An Unexpected Journey takes place not only in the shadow of Erebor, the mountain homeland towards which Bilbo Baggins, Gandalf the wizard and a company of dwarves travel through a hostile Middle-Earth, but also in that of The Lord of the Rings, the wildly successful trilogy to which the new Hobbit films are a precursor. But just as Tolkien’s Hobbit was in many ways a lighter, merrier tale than the saga that followed it, so this film has a distinctly different flavour to Peter Jackson’s original trilogy.
While the epic New Zealand vistas remain, even more spectacular than the superb CGI, there is also a slightly more cartoonish element; dwarves tumble into a heap through Bilbo’s door, trolls dither over seasoning as they attempt to cook our heroes, and Barry Humphries’ Goblin King is surely the campest troglodyte in cinema. But, in the background, an ancient evil lurks, and there are frequent foreboding glimpses into what is to come. There’s a real maturity about the treatment of Gollum, with Andy Serkis again negotiating the thin line between being lovable and loathsome, while Jackson’s insertion of the Necromancer plot dovetails impressively with the introduction of bumbling forest wizard Radagast.
Sometimes it shows, though, when the screenplay departs from Tolkien’s text; in a world where people ‘dwell’ rather than live, ‘smite’ rather than hit, ‘perish’ rather than ‘die’, certain parts of the dialogue seem a little ill-considered. To say, as Christopher Lee’s foreboding Saruman does, that the Necromancer has ‘taken up residence’ in the old fort makes the leader of the White Council sound like a census. But the cast inject more than enough personality to keep the dialogue afloat. Cate Blanchett’s Galadriel retains her Lord of the Rings gravitas, and Sir Ian McKellen’s every move as the returning Gandalf drips with wit and wisdom.
Even over the film’s duration of 166 minutes, there isn’t time to get to know the entire dwarf company, but their manchild tomfoolery makes for some of the film’s best moments. Richard Armitage’s Thorin Oakenshield cuts an overly bullying figure as leader of the pack, reserving especial unpleasantness for a Bilbo Baggins who, as we are often reminded, misses his hobbit hole, but the other dwarves entertain throughout and are integral to a number of superb fight sequences.
But let’s dispel one myth, that the 48-frames-per-second upgrade will damage viewers’ experience of the film. The same was said of films with sound, but ‘talkies’ have persisted regardless. In any case, the vast majority of cinemagoers will see it at the standard 24 frames per second, since most cinemas lack the technology for the upgrade.
To directly compare The Hobbit with The Lord of the Rings is to ignore the films’ different mission statements. The colossal majesty of Middle-Earth is constant, but, for now, it is a place that is slightly less careworn, though hardly lacking in action and drama. Peter Jackson has brought us another captivating foray into the wild; this is a journey well worth partaking in.