After almost too many years of waiting, the audience finally gets what it wants. The nerd/geek fantasy first came to life to the tune of billions of dollars of revenue and endless DVD sets, each claiming to be more essential, more complete, more fulfilling than the last. 9 years after snagging 11 Oscars at the 74th Academy Awards for its grand finale, The Lord of the Rings receives the beginning of the prequel that started it all: The Hobbit, elongated and trifurcated for our viewing pleasure.
An Unexpected Journey lives up to its title from the start. Peter Jackson has taken liberties to The Hobbit which he could not afford when making the Lord of the Rings. The pressure was on from the get go in that trilogy. Too many questions begged to be answered. Will it be authentic, how will they create hobbits, will the battle sequences fit, etc? And, by all accounts, the Lord of the Rings series is a visual masterpiece which compensates for the many omissions and changes in the narrative. With Guillermo Del Toro leaving the crew of The Hobbit in 2010, the task solely rested on Jackson to make the film not only shine like the its follow up but give the films their own identity.
Put quite simply, One does not simply walk into Bag End. The Hobbit is heavy on style and angles but light on subtlety and quaintness. A whole backstory, resplendent with eye-popping visuals and massive “are there really 10,000 people on the screen at once?” battles start the film, held into place by a dreamy narrator. Several characters from the Fellowship make unexpected appearances. This film doesn’t feel like a prequel at all due to the heavy references to the end and the beginning of the Lord of the Rings. The viewer goes there and back again more than once. A virgin to the series would be hopelessly lost and overwhelmed in its many nuances and visual cues.
To exacerbate the issue, paring a three hundred page book into three full length movies, the first of which topping 200 minutes, places major emphasis on minor parts of the narrative. In some occasions it would be faster to read the book than watch the scene unfold on the big screen. But fans of Tolkien’s many books will be more than indulged. The dwarves are cunning and bumbling at the same time. Sylvester McCoy appears as everyone’s famous elusive wizard in an expanded role, only mentioned once in the book. Bilbo’s patience is tried again and again, while the infamous riddle scene lasts just long enough to make you truly wonder if he is going to pull a fast one over on Gollum. When the pace slows down for you to catch your breath, the film is at its cohesive best.
Yet this happens rarely. The film evolves from an art of storytelling into Rocky IV’s training sequences. Jackson leans on the visual and emotive techniques that worked in the past like they are reps during a workout. There are simply too many similarities in the narrative structure to the first movie of the trilogy. The pacing and sequencing has been adopted as well. Instead of cozying up to Strider in an inn, Thorin’s quest and dwarven companions are pushed on the viewer with a heavier hand than the dwarves push Bilbo into a feast. An epic chase scene culminates in safety at Rivendell (sound familiar?), the Misty Mountains somehow feel as predictable as the Mines of Moria, and Thorin is given a rival out of thin air. All of a sudden a main character has an evil character following him – sound familiar? Somehow I’m trapped rewatching the Fellowship. Instead of letting the narrative structure breathe on its own, Jackson constrains it by tried-and-true style and themes.
Much has been made about the 48 frames per second. Indeed, the critics and fans questions regarding the too-smooth-to-notice frame speed have merit. I did not see the film in 3D but the visual effects were sometimes breathless or nauseating. But many times both. Jackson uses the techniques learned from past successes (Return of the King) and failures (King Kong) almost with equal aplomb. Never afraid of cramming as many bodies on screen as (in)humanely possible, Jackson puts the film into overdrive during the action sequences. The same indulgent effects are reused over and over in an grand attempt to remind the viewer that yes, this is EPIC. For example, the camera sways one way while the characters move in another. While remarkably fluid, the high resolution camera reduces the effectiveness of visual effects, illuminating the difference between CGI and reality effortlessly and at great cost to the “realism” or lack thereof. Coupled with an oversaturated, uninspired color palate, the
Yet there is so much to enjoy. The casting remained impeccable with every necessary character and actor retained appropriately. The comedic occasions felt effortless, from clumsy falls, rolling eyes, and silly riddles. Martin Freeman nails the role. And, if you simply are willing to suspend your disbelief, so many moments can be touching. From the rescue of a hedgehog, the unveiling of a new dark force, and the hints of what lies under the mountain, these transitional moments are memorable. The film shines when Jackson lets the characters take control of their destinies, not forced into his conception of The Hobbit. A story like this feels most at home when it is on its journey, not forced, kicking and screaming, to begin.