After the conclusion of the epic Lord of the Rings trilogy back in 2003, it seemed that the fantasy franchise had seen its last day. Cut to almost a decade later and Peter Jackson has succeeded in bringing us a much-anticipated fourth dose of Middle Earth – with a further two instalments planned for 2013 and 2014. So far, the road to making The Hobbit trilogy has been less than smooth. Jackson originally intended Guillermo Del Torro to direct, but after years of delays and squabbles with studio bosses over the trilogy’s eye-watering budget (around $400 million in total), the Pan’s Labyrinth director dropped out in 2010 and Jackson took the helm.
The Hobbit: An unexpected Journey, the first instalment of the trilogy, picks up a few decades before The Lord Of The Rings. Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), the homely hobbit, is torn from his quiet comforts in The Shire when called upon by Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) to lead a motley crew of 13 dwarfs on a treacherous quest to defeat the dragon Smaug and recover the Lonely Mountain.
So, let’s start with the obvious: Although it shares much of the same DNA, this is no Lord of the Rings. It’s a little softer around the edges and is marked by a lighter tone and tempo. It’s impossible to watch An Unexpected Journey without feeling that the film is a slightly pale imitation of its brother trilogy, and the return of previous cast members including Cate Blanchet, Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen and Andy Serkis as Gollum do little to alleviate the sense that the film is very much a prequel to the real action.
That said, there is still plenty to enjoy. Martin Freeman is perfectly cast as Bilbo Baggins, the hobbit thrown into an adventure against his will, as is Simon Armitage playing Thorin the Dwarf King. After the initial set-up, the film follows a rip-roaring, action-packed pace and there is no shortage of scrapes with goblins, orcs and wargs to keep the story moving.
An Unexpected Journey also offers an unparalleled visual spectacle. Aside from showcasing the latest in 3D technology, Jackson pioneered the use of RED digital cameras to achieve a beautifully crisp picture and the genuinely thrilling visual effects that have become the hallmark of Weta digital.
When The Hobbit (a relatively short children’s book) was first announced as a trilogy, there were suspicions that financial motivations would lead to a watered-down story, unfeasibly spread over three films. Remarkably, in this first instalment, Jackson and his co-writers Phillipa Boyens and Fran Walsh have successfully avoided overstretching the original narrative, while establishing a plethora of new (and old) characters. It still remains to be seen whether the subsequent installments will be able to sustain the pace and meet the high bar that Jackson has set.