The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey REVIEW

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey DVD review.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Release Date: 8 April 2013
12 | 165 minutes | £22.99 (DVD)/£26.99 (Blu-ray)/£29.99 (Blu-ray 3D)
Distributor: Warner Bros Home Entertainment
Director: Peter Jackson
Cast: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Aidan Turner, Ken Stott, Sylvester McCoy

Some time around 1995, when he was directing The Frighteners, Peter Jackson presumably had an epiphany. From that moment on, sub-two-hour movies were apparently a no go area, and the closer he could push the running time towards the three-hour mark the better.

While it’s commendable to give your audience value for money, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey sees Jackson’s love of the long turning into an Achilles heel. He got away with it on the Lord Of The Rings trilogy because each of the movies was based on a pretty meaty tome. The big-screen Hobbit, however, sees a modestly sized children’s book being adapted into three epic movies, and there’s not enough source material to go round. “I feel thin, sort of stretched,” said Bilbo Baggins at the opening of The Lord Of The Rings, “like butter scraped over too much bread.” Who knew that the corrupting power of the One Ring would be comparable to the perils of bringing a popular kids’ novel to the screen?

In fact, An Unexpected Journey feels less an adaptation of Tolkien’s The Hobbit than the start of a Lord Of The Rings prequel trilogy. What should have been a light, fun adventure about a little guy dragged on a mission to nick some gold from a dragon – in other words, the sort of movie Steven Spielberg and George Lucas were making in the ’80s – has instead morphed into a huge, sprawling, over-leisurely set-up for the battle of Middle-earth. With Tolkien’s extensive appendices plundered to beef things up with extra backstory and portents of (Mount) Doom – the Necromancer is up to no good in Mirkwood? OMG, he’s Sauron! – the quest of Dwarf royal Thorin Oakenshield turns into a sideshow when it really should be the main attraction. There’s just too much filler – Dwarfish songs should be seen and not heard, while surely only an Elijah Wood uber-fan would say the movie couldn’t do without a Bag End bookend with Frodo in the Shire. It’s the equivalent of Luke Skywalker appearing to tell his old man’s story at the beginning of The Phantom Menace.

For all the storytelling bloat, however, Jackson remains a wonderful filmmaker. It may be a decade since The Return Of The King, but (helped by the returning Howard Shore’s faithful score) An Unexpected Journey feels 100% part of the same world – something that couldn’t always be said of that other famous prequel trilogy. He’s also wise enough to surround himself with a fantastic bunch of actors, and while the sheer volume of Dwarves in Thorin’s company means some are inevitably shortchanged, many do get a chance to shine. They’re an unlikely mix of caricatures, proper characters and sex symbols (we don’t recall Tolkien describing any of the Dwarves as being quite so easy on the eye as Aidan Turner’s Kili), and in Richard Armitage’s Thorin they have a hero in the Aragorn mould to lead them.

Martin Freeman is the standout as Bilbo. It’s the role he was born to play, and his evolution from reluctant traveller to seasoned adventurer is subtly handled. He’s more rounded (more human, in fact) than any of the Hobbits in the Lord Of The Rings trilogy, the franchise’s first everyman.

It’s telling that it’s the character stuff that lingers in the mind longer than the action setpieces. Thorin’s gradual acceptance of Bilbo’s talents is the one story arc that makes An Unexpected Journey feel like a whole movie rather than just an opening chapter, while Bilbo’s sizzling encounter with Gollum in Riddles In The Dark is the undoubted highlight.

But Jackson’s biggest enemy is the impossibility of living up to three of the most successful movies of all time. There’s a good film in here, but as with many double albums, you have to sift through a lot of padding to find it.

Extras:

If you’re buying on DVD you get nothing. But standard definition consumers can at least console themselves with the fact that the ten production video blogs on the Blu-ray can be watched online at the official website.

They add up to over two hours of behind-the-scenes video, and there’s plenty of good stuff in there, covering principal photography, location shooting, the world premiere and much more. The level of access is impressive (everyone from Jackson to the cast speak), and they provide some genuinely enlightening insight into the filmmaking process – for example, you’re unlikely to see a better explanation of how and why 3D cinema works.

Of course, we all know after the Lord Of The Rings releases to expect most of the good stuff to be held back for the Extended Editions that are due later this year. One question remains, though: how overblown will the movie feel when even more filler scenes (and presumably more tedious Dwarf songs) are thrown in?

Richard Edwards twitter.com/RichDEdwards

Watch an Andy Serkis video interview.
For an alternate perspective, read our The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey review from the theatrical release.

Read more of our DVD reviews.