normally be a plus, here it sometimes emphasizes the artificiality of the sets, reminiscent of low-budget TV shows.

On the whole, however, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, is a very good but not an excellent movie. Depending on who you may ask, it’s perhaps either too long or too short. Much of that has to do with the exposition, which seems like a half-baked affair. It takes up too much time altogether if all it’s supposed to do is just to create some early humor and sympathy for the dwarves. That could have been done within the span of a few minutes. In case Peter Jackson’s actual intention behind it was to formally introduce the characters, then the sequence is too short, as we learn little about the individual dwarves.

The only ones who really stand out from the crowd are Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), their leader, son of the former king, and the rightful heir to the throne, plus the seasoned warrior Balin (Ken Stott). Yet they do so because of their actions, not because of some childish play during the film’s opening stages. As a matter of fact, it’s Thorin who remains perpetually skeptical of Bilbo as a member of their crew until the reputedly weak Hobbit saves the dwarf prince’s life in a fit of courage. By that time, the wise Balin and most of the others have long let the Halfling from Bag End into their hearts.

The dragon is still alive when The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey comes to a close, so the mission of the company isn’t nearly over yet. Many dangers still await them in the next  installments, both in terms of the storyline and with regard to possible cinematic hiccups. Here’s to hoping that Peter Jackson follows the blueprint from the point the travelers reach Rivendell on. If he can avoid mishaps like turning Radagast (Sylvester McCoy) into an idiot rather than a mighty wizard, there’s a decent chance that the other two parts, The Desolation Of Smaug and There & Back Again, will be really good. An Unexpected Journey already has a lot of (sometimes untapped) potential.

Seen at Cineplex, Limburg an der Lahn, Germany, on 29 January 2013.

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