From the moment Howard Shore begins to expand upon the greatest score of his lifetime and Ian Holm's kindly old Bilbo begins to tell us the story of the Dwarves of Erebor, it's as if we never left Middle Earth and one is forced to wonder how on Earth we survived the past ten or so Christmases without a return journey. An Unexpected Journey is easily the weakest of Jackson's Tolkien films so far, but given the caliber of cinema that came before and the relatively lightweight nature of the source material, that was always on the cards, just as Fellowship of the Ring couldn't match up to its sequels in terms of grandiose spectacle or rip-roaring action.
To get the negatives out of the way first, the film is far from perfect. Its 300-hour running time is near indefensible, with the opening scenes in the Shire taking an Age of Middle-Earth before Martin Freeman's younger hobbit sets out on his adventure, and whilst the sweeping helicopter shots of the party hiking through Middle-Earth are as beautiful as ever (It's really no wonder the New Zealand Government was so eager to host this trilogy), there is the sense that there's a few too many than are needed. The party itself, consisting of Bilbo, Ian McKellan's twinkly-eyed Gandalf and 13 mostly interchangeable Dwarves is hardly as iconic or memorable as the Fellowship of Nine. With the exception of Ken Stott's kindly Balin and James Nesbitt's joke-ridden… whichever one he played, the majority are there simply for necessity's sake and contribute less to the story than Jackson's indulgent additions to the original text.
It is here that the filmmaker will invite criticism the most. Making a trilogy of three-hour films out of a book less than three times the length of Lord of the Rings necessitates the inclusion of things we might not have expected. In some cases they work perfectly. Right from the start the flashback to the ancient Dwarf kingdom under the Lonely Mountain is as impressive as the first time we beheld Minas Tirith, with the underground city looking exactly as it should. Balin's tale of when he beheld Thorin battling Azog (Manu Bennett of Spartacus fame) immediately reminds us of the unmatched battle scenes Jackson became famous for after the turn of the century, and the inclusion of Radagast the Brown, a 'lesser' Gandalf investigating the appearance of the 'Necromancer'; a villain we know will be revealed as Sauron also lends excitement and expands upon stories Tolkien himself only glanced at. There are obvious filmmaking additions as well. Venturing into the Mountains in the book, one line describes how Bilbo saw stone giants; here that is transformed into a ten-minute action scene, and, perhaps recognizing the fairly slack pace the story moves at, the inclusion of Azog as a hunting nemesis, forever on the heels of the Dwarves adds some needed tension.
By and large, it must be said that the film works for the most part, brought down primarily by its needless length and the fact that it must be compared to Jackson's original trilogy. In this, it meets the same judgment as the material it is based upon. The Hobbit is a very good children's book, but it doesn't come close to the epic nature or majesty of The Lord of the Rings and so the same can be said of the film. It is a very good piece of cinema, less disappointing than Christopher Nolan's Batman finale, not as over-praised as Skyfall but unfortunately just plain not as good as Fellowship of the Ring.
One thing it can hold over that film however is a piece of masterpiece theatre taken directly from the book. The Riddles in the Dark section pits Bilbo (who, it should be said, is considerably more fun and easier to root for than his nephew, Frodo) against Andy Serkis' magnificent Gollum whose twin personalities give us as good a show as any we've seen before; indeed the scene is really one of three characters and not two. Gollum is charming, sweet and innocent, yet at the same time deathly threatening and psychopathic. The scene alone warrants Oscar consideration for special effects. Though as impressive as ever throughout (with the odd exception of Azog whose feline face looks oddly unreal at times), such is the quality of CGI on display in Gollum's cave, and so good have Weta become at mimicking the facial expressions of Serkis and integrating the character into the scene, that it's nigh on impossible to forget that what we're seeing isn't actually real. Such is the impact of this scene that at its finale when Bilbo is poised for the killing blow and pity stays his hand, we can't help but agree as he looks into the eyes of Smeagol for an instant and sees a lost, terrified child, one who gained a number of audible and heartfelt sobs from the theatre I sat in. This image is lost all too quickly and Gollum's more evil half asserts itself once more, immediately heightening the threat to Baggins, but if any were forced to wonder why it was Bilbo didn't kill the creature, An Unexpected Journey not only answers that question but dares you to suggest you would have done any different. The fact that such emotion stems from a computer generated image is exceptional, and all but gives the film an extra star all by itself. In fact, fuck it. This is my review and I make the rules. This scene takes the 65% scoring film you've seen on Rotten Tomatoes, and drags it high into the movie events of the year. It is reason enough for the entry fee.
There are, as said, a number of faults. Many of them are serious but none are critical (save perhaps the unjustified running time). Watching this film is however like being wrapped up in a story from your childhood and the simple truth is that despite the early plodding pace, I didn't want it to end and come the final scene, I was desperate for more. If this is to be the weakest of Jackson's Hobbit trilogy (and given the events not covered, one suspects that's the case), then roll on the rest. I can't wait.
Reading: The Signal and The Noise
Watching: An Unexpected Journey