I went into The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring completely cold when it debuted in December of 2001. Hadn't read the book, hadn't seen the animated flick, I knew nothing about it other than the fact that it existed. And even without the years of history, the depth of fandom, or the weight of expectation, it was (and remains) one of the most revelatory experiences of my cinema-going life up to that time. Not only did I come away appreciating the intricate and involved fantasy world that novelist J.R.R. Tolkien had conveyed to the page, but also how effectively director Peter Jackson translated that world to the screen.
The filmic Lord of the Rings trilogy is considered a seminal experience many, myself included, and yet I couldn't help but feel the sting of wariness when I first heard the stirrings that, following the unquestionable popular and critical success of those three entries (with 2003's Return of the King taking home eleven Oscars, including Best Picture), Jackson and his fellow travellers were planning to turn their gaze to The Hobbit, the original Middle Earth adventure that laid the pipe for all the questing and walking (and walking and walking). When several years of court battles, legal challenges, and structured bankruptcies threatened to derail any possibility of The Hobbit ever seeing the inside of a movie theater, I was surprisingly okay with that.
After all, if recent history has taught us anything, it's that long-awaited follow-ons to much-loved films rarely, if ever, satisfy our expectations. And when we're talking about a prequel to a beloved trilogy, well, between you, me, and George Lucas, we already know what treacherous terrain that can end up becoming, despite the very best intentions of all concerned. And so, when production commenced and cameras actually rolled on The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, which promised to split Tolkien's relatively-slim tome (at least when compared with the brick sized Rings books) into two king-sized movie monoliths, my warning blinkers started to sound.
When Jackson later announced that no, rather than two Hobbit films, we would be getting three, that warning beep had turned into a full-on klaxon. To my mind, everything of value that we needed to know about The Hobbit was already conveyed to us in about thirty seconds of The Fellowship of the Ring's lengthy prologue sequence: the Hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holms) finds the titular ring, examines it, and promptly puts it in his pocket. Cut, print. Even as Jackson promised to plumb Tolkien's expansive appendices for more narrative marrow to drain, was there really that much more story to tell -- much less three movies worth?
Well, the answer to that, perplexingly, is both a relieved yes and a frustrated no. If I sound like Gollum arguing with himself there, stay with me on this. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is just as immersive and engaging as its predecessors (successors?), successfully transporting us back to that world as if no time has passed at all, but it's also just as indulgent and at times interminable as one would expect from the man whose 2005 remake of King Kong turned a breezy 100-minute classic into a three-hour plus endurance test. Still, when all was said and done, and storytelling bloat notwithstanding, I enjoyed Jackson's Kong. Just as I enjoyed An Unexpected Journey.
Part of that enjoyment may simply come from my genuine fondness for and joy from revisiting the little Hobbit hole in the Shire (accompanied by composer Howard Shore's signature stylings), and part of that may also come from the simple focus of Tolkien's story (which I have yet to read the whole way through, admittedly). We have a genuinely engaging, likable protagonist in Bilbo (Martin Freeman, encapsulating the Holms version while still making the character his own), whose quest we're happy to partake in as he joins the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen, back a-bearded) in aiding a band of Dwarves, led by Thorin Oakenshield (played with Aragorn-esque flair by Richard Armitage) to reclaim their kingdom from the evil dragon Smaug.
We don't actually get to the Smaug-dispatching in this flick, but there are plenty of conflagrations involving Orcs, Goblins, and various other fantastical ne'er-do-wells, and Bilbo does come across a certain ring of some significance while also making the acquaintance of its previous owner (remember him, Precious?). That Jackson is working from such strong source material (even as he and co-writers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens push, twist, and pull it like taffy to make it fit their trilogy-sized ambitions) spackles over a lot of the pacing problems, though much of the first hour is comprised of drinking and singing by a Dwarf cast so large and unwieldy, with so many rhymey names, that they just blur together (the aforementioned Oakenshield notwithstanding).
Another questionable indulgence by Jackson is the decision to shoot at the new 48 frames-per-second, which enhances image resolution by doubling the standard frame-rate of film and eliminating the characteristic motion blur we expect after a century of watching movies. 48 fps has its fans, and there's no doubt that it works remarkably well with 3D, but my experience is that it was almost too immersive, sending me racing out of the theater in the middle of my screening for fear of passing out and/or evacuating my dinner. It took me a good seven or eight minutes lying down outside the screening room before I got my bearings. Not to say my experience is anything close to a representative one, but, y'know, caveat emptor. *
As I noted above and elsewhere, I was fairly apathetic going in to The Hobbit, worried both that it wouldn't measure up to the lofty standard set by its predecessors, and also that it was simply slicing its simple story too thin. As far as that first concern, I'm happy to say the film fits quite snugly as a piece with the Rings trilogy, with a wraparound sequence set in the "present" of Fellowship (including appearances by Holms and Elijah Wood) that promises a seamless viewing experience should the eventual six films be imbibed in chronological order. As for the second concern, it's still there, and we've got a lot of road to travel before we'll know if the quest was worth it. But I'm willing to go along on the journey, so that's something.
* For an extended discussion about this experience, be sure to listen to the latest MovieFilm Podcast below: