It's been almost a decade since the One Ring was cast into the fires of Mount Doom, rescuing Middle-earth from the scourge of Sauron. In the wake of that triumph, Aragon reclaimed his throne, Frodo sailed off to the Grey Havens and Sam returned home to his wife and daughter with an earnest, "Well, I'm back." As for Peter Jackson -- the unlikely filmmaker who brought J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy epic The Lord of the Rings to life onscreen in a trio of much-loved blockbusters -- he's gone from being a New Zealand-based cult favorite to a reigning master of Hollywood spectacle, alongside directors like James Cameron and Steven Spielberg.
Funnily enough, it's precisely Jackson's elevated status that once again makes him an unlikely candidate to direct what's being billed as the Lord of the Rings prequel series, The Hobbit. (That label applies to the film series anyway; in book time, The Hobbit was written first.) Even the most ardent fans of Jackson's Rings cycle (of which I am one) must have felt a twinge of uncertainty about whether he had the right sensibility to adapt Tolkien's earlier novel, which is smaller in scale and significantly lighter in tone. Our fears were further stoked by his decision to expand what was originally supposed to be a pair of movies into three. Although that kind of breadth was appropriate for Lord of the Rings, which was already a trilogy in book form, The Hobbit has a more streamlined, straightforward narrative that could be efficiently told in two movies or even just one. (The old Rankin-Bass animated Hobbit that so many of us grew up on runs a mere 80 minutes and is an entirely serviceable version of Tolkien's tale.) That choice suggested that Jackson had perhaps grown too big for Middle-earth and was journeying there and back again purely out of financial obligation rather than artistic desire. After all, nothing ruins the magic of moviemaking faster than the director's obvious disinterest in the story he's telling.
The nagging fear that we were about to watch an out-of-shape Jackson fall flat on his face like Rocky Balboa in Rocky III (or, even worse, George Lucas in The Phantom Menace) remained at the forefront of my mind right up until the point that the lights went down and the title card for the first installment in The Hobbit trilogy, An Unexpected Journey came up onscreen. But then Howard Shore's familiar score kicked in, the title faded away and we were back in Middle-earth, specifically in Bag End where Ian Holm's elderly Bilbo Baggins is sitting down to write his memoir -- the very memoir we're about to see unfold. I'd like to say that my trepidation faded away right at that instant, but the truth is that it lingered for some time after that, partly for technological reasons (I saw the film in its much-discussed 48 frames-per-second version, which I'll talk about a bit further on) but also due to some stilted storytelling that has the feel of Jackson shaking the rust out of his joints.
In an attempt to recapture the same grandeur of The Lord of the Rings, he and returning screenwriters Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens (Guillermo Del Toro, who was originally set to direct The Hobbit, is also listed as a credited screenwriter, although it's unclear how much of his work is left in the finished product) once again begin with a prologue that covers a piece of Middle-earth history that will be relevant to the rest of the movie -- the rise and fall of the Dwarf Kingdom of Erebor, also known as the Kingdom Under the Mountain due to the fact that it's located... well, under a mountain. Once a mighty, wealthy dwarf commune, Erebor fell after an invasion by the dragon, Smaug, its former residents (whoever survived, that is) forced to scatter to the winds. Reclaiming this mountain kingdom will become the driving quest of The Hobbit (which takes place sixty years before the events of The Fellowship of the Ring), as a small band of dwarves -- including Thorin (Richard Armitage), the heir to the throne -- set out to reclaim their ancestral home from Smaug, with the aid of wizened wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellan) as well as, eventually, young Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman).
As dramatic stakes go, this adventure seems of considerable less import than Frodo's journey to destroy the One Ring. After all, the fate of all of Middle-earth hinged on the success of that mission and Jackson made sure that you felt that sense of urgency from the first frame. In contrast, retaking Erebor is a goal that really only matters to Thorin and his 12 followers; even Bilbo isn't convinced that this adventure is worth his time and has to be persuaded by Gandalf and the dwarves to enlist in their fight during a lengthy dinner sequence at Bag End that may test your affection for dwarf humor and, especially, dwarf music. This scene has already been cited as an example of Jackson's penchant for excess and while I didn't find it as interminable as others might, I do understand the complaints. It is pokey and the attempts at light humor frequently fall flat. Lord of the Rings had its moments of whimsy, but Jackson -- whose specific comic sensibility has always trended more towards hard-R rated stuff like Dead Alive and, especially, Meet the Feebles -- parceled them out judiciously. Here, he hits the comic beats so hard that he stifles any actual laughter; it's too aggressive to be funny. At the same time, though, I appreciated the way Jackson allowed this sequence to run long, granting Thorin the time to make his case and Bilbo the opportunity to fully weigh his decision about whether or not to embark on this most unexpected journey. So the next morning, when the hobbit grabs his knapsack and runs excitedly after the departing dwarves, we understand where his unabashed glee is coming from. When his nephew Frodo sets off on his adventure sixty years later, it's out of a sense of duty. For Bilbo, it stems from his desire to experience an awfully big adventure.
Not coincidentally, this is also the moment where I banished any lingering doubts from my mind and fell completely under Jackson's spell all over again. Let's face it: by the very nature of the material he's working from, The Hobbit was never going to match the grandeur of Lord of the Rings. What this particular story does afford him, however, is the opportunity to take audiences on an action-packed thrill ride through a world we already know and love. And in that respect An Unexpected Journey is a true delight, as Jackson and his army of artists at Weta Workshop marshal the full might of their technical wizardry to immerse audiences in Middle-earth all over again. (The natural beauty of the New Zealand landscape aids them in this task as well.) With each successive set-piece, the movie grows more and more rousing, from an early encounter with a trio of hungry trolls, to a scene where stone figures trade blows amidst the mountains to a spirited chase through an underground Goblin lair. The sheer size and scale of these sequences is wondrous to behold, even in the 48 FPS format that's causing no small amount of tsuris.
Let's talk about the frame rate issue for a moment. For most audiences, this won't be an issue as The Hobbit is only playing in 48 FPS in a limited number of theaters. But since this is the format the film was shot in -- and the format that Jackson would like to see become standard for big-budget blockbusters -- it merits further discussion. Perhaps the best way to describe the look of a film projected at 48 FPS (twice the speed of the 24 FPS conventional films are projected at) is to compare it to a BBC costume drama from the '70s or an early '80s sitcom, back when they were all shot on video. It's considerably brighter and crisper than a film projected at 24 FPS and there's a smoothness to the actors' movements (as well as the motion of the camera) that one sees on high-definition TVs. Truth be told, the effect is supremely distracting at first and even while I eventually adjusted to the image quality, it never feels entirely natural. At the same time, however, the copious CGI creatures that populate Middle-earth do look incredible in this format, packed with detail and lacking the fuzziness you often see in the digital compositing in a conventional 24 FPS feature. Watching the troll sequence, for example, made me think how terrific the all-CGI Hulk would look in The Avengers 2 if Joss Whedon opts to go the 48 FPS route. While An Unexpected Journey isn't the technological game-changer Jackson might have wanted it to be out of the gate, it does highlight the potential benefits of this format at least in regards to spectacle-driven cinema.
Beyond the impressive razzle dazzle of the movie's fantasy universe, it's worth noting that, after the slow start, Jackson and his team of writers really do manage to make An Unexpected Journey function as its own story. While the Lord of the Rings films ultimately tell one grand overarching tale, each individual installment introduces and resolves its own distinct set of themes and narratives. Fellowship of the Ring, for example, is largely about how Frodo comes to accept that the mission to destroy the One Ring must be his and his alone (well, except for Sam, of course), while The Two Towers presents the now-disbanded fellowship with points where they could abandon their individual quests and turn home, yet they continue to soldier on. This first chapter in The Hobbit trilogy gives us two protagonists -- Bilbo and Thorin -- who both doubt their readiness for the journey they've embarked upon and that uncertainty puts them at odds for much of the movie.
During the course of the first stage of their adventure, though, they're both put in positions where they have to succeed or fail on their own, without help. For Bilbo, it's when he's trapped at the bottom of a cavern and encounters the hideous, raspy creature known as Gollum (played once again by Andy Serkis), as well as the ring that will become so important six decades from now. (This sequence represents the peak of the movie's many high points -- a terrifically written and performed battle of wills and wits.) For Thorin, it's when he's forced to face down the Orc leader that killed his father with the lives of the dwarves in his party literally hanging in the balance. Enduring these trials by fire gives them each renewed confidence and allows them to come to a mutual understanding. Granted, this isn't an especially original character arc for the heroes of a fantasy story, but it's convincingly scripted and played wonderfully by both Armitage and Freeman, who deliver grounded, nuanced performances amidst all the fantastical derring-do. Perhaps the highest compliment I can pay An Unexpected Journey is that it actually made me happy to think that we've got two more Hobbit movies coming. After this spirited trip back to Middle-earth, I'm not ready to leave again anytime soon.
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