Pity poor Peter Jackson. After making the biggest mainstream fantasy films of all time, and picking up Oscars for Best Picture and Director to boot, his return to Tolkien was met with disbelief: how could he stretch The Hobbit into three films? Isn’t that just 'dragon' it out (ba-dum-cha!)? And how on Middle-earth do you follow up The Lord of the Rings anyway? Well, I’ll tell you: by correcting its mistakes.
Don’t get me wrong. There is plenty to praise in the LOTR trilogy: its epic sweep, universe creation and teeth-rattling battles are beyond question. But it also has some serious flaws that loom over it like Mount Doom.
Now the Hobbit trilogy isn’t perfect (allegations of over-staying its welcome are valid, as Desolation and Five Armies prove). But An Unexpected Journey, taken on its own, is an altogether tighter tale that tackles the cinematic sins of LOTR head on.
Firstly, Journey is joyfully unburdened by portentous drivel. It’s a cleaner narrative which only touches lightly on the darkness to come, and is all the better for it. So instead of endless scenes of elves muttering about “a shadow in the East” (which, by the way, sounds slightly xenophobic) we have an earthy clan of dwarves on a mission to reclaim their home. It’s grounded, relatable and – crucially – fun.
Secondly, and connected to the above, the pacing is focused and taut. Where LOTR was at times so turgid it limped on like a mortally wounded Ent, Journey zips with a propulsive sense of adventure. And thirdly, the performances are better. Gone is Elijah Wood’s slappable Frodo, who spends 11 hours starring into the distance with his eyes wide and mouth agape. Instead we have Martin Freemen being effortlessly charming as Bilbo: a much more assured central performance in which to anchor proceedings. We keep McKellen (always excellent) and get more Serkis as Gollum (yesssss!).
Oh, and Orlando Bloom isn’t in this one, which frankly counts as something of a relief. Clearly, Journey really is the best Middle-earth movie, the one film to rule them all… or is it just me?