When it comes to judging cinema, time heals and ravages in equal measure. Although Peter Jackson’s Lord Of The Rings trilogy is still generally held up as a shining example of what can be achieved in the pursuit of cinematic spectacle, in the intervening years since dissenting voices have crept in, complaining – by various degrees – about the pacing, the deviation from certain aspects of Tolkien’s source material and the apparent refusal of Return Of The King to simply end.
Similar reservations were expressed when news of a two-part adaptation of forebear The Hobbit was announced; this is a short children’s book, how are they going to stretch this across two books? Then the – not entirely unsurprising – bombshell: there would be three films. Three. The daggers were already drawn. Clearly the fact that Jackson was already planning to use part one, An Unexpected Journey, as the test pilot for the 48 frames per second digital ratio wasn’t enough of a gamble to be getting on with.
Among all this furore, it’s easy to forget Jackson’s proven capacity to astound audiences with a spellbindingly visual feast of storytelling – a capability that he proves within the first ten minutes here. Using the scribblings of the elderly Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) as a framing device, the scene is set and grudges established, allowing us to swiftly move on – or back, as it were – to the young Bilbo (Martin Freeman), as he was before any unexpected journeys or ring bearing was to take place. Before long, Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) comes knocking – along with a gang of dwarves, led by the sullen Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) – and the reluctant hobbit is whisked off on a journey well outside his comfort zone.
The opening scenes of An Unexpected Journey irreversibly set the tone for what is to come, and in doing so establishes it as both a success and a failure. Transparently mimicking the Lord Of The Rings trilogy at every opportunity, it will be like catnip to fans of Jackson’s earlier works, but it doesn’t exactly offer much of a hook for potential newbies to grab on to.
In fact, Jackson unashamedly caters to the converted here; existing fans will no doubt find much to take from the numerous nods to Tolkien’s works and cameos from Lord Of The Rings characters, while others will be tapping their feet and wondering exactly why they haven’t left the bloody Shire yet.
However, this willingness to stick to the tried-and-trusted formula does have its drawbacks. Lord Of The Rings saw Middle-Earth brought to its knees by all-out war, with the fate of the world entrusted to a solitary figure: it was as stark an underdog tale as you can get. Here, the stakes simply aren’t anywhere near that high; Gandalf is constantly at hand to bail the dwarves out of whatever grind they find themselves in, and the moral ambiguity of Thorin’s quest is apparent from the off.
Moreover, the characters in An Unexpected Journey simply aren’t as interesting as their Lord Of The Rings counterparts: here you have wise old head Balin (Ken Stott), comedy Scottish dwarf Dwalin (Graham McTavish), comedy Irish dwarf Bofur (James Nesbitt), Merry and Pippin shoo-ins Fili (Dean O’Gorman) and Kili (Aidan Turner), comedy nutcase dwarf Bifur (William Kircher) and the dwarf equivalent of Nicholas Lyndhurst, Ori (Adam Brown) and some others. Only Thorin shows much personality beyond a superficial veneer of characterisation colouring, although in doing so he threatens to eclipse Martin Freeman’s Bilbo completely, the hobbit’s lack of certainty being immediately at odds with the dwarf leader’s driven nature.
Compounding An Unexpected Journey’s failure to wrench itself away from the shadow cast by its forbear’s shadow. Too often the action stops and starts as the script plays lip service to returning cast members. In fairness, this isn’t a bad thing in the case of the much-anticipated ‘Riddles in the Dark’ sequence involving Bilbo and the skittishly schizophrenic Gollum (Andy Serkis), which proves to be the film’s standout sequence, but others involving a prolonged meeting with elven royalty Elrond (Hugo Weaving) and Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) have the effect of slowing things down at a time when it’s the last thing that’s needed, and the introduction of Sylvester McCoy’s Radagast is handled so abruptly that it threatens to derail things altogether, even if his character does provide some much-needed laughs.
In truth, however, much of this is easily to overlook if this kind of long-form storytelling is your thing. Admittedly, the pace is at times glacial, but it always feels like it’s building up to something, even if it takes its sweet time doing so. It is galvanised in this by Ian McKellen’s Gandalf; clearly having a ball, he looks like he’s never been away, and acts as a much-needed counterpart to the ragtag dwarves and the apathetic Bilbo. Speaking of Mr Baggins, Freeman does just enough to inhabit the role, but isn’t as memorable as Ian Holm’s Bilbo – or indeed Elijah Wood’s Frodo, who makes a cameo here.
Nevertheless, the occasionally stuttering pace aside, things seem to be heading in the right direction. The cinematography remains as breathtaking as ever, and Howard Shore’s sweeping score resonates at exactly the right moments.
And what about the much-hyped new frame speed? Admittedly, first experiences are jarring at first, with the opening scenes looking worryingly like the TV adaptation of The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe, but after ten minutes it’s just like watching any other movie. The sense of realism this exudes has mixed effects: the action scenes are more frenetic and visceral, but at other times it gives off the appearance of being in a costume, with background props being that bit too visible – Bilbo’s feet being one such example. Nonetheless, it’s not the distraction that the doom-mongers claimed, and it’ll catch on quicker than 3D.
Despite feeling like a prelude for much of it, things finish on an appropriately high note via a series of taught action set-pieces that nonetheless aren’t left wanting for spectacle, with the ending in particular setting things up nicely for part two.
Your enjoyment of An Unexpected Journey will depend largely on whether you’re willing to celebrate it for its strengths or condemn it for its flaws. Taken in isolation, it can be viewed as lacking the cohesiveness needed to function as a truly impressive opener that The Fellowship Of The Ring possessed in spades, but until parts two and three are released it remains to be seen where it fits as part of the overall jigsaw puzzle. Until then, we’ll give it the benefit of the doubt.