The Empire Strikes Back was panned upon release for being the quintessential ‘middle’ film; it had no beginning, no end and didn’t really go anywhere. Today it’s regarded, rightly, as the finest of the series. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey suffers from the same affliction. Except it’s the first in a trilogy, has a seemingly endless beginning and will most certainly not come to be as highly regarded.
Perhaps it’s wrong of me to say it doesn’t really go anywhere though. The Lonely Mountain bound band of 13 Dwarves, one Hobbit and one very familiar wizard most certainly do go places. There’s plenty of the sweeping landscape shots of Peter Jackson’s New Zealand that came to define The Lord of the Rings and there’s an abundance of walking. Unfortunately they don’t actually progress very far. There’s a lot of ground to cover in the remaining two of the trilogy and it leaves this first entry feeling a bit bloated and underwhelming and straddled with a cliffhanger ending that only serves to point out all the interesting stuff they didn’t even get close to. The decision to turn one book that’s shorter than each individual entry of The Lord of The Rings into a trilogy always seemed slightly misguided and it’s only reinforced here. Gone is the tight editing and superb pacing of Jackson’s original and instead we get an opening hour of not a whole lot happening followed by two of questionably drawn out narrative strands.
Most significant of these is Azog The Defiler, a giant albino orc with a history with dwarven leader Thorin. His role is massively expanded to serve as the primary antagonist. He’s largely one-note however and comes off as, quite literally, a pale imitation of Lurtz from Fellowship of The Ring.
Perhaps more significant is that he is entirely CG. In fact, much of the film is. It’s not necessarily poor CGI, but it certainly isn’t real life and breaks some of the realism and tangibility that set The Lord of the Rings apart from standard fantasy. Everything seemed real and grounded in a world that could exist. Here, with an abundance of CG instead of the human extras that served as orcs and goblins in previous films, some of that magic is dispelled and you become all too aware that it is nothing but fantasy.
It contributes to a film that seems caught in two minds as to what it is. It’s ostensibly a more kid-friendly film, filled with slapstick and fart jokes and a more cartoonish style(perhaps that’s the fantastical Guillermo Del Toro influence shining through). However at times it is a darker film than its predecessors, filled with beheadings and be…armings(?). It is clear there is a conflict at work between a new style and that of the original trilogy, with the film too reluctant to fully commit to either. The shadow of Jackson’s work looms large over the film and it is massively indebted to it in parts, those scenic shots for one and the largely unoriginal(yet still wonderful) score for another.
But, despite a conflicted style and a weak, poorly paced narrative, it is undeniably a good film. It’s not great but it is most certainly watchable and provides a relatively solid footing for the rest of the series. I assure you, The Phantom Menace this is not. In fact, some sections are more than good. Gollum returns to once more steal the show with another mind-bogglingly good performance from Andy Serkis and some great interplay with a more than solid Martin Freeman as Bilbo. Their scene together is perhaps the only truly amazing one in the film but it is well worth seeing just to experience a character who remains CGI’s greatest success.
Performances on a whole are solid ranging to excellent, though James Nesbitt’s Coleraine tones are distractingly out-of-place. It saddens me to say however that Christopher Lee is on the lower end of that spectrum. It’s frightening how completely his once screen-filling presence has diminished and he now exudes frailty rather than force in spite of largely unsucessful attempts to youthen him, and numerous others, with extensive makeup.
Still, it feels nice to be back in Middle Earth again. Just not quite as nice as we dreamed.