NATALIE STENDALL FILM REVIEW: The Unexpected Journey is an impressive first instalment of Hobbit trilogy

Peter Jackson’s highly anticipated prequel to his Lord Of The Rings trilogy sees the young Bilbo Baggins join the dwarves on a quest to reclaim their homeland from feared dragon, Smaug. The Unexpected Journey is the first of three films made by Jackson from Tolkien’s The Hobbit.

Splitting Tolkien’s relatively short book into a trilogy seems something of a stretch when compared with the much heftier Lord Of The Rings. While you might expect The Hobbit films to be much shorter than their Lord Of The Rings counterparts, this is not the case, and The Unexpected Journey rolls in at 169 minutes.

But Jackson uses the long run time to develop a richly detailed world. His smooth introduction to Bilbo’s home, Bag End, and unrelenting attention to fine detail makes An Unexpected Journey feel like a welcome home, as we re-visit old friends and make plenty of new ones. While some of the details featured by Jackson, including a lengthy introduction to the Brown Wizard, Radagast, might feel disposable, they help to build a world that is immersive and enthralling.

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The Dwarves quest provides the main driver for the film, but also pushing the action forward is the Dwarves’ pursuit by the Pale Ork. Despite significant back story, this revenge plot-line and its predictable assailant are the only elements of Jackson’s weighty film that feel flimsy and limited.

The Unexpected Journey is packed with plot but, this being a trilogy, the various strands are still left wide apart by the film’s close. This disparate plot, combined with the film’s length, is likely to split audiences. Yet The Unexpected Journey is well paced and skillfully balanced. Comedy, drama and action sweep through the film, creating an intoxicating sense of adventure.

The script, whose co-writers include Jackson and Guillermo del Toro, is meaty and strong, with some great hints at what is time come in later installments. An Unexpected Journey also feels like a well put together prequel to The Lord Of The Rings with some sharp references, including a gripping scene with Christopher Lee’s white wizard, Saruman.

Martin Freeman is perfectly cast as Bilbo Baggins, who brings a sense of innocence, whimsy and genuine heroism to this first installment. Altogether, An Unexpected Journey has a lighter, more upbeat atmosphere than Jackson’s Lord Of The Rings trilogy. Freeman excels in a smattering of comic scenes, including a confrontation with a band of half-wit Trolls. But The Unexpected Journey reaches its pinnacle in the first encounter between Bilbo and Gollum as the pair embark in a dangerous negotiation and game of riddles. Andy Serkis reprises his role as the dark and troubled creature in a mesmerizing performance.

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Presented in a range of formats, including high frame rate 3D, The Unexpected Journey pushes the boundaries of cinematic technology. Shot in 48 frames-per-second - much closer to what the human eye actually sees when compared with the standard 24 frames - the film renders a clear and crisp reality. Jackson’s 3D is sharp and smooth, making a powerful impact without distracting from the action.

Stunning cinematography brings Middle Earth beautifully to life and Jackson’s choice of camera positions keeps the visuals interesting throughout the run time. Neither has Jackson lost his knack for creating spectacular action sequences. An Unexpected Journey is nicely punctuated with a variety of exciting and impressive action pieces including a fantastic escape from a Goblin lair and a dangerous journey through rocky mountains.

An Unexpected Journey is an impressive first installment to this Lord Of The Rings prequel. Peter Jackson delivers spectacular action, fitting comedy and stunning visuals, while Martin Freeman makes a flawless addition to the seasoned cast. Whether Jackson can sustain such intensity and attention to detail throughout his next two installments, time will tell.

Certificate: 12A

Running Time: 169 minutes

Verdict: 4/5