Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellan, Richard Armitage
Directed by: Peter Jackson (“The Lord of the Rings” trilogy)
Written by: Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, Phillipa Boyens (“The Lord of the Rings” trilogy) and Guillermo del Toro (“Pan’s Labyrinth”)
Revisiting fanboy-friendly cinematic properties after an extended absence from theaters is always a tricky proposition. On the financial side, it’s an absolute no-brainer: you’re getting more proven product to sell to an already-existing audience. Huge box office numbers are pretty much guaranteed, not to mention sales of any ancillary products that might go along with it. Creatively, however, these endeavors often fail to live up to incredibly high expectations held by fans. I mean, spend a few minutes looking up what the internet at large thinks about “Prometheus,” “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” or, God help you, the “Star Wars” prequel trilogy. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
See what I mean? Now you understand what any follow-up to director Peter Jackson’s mega-hit “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy has to deal with. Ever since the final film, “The Return of the King,” ended up raking in all the money and Oscars available back in 2003, audiences have been anxiously awaiting an adaptation of the trilogy’s official prequel, J.R.R. Tolkein’s more kid-friendly novel “The Hobbit.” Legal issues tied up the film rights for years, but the wait is over. Jackson’s first film of a new “Hobbit” trilogy, “An Unexpected Journey,” is finally here, for better or worse.
“An Unexpected Journey” begins 60 years before the events of “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. Hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), happily puttering around his Hobbit hole, is approached by wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellan) and offered the opportunity to enrich his life by embarking on an adventure. Bilbo politely declines, but, undeterred, Gandalf volunteers the Hobbit anyway. Soon, a pack of Dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) arrives at Bilbo’s door demanding food and singing songs. With the help of Gandalf, the Dwarves set out to enlist the reluctant Baggins in their quest to retake their home and treasure from the dragon Smaug.
While none of Peter Jackson’s previous adventures in Middle Earth were known for their brevity, at least those films had three huge books filled with pages and pages of source material to draw from. Not so with “The Hobbit.” Stretching one novel into three epic films is understandably worrisome, and the strain shows from the beginning. Kicking things off with a prologue featuring Ian Holm’s aged Bilbo Baggins writing a letter and Elijah Wood’s Frodo checking the damn mail is an exercise in padding. Plus, the dinner introducing the baker’s dozen of Dwarves is 45 minutes of “get on with it!” Once all of that is out of the way, though, the film slides easily into the groove that turned the “Rings” trilogy into blockbusters. Geared ever-so-slightly to younger audiences, the quest mixes the whimsical, like the goofy wizard with a rabbit-drawn sleigh and a trio of moronic cave trolls, with the terrifying, such as the hook-handed Orc bent on hunting down Thorin or the chilling duel of riddles Bilbo engages in with the pitiful Gollum played by Andy Serkis, once again in top form. By the time the latter scene comes to an end with Bilbo in possession of a familiar golden ring, Jackson’s magic is back in full force. Even the notoriously fickle fanboys should be ready to journey there and back again with the director. Whether he can keep it all going for two more bloated films is the real question.
One technical note: Jackson shot “The Hobbit” in a new format known as HFR, or high frame rate. What it does is double the traditional frame rate of film, 24 frames per second, to 48 frames per second. Select theaters are screening the film in HFR, which is how I saw it, and I can’t recommend this format at all. The difference is stark and distracting to say the least, with a look reminiscent of a cheap soap opera, and ends up unwittingly exposing the fakery of many special effects shots. Avoid HFR.