I’m not ready to storm Helm’s Deep looking for director/writer Peter Jackson’s head, but I’m baffled as to why he strayed from the Oscar-winning formula of the beloved “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy in crafting a film that at times feels familiar beneath its CGI-coated shell, yet lacks much of the magic of his earlier trip to Middle Earth.
Set 60 years before the events of LOTR, a young Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) is enjoying his laid-back life in the Shire when Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) seeks his aid for an adventure. While Bilbo insists there must be more adventurous Hobbits, Gandalf is undeterred and soon has 13 dwarves rendezvous at Bilbo’s — their final staging ground before setting off on their quest to reclaim their kingdom from the dragon, Smaug. Not exactly saving the entire realm from being under the thrall of the Dark Lord, but as far as quests goes, it’ll do.
The dwarf leader, Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), doubts Bilbo is up for the task, but he’ll have plenty of chances to prove his worth as he encounters goblin armies, Warg riders, stone giants and a fateful meeting with Gollum (voiced by Andy Serkis).
Jackson and fellow screenwriters Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyd and Guillermo del Toro don’t venture far from the LOTR blueprint from character traits — Thorin is a legendary leader living in semi-exile like Aragorn, while Bilbo stands in for Frodo as the reluctant, but brave Hobbit — to the widescreen battles as the escape from the overwhelming goblin army instantly recalls thoughts of the battle in the Mines of Moria.
The film’s best moment — Bilbo’s meeting with Gollum — allows Freeman to make Bilbo his own and Serkis quickly reminds audiences why Gollum/Smeagol is one of the more fascinating characters in the entire saga.
The screenwriters struggle to get you invested in the characters with too many of the dwarves just being random background participants. While the film is 169 minutes, little is used on character development save establishing that Thorin wants to reclaim the dwarves to their former glory, Bilbo is unsure of himself and Balin (Ken Stott) is the elder, but still capable warrior.
And since you know Gandalf and Bilbo have to survive whatever obstacle they encounter to take part in the LOTR saga, there’s a lack of suspense. Conversely, by the end of “Fellowship of the Ring,” two members are dead so you feel like that saga has actual consequences.
Jackson channels his inner George Lucas and falls prey to the dark side of embracing modern technology for his prequel.“The Hobbit” makes history as the first film shot and projected at 48 frames per second, double the regular standard. That makes the movie appear as if you’re watching from a window. The effect stunningly enhances the 3D, but it also ruins the illusion of watching a fantasy world coming to life. The masterfully creative world assembled by intricate costumes, makeup and elaborate set designs are now largely constructed via computer. The CGI isn’t bad, but you’re always aware that the enemies the dwarves confront are not actually in their world and the backgrounds look a little too perfect. Maybe this is just Middle Earth pre-foreclosure crisis?
This may sound like I hated the film, but I liked it a lot. It was fun going back to Middle Earth and experiencing it from the dwarves’ perspective and learning more of their history. The new main enemy was intriguing even if I’m already bracing for a Sauron level of disappointment with the inevitable clash with Smaug.
I remember anxiously awaiting the next installment the moment the credits started in “Fellowship of the Ring” and “The Two Towers” that wasn’t there this time. “An Unexpected Journey” gets off to a decent start for this next trilogy, but it’s not the epic, genre-redefining event of the one that preceded it.
Rating: 7.5 out of 10