Given the success of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, the prospects of a Hobbit film seemed promising enough. With his original Tolkien trilogy, Jackson’s narrative cohesion and ultra-SFX craft achieved a classicist balance: the pricey effects and digital sleight of hand working solely in the service of the story’s high-fantasy trappings. They may not have been especially innovative in terms of technique, aesthetics, etc., but Jackson’s films distinguished themselves from the bulk of early-aughts blockbuster cinema as being more than just costly techno-baubles.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the first in Jackson’s ballooned trilogy of films based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s timeless kiddie-lit masterpiece, never finds this equilibrium between narrative unity and flashy razzle-dazzle. For one, Jackson’s decision to shoot and release the film not just in 3D, but in High Frame Rate 3D—which invested the theatrical presentation with an unsettling, hyper-alienating quality akin to watching a high-def pornographic feature on the Best Buy showroom floor—made An Unexpected Journey feel like an expensive benchmark test for the latest line of state-of-the-art digital projectors.
As a means of ratcheting up the potential for CGI glitz, and justifying the studio spinning a fairly light children’s fable into three three-hour features, Jackson and his fleet of screenwriters (including Guillermo del Toro, originally attached to direct) mash several subplots and extravagant action sequences absent from Tolkien’s source text into the film, including a mutilated orc mini-boss and expanded role for the eccentric wizard Radagast (played by Scottish actor Sylvester McCoy with the overstated kookiness of that googly eyed gremlin in Gremlins 2: The New Batch). As a result, An Unexpected Journey feels like the first in a trilogy of shapeless cash-grabs calculated to replicate the epic sweep of The Lord of the Rings at the expense of the original story’s brisk simplicity. It’s not so much an adaptation of Tolkien’s The Hobbit as a prequel to Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings.
This feeling bubbles up early, when Ian Holm and Elijah Wood appear in the film’s (second) prologue to reprise their roles as Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, as if anyone paying to see a Hobbit movie couldn’t make the connection. More than this nudging, the decision to skim over The Hobbit’s pleasant fluffiness in favor of ramping up all the gathering Darkness stuff that seems in place strictly to previse The Lord of the Rings’s shift toward high-fantasy seriousness nags. In sections (especially those that deal explicitly with the displaces dwarves, which hammer home any of the novel’s subtextual comparisons between the squat warriors and the wandering tribes of Israel), An Unexpected Journey has little in common with Tolkien’s original vision, sharing more conceptual DNA with dumb, grandiose fantasy films in the “dark twist” cycle: Red Riding Hood, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, Jack the Giant Slayer, and other needlessly grim and “gritty” revisionist fantasies.
There’s no doubt that Jackson handles his blockbuster set pieces capably, ably stage-managing deluges of skittish goblins pouring off a cliff, and even managing to differentiate between the film’s company of 13 dwarves, if only by giving them carefully distinguished facial hair. He also wrings a strong performance out of Martin Freeman, who’s fine as the fuddy-duddy Bilbo Baggins coaxed away from his creature comforts. But a little well-executed showmanship’s hardly enough to justify a movie that seems every inch defined by its bloated superfluity. An Unexpected Journey sags under the weight of obligation. Even its most exciting scenes—like those in which Bilbo outsmarts a group of trolls, or squares off in game of riddles against Andy Serkis’s Gollum—feel like carefully deployed rewards for fans dutifully following the story through its extended snatches of tedium, planted along Jackson’s winding narrative road like Easter eggs of recognition designed to evoke a sense of Hobbit-ness in a film that’s otherwise drained of Tolkien’s lighter touch.
As expected from a filmmaker who helped redefine the bounties of home video with the impeccably rendered (and packaged) DVD releases of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, An Unexpected Journey arrives immaculately packaged. The Blu-ray itself is a benchmark for any home-theater system, wonderfully capturing the sunny emerald color palette of bucolic Bag End, the fire-lit stone walls of one or another subterranean cavern, and tiny del Toroean details like the streak of bird shit in Radagast’s hair. Anyone who’s only seen the film in High Frame Rate may find that watching it in good ol’ high def pleasingly numbs some of the film’s excessive, in-your-face technology. The audio track is similarly first-rate, especially for a film which relies in no small part on the overlapping chatter of its ensemble cast.
An Unexpected Journey’s packaging does little to alleviate the suspicion that the film is a studio-tooled attempt to double down on the success of The Lord of the Rings. This is a stopgap disc—a widget in place to tide super-fans over until the release of an even longer extended edition later in the year. Where Peter Jackson was renowned for overseeing the special-edition DVD releases of The Lord of the Rings, this disc feels sparse, with nothing in the way of a commentary track. The special features are shoveled onto their own Blu-ray disc, so that some may be presented in high def without crowding the feature. One of these HD offerings, "New Zealand: Home of Middle-earth," feels like it could have been copied from the Fellowship of the Ring disc, which already went into exhaustive detail explaining how the producers turned the rolling New Zealand hills into Bag End.
The bulk of the two-and-a-half hours of special features are video blogs featuring Jackson, documenting the film from pre-production through its world premiere. They’re fine, but they’ve previously been made available online, and are likely to already have been consumed whole hog by more dedicated Hobbit-heads. The main draw here is an "access code" giving anyone who purchases the disc an opportunity to see a sneak peek of the next Hobbit film, The Desolation of Smaug, hosted live online by Jackson.
A top-shelf presentation of one of last year’s baggiest, most unnecessary films, this combo pack confirms An Unexpected Journey’s status as little more than pricey techno-bauble.