In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.
Despite the universal acclaim surrounding his astonishing The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Peter Jackson’s return to Middle Earth has been met with an unexpected degree of trepidation. Prior to its release audiences maintained positivity towards the director’s proven ability in bringing Tolkien’s iconic material onto the screen, but failed to consent to the idea of stretching one novel to fit three epics as well experimenting with HFR (high-frame-rate) technology.
The ten documentary shorts that were released online as part of An Unexpected Journey’s marketing campaign restored some confidence in Jackson’s continued determination for, enjoyment of and fandom towards Tolkien’s material, but they failed to totally reassure audiences that these directorial choices weren’t in fact enforced by the studio for financial gain.
Whether or not it was solely Jackson’s intention, it proved beneficial as the HFR/3D-boosted figures helped the film reach the number one spot in both the UK and US box-office charts during the festive period. Audiences and critics however continue to bemoan the use of 48fps and the effectiveness of 3D.
Surprisingly, within a higher frame rate the extra dimension has never looked better, but while it may greatly benefit the 3D, shooting in 48fps makes for a strange viewing experience. Jackson claims that the increased frame rate creates a more realistic image, but the result is a hyper-real aesthetic that betrays intention and becomes artificial. Without motion blur, the characters’ actions move with an unnatural fluidity and uncomfortable pacing to a degree that every shot appears hurried. Despite the considerable length of the film, the increased frame rate is such an enormous departure from the norm that one never gets used to it.
While 3D/HFR remains in its experimental stage, An Unexpected Journey is best viewed in standard 2D format. Jackson combines stunning New Zealand landscapes, beautiful set design and breathtaking CGI with the same skill as he did for The Lord of the Rings and the result is another jaw-dropping visual experience that thrives without the distraction of 3D glasses or peculiar frame rate.
Much like The Lord of the Rings, Jackson gathers another ensemble cast of British and Australasian talent for his prequel. Not only do the returning cast members, Ian McKellen and Andy Serkis as Gandalf and Gollum respectively, resurrect their remarkable performances, but the new cast members equally flourish. While each of the dwarves (Happy, Grumpy, Greedy, Vengeful etc) are admirable performed, it’s Martin Freeman who excels as Bilbo Baggins. He captures Tolkien’s vision of the hairy-footed, hole-dwelling Hobbit with immaculate precision, but also brings in his own vacant stares, dimpled charm and radiant smiles to create an immediately likeable hero.
Even though he brings many of the positives from The Lord of the Rings, Jackson fails to correct one significant error that lingers through each film of his previous trilogy. An Unexpected Journey is simply too long. There’s just far too much going on within a narrative that is, when boiled down, the setup for the subsequent films. Not only are there too many scenes, but even the most memorable scenes are overlong and are sure to test the audience’s patience.
However, much like with The Lord of the Rings, Jackson overcomes this flaw with a gripping narrative adorned with a triumphant sense of nostalgia that is most rewarding for returning, now grown up fans of the previous Middle Earth adventures.