Director: Peter Jackson
Starring: Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, James Nesbitt, Ken Stott, Cate Blanchett, Ian Holm, Christopher Lee, Hugo Weaving, Elijah Wood, Andy Serkis
Running Time: 169 minutes
Synopsis: Persuaded by the Wizard Gandalf the Grey, a reluctant Bilbo Baggins sets off on an epic journey to reclaim the lost Dwarf Kingdom of Erebor from the beastly Dragon Smaug. Led by the mighty warrior, Thorin Oakenshield and his company of 13 dwarves, Bilbo must face unforgiving terrains and diverse foes if he is to achieve his goal.
The first chapter of this long-awaited trilogy is finally upon us, and it has definitely been worth the wait. Jackson returns to the director’s chair, despite initial plans to only co-produce the film and co-write the screenplay, proving that temptation clearly got the better of him. For this we should be grateful, as his fierce passion for J.R.R. Tolkien’s texts are apparent in his work once again.
The beautifully sprawling landscape of AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY is understandably reminiscent of his previous trilogy, THE LORD OF THE RINGS, although this time we can indulge even further in every minute detail – from background to foreground – as Jackson has become the first feature film director to utilise High Frame Rate technology. The film was shot at 48 frames-per-second, which is twice as revealing as the standard mode of production. However, once again, 3D does more harm than good in certain scenes; merely serving to convolute the imagery. The 48 fps format allows for more than enough aesthetic clarity, so when coupled with 3D, some of the sequences, especially those with swift cuts (primarily in the case of epic battle sequences), become difficult to absorb fully. This is only noticeable a handful of times and is an easily-remedied flaw, but it still seems like 3D is a superfluous gimmick with no logical purpose.
As you may expect from Jackson, whose respect for Tolkien is unbounded, the story, faithfulness to the text, and casting are almost perfectly realised. Freeman gives an understated performance as the titular character, which feels distinctly natural, as he expertly conveys the difficult combination of his personality traits, including his vulnerability, wit, intelligence and latent courage. Bilbo’s story arc is also engaging, as his character evolves more in this first installment, than Frodo’s did in the entire LOTR trilogy.
If there is a grievance to be found in the adaptation process, it is in the famous scene where Bilbo must engage in a battle of wits and riddles with Gollum. In the book it is a dangerously tense affair with an almost palpable electricity between the two, which builds slowly and has a deeply satisfying conclusion. Although this scene is enjoyable in the film (especially as we are reunited with the dedicated and ingenious Serkis in the role of Gollum), it does lack that deliciously sinister element. It is admittedly aimed at children, but beheadings are allowed onscreen, so a smouldering uncertainty and mental power struggle between two exciting characters should surely be allowed to play out naturally too.
The tone of the original text is adhered to painstakingly on a broader scale, with its lightheartedness and silly humour (especially in the case of the dwarves’ mannerisms) portrayed in a delightful manner. The transition from these moments of levity to the more dramatic and harrowing moments are seamless too, making for a full-on escapist experience.
While there are one or two technical issues with AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY, and its transference from page to screen, it is otherwise a thoroughly enjoyable film for ardent fans and newcomers alike. By the end you’ll undoubtedly be craving the next installment with bated breath.