Filmmaker Peter Jackson returned to the world of J.R.R. Tolkien with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the first part of an intended trilogy based on the author’s 1937 fantasy novel. Considering a few recent book-to-film franchises had increased their ratios, it wasn’t a surprise when news broke that The Hobbit would be turned into two movies. However, when the announcement came that the material would be expanded into three movies, many fans were puzzled how it would work being stretched so thin.
For many, myself included, it didn’t work well, especially when inevitably compared to Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. As enjoyable as it was to go back again to Middle-earth, to revisit the old, and experience the new, the film suffered from its 169-minute runtime, bloated from unnecessary scenes and moments that should have been rewritten or cut. The last thing An Unexpected Journey needed was an “Extended Edition;” however, considering how well the format worked with the LOTR trilogy and with The Desolation of Smaug only a few weeks away, it’s certainly not surprising.
Making a greater connection between the stories than the books do, An Unexpected Journey begins with Bilbo (Ian Holm), shortly before his 111th birthday party seen in The Fellowship, writing about the adventure he went on 60 years earlier when the wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) got him (Martin Freeman as younger Bilbo) to accompany the dwarf Thorin (Richard Armitage) and his 13-member party as they sought to reclaim the kingdom of Thorin’s grandfather, King Thrór, which was lost to the dragon Smaug. The journey from the Shire to the Lonely Mountain is not an easy one. They must avoid being killed by all manner of monsters: trolls, orcs, goblins, and stone giants.
In addition to the telling of Thorin’s quest, An Unexpected Journey sets the stage for what’s to come. The wizard Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy) reveals an encounter with a Necromancer practicing dark magic. While in the Misty Mountains as his cohorts are battling goblins, Bilbo gets separated. While lost, he discovers a golden ring and the creature known as Gollum.
The film takes too long to get the story in motion. Just from the title, the audience knows a journey is going to take place, yet still has to suffer through Bilbo’s reluctance. There’s an extended dinner sequence where the dwarves are introduced that added very little. Once on the road, the pacing picks up. The Extended Edition is 13 minutes longer, and the most noticeable additions are the inclusion of two new songs, one by a dwarf in Rivendell and one by the Great Goblin in the Misty Mountains. Jackson was right to cut them.
He does a great job directing the action sequences but at times there’s so much going on, like when the party fights the goblins, that it looks unbelievable. There’s no sense of stakes and the suspension of belief is lost. In contrast, the best scene of the movie is the simplest. Bilbo has to win a game of riddles to get Gollum, if he keeps his word, to show him the way out. Otherwise, Gollum gets to eat Bilbo. The intensity created from two people talking and moving around is greater than the film’s largest battle.
The Blu-ray has been given a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encoded transfer displayed at an aspect ratio of 2.40:1. The colors are bright and vibrant while the blacks are deep and inky. The image offers very fine detail throughout as seen in the textures of monsters, clothing, and locations. The stone giants fighting during the storm look great, as do the small scars on the warriors.
I first saw the film in 48 FPS 3D and the higher frame rate contributed to the visual effects not blending well. On Blu-ray, the effects are better integrated into the shots. For example, the meeting between Gandalf, Elrond, Galadriel, and Saruman the White now looks like they are in the room together rather than being shot individually an digitally united.
The English DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 track offers an immersive experience, particularly during the sequences when battle sounds fill the surrounds and the subwoofer booms without distorting. Dialogue is always as clear as intended. The track reveals a wide dynamic range and a well-blended sound mix of elements.
An Unexpected Journey comes with nearly 10 hours of special features. The film is accompanied by a very thorough commentary track with Jackson and co-producer/co-screenwriter Phillippa Boyens. Also on Disc One is the travelogue “New Zealand: Home of Middle-Earth.” A visual record of what occurred during different aspects of production with the cast and crew can be explored on two Blu-rays, The Appendices Part 7: A Long Expected Journey and The Appendices Part 8: Return to Middle-Earth.
While it may not rival his previous films in the series, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey has enough good moments that make it worth seeing, especially with the impressive high-def presentation delivered here. And for those that want to learn more about its creation, the special features take a viewer deep into the process.