Around sixty years before the events of The Lord of the Rings trilogy a young Hobbit called Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) was whisked off for what became a life changing adventure. An Unexpected Journey is based on the first few chapters of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit but contains almost all the highlights of the book I read as a teenager. After a tortured pre production that included a change of writer and director, problems with studio financing, the temporary loss of it’s central actor and location issues, An Unexpected Journey is finally here and even for a year which featured the likes of Prometheus, The Dark Knight Rises and So Undercover, this was the film that I’d been looking forward to the most all year. I saw the film close to a week ago now and am only just writing a review. Generally I’ll put pen to paper or rather finger to keyboard within twenty-four hours of seeing a movie but my experience of An Unexpected Journey made me put off writing in the hope of a second viewing. With Christmas around the corner and a trip back to my hometown looming I probably won’t get to see the film again until 2013 but will probably update my review once I have. The reason for wanting to see it again before writing a review is because the impossible happened; I didn’t like it.
There has been a lot of talk about the film overstaying its welcome. I never felt particularly bored or tired but I think twenty minutes could probably have been lost. I also had no problem with the rather long opening which chronicled the recent history of Middle Earth and then introduced the central characters of Bilbo, Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and the thirteen dwarfs which make up this series equivalent of the fellowship. A problem I did have though was with the sheer number of characters. Often the dwarfs blended into one huge mass and it was rare for one of them to stand out or get much screen time, despite the near three hour run time. Even after nearly three hours I still have little bearing of who the characters are. Only Thorin (Richard Armitage), Bofur (James Nesbitt) and Balin (Graham McTavish) have remained lodged in my memory after a few days. The lack of character development for the majority of the dwarfs may stem from the source material but when six chapters is taking three hours to bring to screen there should be room to flesh them out.
Although I don’t feel like I got to know the dwarfs that well, I did like Richard Armitage’s Thorin and also thought that Martin Freeman was very well cast as Bilbo. While not the greatest actor around, he does have the sort of stuffiness and comic chops to bring a character like Bilbo to life. He also carried forward many of the great quirks of Ian Holm’s interpretation and having them almost side by side in the opening was no issue. Ian McKellen was excellent once again as the wise Wizard Gandalf but just as in The Lord of the Rings it annoyed me that he always seemed to wander off only to return in the nick of time. Christopher Lee has a brief but decent cameo, as do Elijah Wood, Cate Blanchett and Hugo Weaving. Their inclusion helps to tie the two trilogies together. A character and performance that I didn’t enjoy was Sylvester McCoy’s Radagast. The character bored me and I felt he was misplaced. His woodland menagerie felt unrealistic and the same is true of his mode of transport. The stand out actor appears in the film’s standout scene. Andy Serkis bough Gollum to life spectacularly ten years ago when Motion Capture was in its infancy. Now a decade on, his performance is nothing short of sublime and the riddles scene with Bilbo is the best of the film. Gollum’s CGI is also one of the highlights of a film in which the CGI was a let down.
The Lord of the Rings trilogy was famed for its wonderful use of prosthetic and computer special effects. Here the costume and make up is once again excellent but some of the CGI was less than perfect. A scene in Goblin Town looked like a late 1990s platform video game. The effects and direction during that scene were atrocious. I couldn’t believe how one of the greatest fantasy directors working today could produce a scene that looked so poor ten years after giving us the likes of Helms Deep. Helicam shots over towns and cities also looked worse to me than what was seen in The Lord of the Rings and it often felt as though CGI was too heavily relied on. Despite its problems though there were some scenes in which the CGI worked well. The Mountain Giants scene stands out as a triumph.
Probably my main problem with the film was the 3D. Having seen Life of Pi the week before and being blown away by its visuals I had high hopes for Peter Jackson’s use of a medium that I am more than a little sceptical of. The result was that the film was dark. So dark in places that I had trouble picking out faces and features. If there is one film you don’t want to suffer light loss then it is a film set mostly at night or underground. The other problem with the 3D is that it never once made me feel immersed. If anything I felt more separated from the action as I kept taking the glasses off to see if it really was that dark. (It wasn’t). The 48 fps solved none of the light loss or indeed the motion blur which is still a problem. In some of the battle scenes I had no idea what was going on. The screen was literally a blur.
Another problem was the same plot hole that looms large over The Lord of the Rings. In Middle Earth there are a species of giant Eagles who are occasionally called upon for assistance by Gandalf. I always thought in The Lord of the Rings that it would have saved an awful lot of bother if an Eagle or two had simply dropped the ring into Mount Doom early on in the first film. Here the Eagles appear once more, saving the day at an opportune moment. Their inclusion always feels like a cheap trick or way of getting out of a more imaginative conclusion to a battle or incident. They also drop the party off on the way to their destination instead of taking them all the way. A further problem was that one of the most iconic scenes to me when I read the book felt rushed. The troll’s dinner scene was quite funny and well shot but felt over far too quickly. Once again with a long run time there is no excuse for this.
I left the cinema shocked and annoyed at how little I’d enjoyed the film. I expected to like it much more and can still recall my excitement having left The Fellowship of the Ring in my mid teens. I still enjoyed the story and although the tone was, as it should be, more child friendly than the Rings films, I enjoyed the comedy and witty script. The problems lie in lack of character development, uncharacteristically poor effects and direction and the use of 3D. I will still see the film a second time; this time in 2D with the hope that I see something in it which changes my mind. An Unexpected Journey was not a film I wanted to dislike and will keep searching for ways to reverse my opinion. Until then, I can’t say I enjoyed it.