By: Garrett Collins
Starring: Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Ian McKellan, Ken Stott, Andy Serkis and James Nesbitt
Ten years ago, Peter Jackson was the toast of Hollywood. Within the span of a decade and a half, the man who was making films based on sheer passion of the art (Jackson did not attend film school) had gone from Splatterpunk King (that video case of his 80s horror film Bad Taste still haunts me) to Oscar-winning director. He accomplished bringing a trilogy to the screen that had no business being as successful as it was. I still remember walking into the theater to see The Fellowship of the Ring in 2001, thinking there was no way that this massive book I had read with so much delight in my teens could be brought to screen in the way it should have. I was amazed to relish in each new character, plot point and scene of the films, and was sucked into the entire unfolding trilogy just like a certain one that came before it involving The Force. All the dwarves, battles and, yes, CGI, merged into a magical series of films that moved so fluidly, I can watch the uncut versions of them all and not realize just how long they are (ok, Return of the King tended to end a few times too many). However, after Return‘s critical and commercial success, Jackson fell into a bit of a slump. King Kong was initially not that well received (though I feel it has gotten better with age) and his adaptation of Lovely Bones was a case of a depressing book that was almost impossible to bring justice to without making the most depressing movie of all time. So, he brought more of Heaven into it than Hell, with a mixed bag of results. However, he did have a bit of success producing the brilliant science fiction film District 9. So, when The Hobbit was initially announced with him as a producer and the ever visual Guillermo Del Torro as director, I was simultaneously intrigued and delighted. Then, the scary announcements started. Del Torro was off the project, being replaced by Jackson. The film was being released as a trilogy even though the source material’s length in no way warrants it. And, of course, the much contentious announcement that the film was being released in 48 frames per second format (as opposed to the normal 24). So, in the end, how did all of this wind up affecting the final product? The battles were there. The dwarves were there. The magic, however, was not. To put it bluntly, Jackson is now an official member of the Lucas Prequel Curse Club.
That’s not to say that the journey taken throughout the course of this film was all bad. First of all, Jackson, once again in the director’s chair for the prequel to what put him on the Hollywood map, is excellent. People can say what they want about the guy, but one thing he doesn’t lack is a true love of film. He tells his story and stages battles like a true pro, amazingly making them feel fresh, and it would be wrong for me to say that he does not at least handle this aspect of the tale beautifully. Also, it was essential for the overall success of the film that Jackson get the perfect person to play Bilbo Baggins. Who, in the last trilogy was not as big of a player in the grand scheme to the journey that Frodo takes. Here, the film is pretty much named after him. He is the hobbit who takes the unexpected journey, and Freeman is the perfect thespian to take the role on. He has a sense of dryness (the exchanges he has with Gandalf are priceless) and simultaneous tragedy about him that makes Bilbo work. It was a sheer joy seeing past characters come back here (McKellan, Elijah Wood and Cate Blanchett, among others, show up with varying degrees of screen time). It was also nice hearing the familiar musical themes from returning composer Howard Shore’s score, with the ever so slightly added tweaks. It is within the first few frames of An Unexpected Journey that I was swooped up in the storytelling yet again, and the familiarity of it worked in spring boarding the movie at hand. But, while LOTR was essentially Frodo going on a journey with the magnificent weight of doom or destruction on his shoulders, An Unexpected Journey consists of a more personal story. It is after a conversation with Gandalf (McKellan, who is great as always in the role) that Baggins decides to go on his little journey. In other words, the scope of the first trilogy’s do or die feel is almost completely absent from this one. And, it is here where the movie’s problems start.
It is an odd conundrum in a film that clocks in at almost three hours to have characters we do not know. But, unfortunately, that is what we have here. Whereas the last trilogy had a barrage of magnificently drawn out and established characters, here we barely get to know any of the dwarves. And, of all the new characters introduced, only Armitage’s Thorin really stood out (though, he truly is remarkable in a role that walks the fine line of being a mirror image of Aragon). Also, while the last trilogy did not drag (at least to me), here An Unexpected Journey’s plot-line feels drawn out. And, that brings me to a big moment of contention that I had with the movie: this film is pulling us along for a journey that could easily have been told in one, maybe two films. But, this feels like the episodic type of storytelling that I am growing increasingly wearisome over, and it bugs me when a story of this caliber, which was shorter than any of the past books, feels that it must be in the trilogy format in order to get its story out to the masses.
Now, I did see the film in its much talked about 48 fps 3D format and, I must say, I did not have a problem with it. It gave the film a sleekness and sharpness that almost had the feel of a BBC documentary and I enjoyed the way some objects looked and felt not like they were a set, but a practical place of inhabitence. Bilbo & Gollum’s exchanges, especially came off very well, and I would be remissed if I did not say that I have no intention of seeing the film any other way (until it is released on blu-ray, that is). Gollum, by the way (once again portrayed by Serkis) is still as interesting as ever. And, not only does he look even better than the past trilogy, he has moments that once again have you in total awe. Overall, while An Unexpected Journey was an expected return to great directing form by Jackson, the script (by Del Torro and returning scriptors Phillipa Boyans, Fran Walsh and Jackson himself) does not have the same type of tightness and epic feel of visits to Middle Earth past. In the end, I feel it will please fans of the past trilogy to an extent, but leave the gap of full satisfaction too far open to close. And, there is absolutely no plot line here which feels satisfactorily closed. This, unfortunately, leaves An Unexpected Journey feel more like an unending one.
3.5 out of 5