In all fairness, given the sheer amount of hype that’s been generated merely by virtue of it being The Lord of the Rings Mark 2, the film that legions of fans have been anticipating for the best part of a decade now, – An Unexpected Journey was always going to be a difficult film to judge on it’s own terms. Jackson himself appears to be all too aware of this, with throwbacks to the previous films coming thick and fast. He’s clearly thrilled to be back inhabiting Tolkien’s universe once again, but there’s something undeniably frustrating about a film that relies so heavily on frequent nudge, nudge, wink, wink allusions to its forebears… Or sequels…. Whatever you want to call them.
We’re eased in to proceedings with the familiar sounds of Howard Shore’s majestic score and the welcome sight of The Shire. It’s here that an elderly Bilbo Baggins is making a start on his book – a lengthy account of an uncharacteristic adventure he took some 60 years ago – and before long we’re swiftly transported back to a time where a younger Bilbo is enjoying his quaint, peaceful existence. It doesn’t last long mind you, and his blissful idyll is soon shattered by the unexpected appearance of a band of visitors who whisk him away, somewhat inexplicably, on the film’s titular adventure.
Jackson’s film wastes no time establishing the same sense of grandeur and wonderment that defined his previous foray in to Tolkien’s world, but despite the beautiful Kiwi landscapes and tonal familiarity of it all, it’s immediately apparent that something is awry. Much has been made of Jackson’s decision to shoot The Hobbit films in the experimental HFR format, which captures 48 frames per second as opposed to the conventional 24. It’s been billed by cinemas as ‘the ultimate experience’ and, in theory, the format’s smooth clarity should afford the film a sense of immersion quite unlike anything we’ve experienced before. In practice, however, this all seems a bit disingenuous.
There’s something distractingly clinical about a feature film that, for all intents and purposes, is actually aesthetically more reminiscent of a behind the scenes featurette than the end product itself. Chalk it down to stubbornness if you will, but given that the crisp imperfections of 24 frames per second have defined the cinema experience for well over a century to little protest, on this evidence alone it’s unlikely that Jackson or anyone else is going to be changing minds with the new approach any time soon.
It should be noted, however, that the CGI elements – Gollum in particular - do stand up to the new technology spectacularly well, but whole experience ends up feeling epic without being cinematic, which comes a crushing blow given that you’re dealing with a Tolkien adaptation. Jackson’s experiment may be a noble one, but it’s difficult to shake the feeling that it serves little purpose other than a brazen exercise in technical exhibitionism on behalf of a director who shouldn’t really feel the need to prove himself.
For all of its technical faults, however, there are frequently moments where Jackson’s film shines. An Unexpected Journey is arguably at its best when it successfully captures the jovial tone of its source, rather than when it sets about consciously tying the over-arching knots between its successors. Welcome additions, such as the inclusion of Saruman, make for intriguing segues, but these scenes often come across as nostalgic rather than a narrative necessity. Nevertheless, it’s clear that Jackson feels an obligation to tie the two stories together neatly and he does so admirably, without hampering the film’s integrity.
That said, The Lord of the Rings still casts a long shadow and even moments where An Unexpected Journey attempts to establish itself as its own distinct entity are regularly undermined by subconscious nods to its forebears. Howard Shore’s score – arguably the defining factor of the previous trilogy – remains one of the films strongest suits, effortlessly evokes a sense of wonder largely unparalleled by his peers, but it’s telling that, for all the film’s charm, the most affecting scenes are frequently ones that evoke memories of Jackson’s previous work, which in some cases virtually replicate previous sequences shot for shot.
Overall, there’s no denying that An Unexpected Journey is a trip worth taking. Jackson imbues proceedings with such loving affection for the source material that it’s difficult not to warm to both his unique vision and the merry band of adventurers that accompany us on the journey from the start. But while The Fellowship of the Ring cast little doubt that The Lord of the Rings would sustain itself from the off, this opening chapter feels decidedly lightweight in comparison. Whether Jackson can justify spinning out Tolkien’s shorter work in to a similarly lengthy masterwork remains to be seen at this stage.