Peter Jackson triumphantly returns to Middle Earth with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. The first prequel to his epic Lord of the Rings trilogy is a folksy, beguiling adventure. The LOTR trilogy was a dark tale that had few lighthearted moments. An Unexpected Journey is familiar because of the characters, but strikes a completely different tone. As the beginning of J.R.R. Tolkien's 'ring' fantasy, we get to enjoy the splendor of the story and fantastic settings in a more whimsical experience. The film is also a new cinematic experience in the High Frame Rate (HFR) 3D format. I found this to be too vivid and disconcerting, but give them the golf clap for breaking new ground in filmmaking. Unnecessary filler scenes, a primary complaint I had with the LOTR films rears itself and leads me to think of dubious, profit motivating calculations by the filmmakers. That issue is not as annoying here, but does prevent An Unexpected Journey from being a truly great film.
An Unexpected Journey begins before the events of The Fellowship of the Ring. The elder Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) decides to write his memoir. He starts his tale as a younger, firmly unadventurous hobbit (Martin Freeman), who enjoys his warm and comfortable home in the Shire. Bilbo's life is upended when he's paid a visit by a strange wizard, Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellan), a dear friend of his grandfather. Gandalf is seeking a 'burglar', a fourteenth member of a company embarking on a dangerous quest. Bilbo is mortified by this offer and quickly sends Gandalf on his way. Later that night, Bilbo's delicious dinner is interrupted by an unrelenting stream of dwarves. Led by the valiant and ferocious Thorin (Richard Armitage), the dwarves are seeking to reclaim the lost Dwarf Kingdom of Erebor. Their home was a grand underground city of gold and jewels nestled in a vast mountain. Erebor was captured by Smaug, the largest and most powerful dragon of Middle Earth. Lost and desperate, the dwarves of Erebor have been given an important clue to regain their home. They present Bilbo with a contract to join them as the 'burglar'. Bilbo, mortified, cannot fathom how Gandalf could think him able of this task. This is a sentiment also shared by Thorin. When the company leaves, and as he settles back into his chair, Bilbo realizes he has not seen anything outside of his beloved Shire. He decides to sign the contract and help the dwarves take Erebor and defeat Smaug.
The first successful element of An Unexpected Journey is the excellent script. There's so much creativity and imagination on display here. Unburdened by the morbid themes of the LOTR films, Jackson and his co-writers depict a sumptuous, vivid fantasy world. This is not the dreary Middle Earth. We are given real moments of humor, mystery, and camaraderie that artfully engages the audience. One of my favorite new characters is Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy), a woodland wizard that surrounds himself with animals and has a fondness for magic mushrooms. A contemporary of Gandalf, Radagast rides a sled pulled by giant, speedy hares. He's chased by orcs in a scene that is truly spectacular. An Unexpected Journey is filled with moments like this. It has a magical quality that delightfully sucks you into Middle Earth.
The combination of Gandalf, a character we know and love, with the bright-eyed, earnest Bilbo is the perfect tandem to take us through this story. Ian McKellan and Martin Freeman are excellent here. The crux of An Unexpected Journey is how can a hobbit be of any use against such daunting foes. It's the size of your heart and courage that defines greatness. Gandalf and Bilbo take this journey together. Gandalf has nothing more than his instincts that Bilbo will be essential to their success. Bilbo, despite his initial misgivings, learns that there's much more to him than he ever dreamed. This character exposition is wholly dependent on the script and the skill of the actors. It doesn't matter how good the effects are if you don't see what Gandalf sees in Bilbo. Their scenes with the dwarves are so funny. I watched them with an almost childlike glee. These are good actors with a great story under brilliant direction.
I recommend everyone see An Unexpected Journey in the HFR 3D. I honestly found it too vivid and off putting, but was impressed by how different it was. At forty eight frames per second, it's twice as fast. This makes the picture quality razor sharp, but exaggerates quick movements relative to static objects on the screen. It's hard to describe this, but many things look like they're being sped up. When you see fire, or sparks, or anything that flickers or pitches, it seems to be going faster than everything else around it. This didn't bother me initially, but as the film continued on its three hour runtime, my eyes begin to have problems. I actually took off my glasses and looked away a few times to adjust. It deserves to be seen in this format for two reasons. First, it's new, and anything new has to be seen or filmmakers will abandon it. Second, it adds a visual clarity to the action scenes that are groundbreaking. It's like hyper-realism. The Radagast chase scene, though amazing in all formats, becomes much more impressive in the HFR 3D. Peter Jackson and WETA Digital continue to be pioneers of visual effects.
My lone issue with this film is the length. An Unexpected Journey is a butt numbing two hours and fifty minutes. That is obscenely long, especially when you have at least twenty minutes of characters walking around in the woods. I hated, absolutely despised this about the LOTR films. It's obvious that these scenes are just filler. Why couldn't this have been a more action packed two hour and twenty minute film? Does a film have to be egregiously long to be considered epic? I was really worried when I heard that The Hobbit was going to be a trilogy instead of two part story. It makes loads of sense financially to triple the mammoth profits, but to do it at the expense of the story is something cynical audiences - like me - will despise and castigate. After seeing the film, there's no need for this much filler. It doesn't need it. There's so much going on to begin with, you don't need scene after scene of characters tramping around. I have nothing but respect for Peter Jackson. He's a great director. But if there's anyone that needs to learn that sometimes less can be more, it's definitely him.