With the release of The Desolation of Smaug, we can only hope Peter Jackson has learnt from his mistakes of An Unexpected Journey. That being said, the first instalment of the progressing Hobbit trilogy is an impressive and tightly knit story focusing on the first five or six chapters of the children’s book written by J. R. R. Tolkien. While Tolkien’s book may be aimed at children, that isn’t to say the direction Jackson has taken with his recent trilogy is anything of the sort. Instead, we are plummeted back to the darkness of middle-earth, the place we came to love with the release of The Lord of the Rings.
Set sixty years before, supposedly The Hobbit is Bilbo Baggins’ tale, our former protagonists uncle who is first introduced in The Lord of the Rings as the secret and unknown ring bearer to the one ring, that in the wrong hands, can rule all. However, with the production of The Hobbit, you can’t help but think it’s Gandalf’s story: when the dwarves homeland is invaded by Smaug, a great dragon who has taken over the dwarves wealth, Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and leader of the Dwarves Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) group together a small army to invade their homeland, evacuating if not killing the dragon and regaining the throne for themselves. However to do this, the group need one final member for an unknown purpose, and that person they think best is Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman).
Any film fifteen minutes shy of three hours can be considered too long and one common criticism with An Unexpected Journey is that not much happens in those three hours. For me, this isn’t the case: the narrative topics explored in An Unexpected Journey are crucial for setting up the next two films and have done that perfectly. However, one thing Jackson mastered so magnificently in his Lord of the Rings trilogy was his editing: he specifically made a theatrical film to accommodate everybody and an extended edition to accommodate the fans of the franchise, giving less cinematic topics from the books a place in the films for people who are prepared to sit for an extra hour to watch it. With An Unexpected Journey, you can’t help but feel his theatrical film is already his extended version, with people unknown to the franchise (especially younger audiences due to it being marketed to a more family demographic) not knowing the deal about Sauroman being corrupted etc. Personally, taking out the whole Rivendell sequence for the theatrical version and using that in the Blu-Ray extended edition would have been a smarter alternative and kept a tighter focus on the films solid storyline which sometimes can get clouded over.
However, when watching An Unexpected Journey you can’t but help feel happy Jackson returned to the franchise as his vision and dedication to being true to the work of Tolkien is inspirational. Although Guillermo Del Toro is a masterful director, I was skeptical about how his vision would affect the franchise when he was set to direct in the pre-production stages of development. That being said, his creative input to the look of the creatures, especially the goblins, is amazingly precise to the novel and works wonders when visualised on screen. If anything, Del Toro and Jackson was a dream pairing for this project.
Without question, McKellen steals the show as loveable wizard Gandalf the grey: this film was wrote for him. Martin Freeman also surprises as well taking on the big role of Bilbo: at first I was worried if I still only saw him as a TV actor but as the film progresses Freeman comes into his element making himself memorable. Although the scenes should have been cut from the theatrical edit, Christopher Lee and Cate Blanchett stun as Sauroman and Galadriel in the beautifully shot Rivendell sequences. To top the lot, Andy Serkis is once again memorable as the ruthless Gollum in a brilliantly filmed scene with Freeman’s Bilbo that mirrors the book in every reflection. Not one cast member puts a foot wrong; it is casting at its best.
An Unexpected Journey doesn’t follow the original book to a tee; Jackson incorporates narratives from Tolkien’s Unfinished Tales and The Similarion, other books set around middle earth allowing the trilogy more depth and focus on character. One storyline focused on includes an Orc leader called Azog (Manu Bennett) who acts as the primary antagonist of the first film in the trilogy. Jackson works well incorporating the story into the film where the character is only mentioned once in the book but also sets the films tone different than the book. By incorporating darker elements from some of the adult targeted middle earth novels, Jackson assures the viewers that they haven’t come to see a kids film based on a kids book, but an adult adaption of a children’s book.
As long as Jackson is more thorough in the editing suite, hopes are high for The Desolation of Smaug. He’s certainly set a high bar for himself, but with his track record, I’m sure he’ll set a higher one.