When The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring arrived in theaters in 2001 (has it really been that long?) it marked a watershed moment in film: It was the first big-budget live action fantasy movie of its kind, steeped in high production values, a fanboy’s attention to detail, and bleeding edge special effects. It didn’t just live up to lofty audience expectations, it shattered them. When Peter Jackson won his Best Director Oscar for The Return of the King in 2003, he was rewarded for his work on the trilogy as a whole. Its ripple effect on the industry can still be felt.
Jackson takes us back to Middle-Earth with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the first installment of a new trilogy that adapts J.R.R. Tolkien’s 1937 novel, which set the stage for The Lord of the Rings decades later. It’s a fun trip, but there’s a creeping sensation of “been there, done that” and it doesn’t blow our minds the way its predecessors did a decade ago.
For the uninitiated: Martin Freeman (Sherlock, the original British version of The Office) is well-cast as the titular hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, originally played in Rings by Ian Holm, who appears here along with Elijah Wood in an indulgent opening scene designed to tie the whole shebang together. Bilbo’s peaceful nonexistence is turned upside-down when wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen, in perfect form) arrives on his doorstep with exiled dwarf king Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and his band of diminutive brothers.
Thorin is on a quest to reclaim his stolen kingdom and its treasure from a marauding dragon, Smaug. Bilbo, for reasons left unexplained, is recruited as their official burglar. He’s reluctant to be a part of the affair; for the dwarfs, the feeling is mutual.
Unexpected Journey focuses on their trek to Smaug’s mountain lair (yep, you’ll have to wait until next year to actually see the damn dragon) as our heroes face vengeful orcs, cannibal trolls, and belligerent goblins, with a pit stop at the elves’ idyllic kingdom. The action beats are fine if a bit rote by now, and they often take on a cartoonish feel. The story and structure start to resemble Fellowship as it rolls along. Oddly enough, it’s when familiar faces start to appear that the movie perks up: A quiet-yet-electrifying scene with Gandalf, Elrond (Hugo Weaving), Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), and Saruman (Christopher Lee) hints at the darkness to come; and Bilbo’s fateful encounter with Gollum (Andy Serkis, the king of motion capture), perhaps the story’s best and most well-known chapter, is nailed perfectly.
Tolkien wrote The Hobbit before the first stirrings of World War II, and cranked out The Lord of the Rings almost 20 years later; hence, The Hobbit is a more lighthearted story, and Jackson handles the tonal shift by making it a slightly darker tale, working in obscure subplots from the novel’s lengthy appendices and other sources. Purists will moan, fans of the movies will likely be satisfied, and casual viewers may or may not care. Even at 169 minutes the narrative excess is tolerable, though, especially when compared to the leviathan Harry Potter series or the (gag, choke) Transformer movies.
Much hay has been made about Jackson’s decision to shoot in a 48-frame-per-second 3-D format (which will only be projected in a handful of theaters), and in truth the movie is only marginally enhanced by either the 3-D aspect (often a distraction) or the increased frame rate, which ditches the warmth of film for a glossy super-crispness that too closely resembles high-end video than cinema. Spare yourself the upcharge and see it good ol’ fashioned 2-D.
These faults are minor ones though, and Jackson has overall provided yet another rich slice of grand adventure, one that is only the first act in story that has yet to be completed. It remains to be seen if it will fully come to life.