After so spectacularly scaling his own personal Mount Doom with his revered Lord of the Rings trilogy, could Peter Jackson somehow capture lightning in a bottle again with this second epic excursion into Middle Earth?
From the moment Rings was wrapped, Jackson was being called upon to sprinkle that same magic on J.R.R Tolkien’s earlier, much leaner children’s book The Hobbit.
The New Zealander originally wanted Guillermo del Toro to direct, but after the Mexican horror maestro left the project (he’s down as a co-writer), Jackson took it upon himself to oversee the mammoth undertaking. While it would have been fascinating to see Del Toro’s vision realised on screen, Jackson’s pedigree was irrefutable.
That The Lord of the Rings was made as a trilogy made perfect sense – three books, three films. However, when it emerged that Jackson was turning The Hobbit into not two, but three movies eyebrows were raised and questions asked as to whether this was a bridge too far. Now that An Unexpected Journey is finally here in all its many guises (3D, Imax, 24 or 48 frames per second, take your pick) does it succeed? Yes, but with reservations.
An Unexpected Journey walks a similar path to Fellowship of the Ring; a CGI-heavy prologue lays out the stakes, a hobbit is chosen to go on an adventure, a small band of diminutive people is forged and a life or death quest begins to achieve something bigger than all of them.
Watching An Unexpected Journey is akin to slipping on a well-worn pair of slippers; the restless, swooping camerwork, the stirring Howard Shore score and the jaw-dropping New Zealand locations (seriously, Jackson is a one-man NZ Tourism Board) are all present and accounted for and when the Shire appears on screen it’s like being reuinted with an old friend after a decade apart.
However, even old friends can get annoying as Jackson languishes in the Shire for what seems like an eternity. To be fair, a major reason for this is to introduce us to the 13-strong company of dwarves, led by the heroic Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), who come calling at the home of hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) at the request of the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen). Bilbo is urged by Gandalf to join the dwarves on a perilous journey to reclaim their home and treasure from the dragon Smaug and, after much toing and froing belatedly embraces the opportunity.
This overly-prolonged first act smacks of indulgence on Jackson’s part and has you wondering if three films really was a sensible idea. But once the gathering hit the road the film finally moves up the gears until a breathless last hour that promises much for next year’s The Desolation of Smaug.
As with his Rings trilogy, Jackson proves he’s no slouch when it comes to the big set pieces. The stone giant battle in which Bilbo and co unwittingly become a part of is genuinely thrilling and underlines the dangers inherent on their quest, while the dwarves’ and Gandalf’s dizzyingly elaborate escape from the Great Goblin’s cave lair (amusingly voiced by Barry Humphries) and his sizeable CGI army is reminiscent of, though not as impressive as the Mines of Moria/Balrog scene from Fellowship.
However, An Unexpected Journey‘s finest spectacle is saved for the game of riddles between an uneasy Bilbo and the pathetic, wretched Gollum; a masterclass in building tension that pivots the whole film and is the hobbit’s true turning point. The wonderful Andy Serkis dons the motion-capture suit once more to reprise his role as Sméagol/Gollum, whose split personality is equal parts humourous, childlike and disturbing , not least of which when he realises his “precious” ring has been stolen.
The moment when Bilbo, invisible after wearing the ring, holds a sword to the unknowing Gollum’s throat and exercises mercy is really something. It’s at this point that Jackson’s faith in Freeman must have paid off. Freeman, previously best known for his TV work in The Office and Sherlock, shows his acting chops by conveying pity, disgust and humanity in a single look and affirming that this little hobbit is the part he was born to play. Bilbo is our Everyman and Freeman delivers just the right mix of self-doubt, wonder and fortitude.
McKellen is clearly having the time of his life revisiting the mischievous and good-hearted wizard and it’s good to see Christoper Lee and Cate Blachett reprising their roles as, respectively, Saruman and Galadriel; however, Ken Stott’s Balin and James Nesbitt’s Bofur are the only dwarves to make any major impact, while Armitage has yet to fully convince as this tale’s rugged hero in the way Viggo Mortensen managed with Aragorn.
An Unexpected Journey is very good, but it’s not without its faults and fails to match the heights of Fellowship. For many that will be more than enough, but Jackson still has some work to do if he hopes this trilogy will earn its place in cinema’s valhalla alongside his previous fantasy epic.