Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 2 hours 49 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Extended Sequences of Intense Fantasy Action Violence, and Frightening Images
Directed by: Peter Jackson
Written by: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson & Guillermo Del Toro
Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, Christopher Lee, Sylvester McCoy, Elijah Wood, Andy Serkis & Ian Holm
Out of Peter Jackson’s recently completed HOBBIT trilogy, I haven’t actively disliked a single film. However, there’s one entry that was clearly padding out its running time to justify a decision to split one relatively short novel into a three long movies. This film would be AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY. Creative decisions and distracting tonal shifts don’t exactly work in this nearly three-hour long beginning to Peter Jackson’s prequel trilogy. Though UNEXPECTED JOURNEY is far from terrible, it’s definitely the lesser film of the entire Middle Earth saga.
An unnecessary prologue shows elderly Bilbo Baggins writing down the past adventure that changed him into the hobbit that he is today. Flashback to a younger than he looks 50-year-old Bilbo meeting Gandalf the Grey. This wizard forces him into hosting a dinner party for a ragtag team of 13 dwarves. These dwarves, led by the rightful king Thorin, are headed to a distant place known as the Lonely Mountain to reclaim their kingdom and treasure. Bilbo is recruited as a burglar and their journey begins.
The first thing that is distinctly different about UNEXPECTED JOURNEY is its tone. This first film is more whimsical, merrier, and funnier than the rest of the Middle Earth series. Peter Jackson also feels the need to incorporate songs from the text into the film. This decision seems to have been all but abandoned in the sequels, which only goes to make it even more strange in the context of the film. We barely meet the dwarves and haven’t quite developed any of them as characters (other than Thorin), but they’ve already sung two very different tunes in the space of about 10 minutes. Jackson always uses epic scenery when tackling Middle Earth, but UNEXPECTED JOURNEY feels unexpectedly contained. There’s a visit to an elf city, a fight in a field, and encounters in a forest, but the scale is much smaller in this film. That isn’t exactly a positive.
There are no major issues with the cast. Martin Freeman excels as the cowardly, but slowly improving Bilbo. After you’ve seen the sequels, it’s nice to revisit this film to see just how far his character has come from the beginning. Ian McKellen slips right back into his role of Gandalf. He’s so good in the part that I don’t even see McKellen, just Gandalf the Grey. Various dwarves are likable enough, though some come off as cartoon characters. Thorin is clearly meant to be the most fleshed-out of the bunch and therefore receives most of the dialogue besides Bilbo and Gandalf. Appearances from Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, and Christopher Lee feel like desperate cameos in order to remind the viewer that this is in the same universe as LORD OF THE RINGS.
One character specific to this trilogy is Radagast the Brown and he’s absolutely horrible. This nature-obsessed wizard is the equivalent of Jar-Jar Binks with a beard. It certainly doesn’t help that Peter Jackson devotes damn near 10 minutes to watching this annoying quirky sorcerer as he tries to save the life of a hedgehog of pads the film out even further with a useless flashback. Speaking of useless scenes, the film drags its feet to even get moving. It takes a full hour before Bilbo even decides to leave his home with the dwarves. Adding to the pointless long running time is a prologue that only serves to showcase Ian Holm and Elijah Wood reprising their roles from the original trilogy. Three hours was far too long to stretch this opening film. There’s literally an hour that could have been cut out of the finished movie and released in the eventual Extended Edition that followed soon after.
The best parts of UNEXPECTED JOURNEY come in the variety of threats that Bilbo and Thorin’s company encounter. These range from dim-witted trolls and strategic orcs to mountain wrecking giants and underground dwelling goblins. These might seem rather small when compared to the craziness that comes in the later films containing giant spiders and the scariest dragon that I’ve ever seen, but they’re solid here. The riddles in the dark scene between Bilbo and Gollum is also fantastically done with Andy Serkis reprising his signature role for one last time. The attacks and chase scenes are the best parts of this first entry in Peter Jackson’s prequel trilogy, but they don’t cover the majority of this film as they do in the sequels. This wouldn’t be as a big a detraction, if the character development was interesting or fully entertaining.
It may sound like I’m hating on THE HOBBIT or completely railing against UNEXPECTED JOURNEY and I don’t dislike it. However, it’s certainly dragging its feet with a running time that’s far too long for its own good. The whimsical tone is a bit off when compared with everything else seen in the Middle Earth saga. I do like the film, but it’s best as a first viewing in a marathon of otherwise great movies. Overall, UNEXPECTED JOURNEY is the most dull of the HOBBIT trilogy, but still enjoyable nonetheless.