Managing expectations is important; this is not strictly an adaptation of The Hobbit. Instead, it’s a prequel to Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Lord of the Rings. This is crucial, because if you go in hoping for a lightweight children’s fable, which is more or less what The Hobbit is, you’ll find something bloated and overly dark in tone. As a prequel it’s a success, though a qualified one. Note: To try and avoid confusion, I’ll be referring to the film as An Unexpected Journey, and the book as The Hobbit.
While I would have loved to have seen the Guillermo del Toro adaptation of The Hobbit, not least because it would have had Ron Perlman in there somewhere, having Peter Jackson in charge has given An Unexpected Journey a tone and style that’s much more consistent with The Lord of the Rings than the source text is. There’s a bit of nostalgia in my preference for this; returning to Middle Earth was, honestly, a complete joy. Everything from the familiar score to the usual typeface to the views of The Shire felt like coming home. With The Lord of the Rings films having been an essential part of Christmas for several years in a row, getting more of that world at this time is lovely.
That said, the mixture of material from The Hobbit and from various other Tolkien works can feel a bit clumsily patched together at times. The first half of the film in particular suffers from a segue surfeit with flashbacks to various dwarf battles, a flashforward to old Bilbo and young, heavily-airbrushed Frodo, and a stray reference in conversation to another wizard, Radagast the Brown, launches into a lengthy — and admittedly enjoyable — sequence where Sylvester McCoy discovers the despoiling of Green Wood, which in turn leads to the discovery of the rise of the Necromancer, which is…important? While the Radagast discoveries will be explored in subsequent films, the lack of any obvious connection to Bilbo’s journey makes the film feel like it’s drifting through Tolkien’s notes and grabbing whatever it bumps up against.
Worse than the Radagast segue is when the middle of the film is given over to the White Council — Elrond, Gandalf, Saruman and Galadriel — discussing both the dwarves’ quest and the rumours about the rise of the Necromancer; the film grinds to a halt here. I think it was only a 15 minute scene but it felt like it lasted for an hour, and it’s not only boring but gratuitous; almost nothing that the audience didn’t already know is revealed and nothing changes as a consequence. Was it there for any other reason than giving Cate Blanchett and Christopher Lee a scene? I’ve never seen so many people simultaneously checking their phones during a film, and never been so understanding of it.
But, sagging middle and ungainly, bolted-together narrative aside, I still enjoyed the film. Martin Freeman is pitch-perfect as Bilbo and his growth from a fussy, fusty Middle Englander to a selfless hero is moving and believable. The dwarves are distinct enough to not cause a muddle and the only time I had a problem was when I realised James Nesbitt was one of them, which sort of ruined things when all I could think of was the Yellow Pages. Andy Serkis returns, of course, as Gollum, and his brief few moments with Bilbo make the film feel complete.
So, yes: An Unexpected Journey could stand to lose a bit of weight, and it’s perhaps darker than any adaptation of The Hobbit ought to be, and the focus on being part of an epic pair of trilogies is distracting. But the characters are likeable, the performances are perfect, the action is enjoyable and Christopher Lee’s fake beard is hilarious. This film isn’t The Fellowship of the Ring, but if you take it for what it is, there’s some good viewing here.