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Review | The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

It’s hard to believe it’s been 11 years since director Peter Jackson introduced filmgoers to Middle-earth with The Fellowship of the Ring. Admittedly, back then his Lord of the Rings trilogy failed to capture my undivided attention, though it did earn my respect. There’s no denying the movies remain ground-breaking technical and narrative achievements.

As someone who shies from the fantasy genre to begin with, I simply didn’t possess the patience to wade into the complicated backstories of Jackson’s films; I haven’t watched them in full since I first saw them in the theater. Which is perhaps why I was a bit reticent to see Jackson’s follow-up, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, another adaptation of a J.R.R. Tolkien novel, this time delving into the events prior to the Rings trilogy. I knew what I was getting into — a cast of (mostly) familiar characters, sweeping views of ever-changing landscapes and menacing beings — and I took my seat preparing to grumble for the entirety of the film’s 169-minute runtime.

It turns out all that foot-dragging was in vain. Despite my preconceived notions, I couldn’t have been more wrong about The Hobbit. It proved to be the Tolkien primer I so desperately needed: Not only did it lift the weight of confusion regarding Jackson’s originals from my shoulders, but it made me want to re-watch and rediscover them. For a reluctant Tolkien follower like me, The Hobbit is a cinematic light bulb moment.

The journey, which takes place 60 years before the events of The Lord of the Rings, centers upon Hobbit Bilbo Baggins’ (Martin Freeman) reluctant teaming with wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and a group of Dwarves, led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage). An opening montage describes the historical grounds for the group’s journey: The Dwarves were driven from their kingdom Erebor (also known as The Lonely Mountain) by the evil, gold-hoarding dragon Smaug. After years of wandering Middle-earth as homeless drifters, a shift in power is nigh and the scrappy group of Dwarves (plus a wizard and a Hobbit) sets off to dethrone the fire-breathing beast, encountering, and being hunted by, various monstrous creatures along the way.

What proved most helpful for me was experiencing the adventure through Bilbo’s untainted eyes, along with flashbacks that shed light on the significance behind why, for example, the Elves and Dwarves don’t get along, or seeing the tragic tie to Thorin’s family and the villainous Orcs. Traveling the landscape to meet all walks of Middle-earth life in their native habitats, from Trolls to Goblins to Elves, was fascinating, and not a little bit spellbinding on a very childlike level. To be granted unhurried moments to delve into the intricacies could be viewed by some as indulgent, but to me it was essential. I can understand how those more familiar with the material might complain about pacing issues and a stretched-out, bloated plotline, but, aside from some meandering in the Shire during the first act (less dish-washing sing-alongs and more saddling up to hit the road would’ve been ideal), I was largely riveted. And from the perspective of a relative newbie to the material, everything felt necessary. There’s a fair ratio of exposition to action, and Jackson’s gorgeously rendered, ever-changing landscapes are a helpful and beautiful realization of the world Tolkien mapped out so intricately in his novel.

In fact, The Hobbit stirred feelings of films I grew up worshiping: Legend, Labyrinth and The Neverending Story. The movie achieves a balance of lightness and wonder amid the dense material, and seems designed to draw in audience members like myself.

The Hobbit being, at its core, an ensemble film, the cast proves a strong and charismatic unit. It’s Bilbo’s tale, of course, and Freeman is a solid audience surrogate, confidently embodying the unlikely hero and narrator roles. It’s also a joy to see McKellen as Gandalf, back in grandfatherly, gray-clad form, spewing one-liners and fortune cookie-like wisdom with a ghost of a wink and smile. Andy Serkis is again a delight as Gollum; his chemistry with Freeman is crackling, and the emotions he elicits from such a complicated character are remarkable. The show-stealer, however, is Armitage, who’s truly the best thing about the film. Playing such a beloved character could make most actors crumble, but he infuses charisma, a sense of pride and strength to Thorin that’s simply magnetic.

Ever the innovator, Jackson filmed The Hobbit in 48 frames-per-second 3D, claiming it’s a crisper, more realistic visual experience. While I appreciate the sentiment (as well as the risk he’s taking to champion a new format), it simply doesn’t work with the visuals and themes of The Hobbit. The 48fps actually counteracts all the strengths of Jackson’s film: The lack of motion blur during action sequences makes every move look choppy, the make-up is extremely noticeable, the CGI characters look wildly unnatural and the overall aesthetic of the film is essentially that of a made-for-TV movie. Additionally, where the 48fps is most seamless — the wide landscape shots — is where the 3D proves most invasive, as it dulls the colors. I pulled my glasses up multiple times simply to experience the play of shadow and light or full spectrum of color on a more authentic level. The idea of hyper-realism that Jackson wants to achieve with 48fps seems even more counterproductive when you consider that Middle-earth is a truly otherworldly place. This is a fantasy film, and while Jackson has painted an encompassing canvas, the juxtaposition of the themes with the movie’s technology really read as a miss. While I clearly enjoyed the film, I found myself doing so despite the use of 48fps; I’d like to see it again in 24fps.

Although your level of devotion to Tolkien’s books and to Jackson’s previous trilogy is likely a litmus test for how you’ll react to The Hobbit, the film is a fantastic way to introduce someone to Middle-earth. It’s the infectiously exciting, good-humored, beautifully conceived primer, and in some ways the reboot, that Jackson’s full catalog of big-screen adaptations deserves. I can’t wait to see how he handles the next two.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey opens today nationwide.

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Comments

  • Shakunaifu

    I don’t think we saw the same picture. I thought the 48 hrs couldn’t have been more perfect, you clearly don’t know what you’re talking about in respect to CGI, i guess it happens when people are ignorant about the intricacies that goes into special effects, modeling, texturing and animation. I have never seen a more perfect use of computer animation technology, just superb.

  • MZ

    Why does one have to know anything about the “intricacies” when their eyes, educated or not, show them EXACTLY what’s on the screen? 
    It’s the (way too used) example of a gourmet pasta dish… it doesn’t matter if you understand how it was made. Does it taste good or not?

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Richard-Casey/623640256 Richard Casey

    Or maybe, y’know, you saw the same film in different theaters with different eyes. Personally, I don’t think 3D works all that well, which is predominantly because of the muted colours and what not, but also because of the fact that my left eye is weaker than my right. 
    It’s a largely opinion based thing, some people aren’t going to see the make up and effects as realistic because their suspension of disbelief or investment in the film isn’t as high as another member of the audience.

    But to cry ignorance of the intricacies of something is just STUPID. Not only is this a review (therefore subjective due to it being one person’s opinion) but the 48fps thing is always going to divide people because we don’t all have exactly the same eye sight.

  • Jean Prouvaire

    The Hobbit is what happens when a franchise falls victim to its own success. The LOTR trilogy were hugely successful, commercially and critically. So what did this mean for The Hobbit?

    It meant turning a short book into three long movies – ostensibly for artistic reasons, but let’s face it, to triple the box office. The result is a mountain of padding, much of it self-indulgent. The first 50 minutes or so consists of five minutes of scene-setting, five minutes of narrated exposition, half an hour of introductions, at last followed by ten minutes of… more narrated exposition. The voice-overs are accompanied by some great-looking CGI… but when the film is “telling” and not “showing” it fails regardless of the pretty pictures that accompany the “telling”. I actually dozed off for a bit around this time, so uninvolved was I. Eventually the film reaches some good character bits and the action-packed grandeur that made for the most memorable moments in the LOTR films, but it’s a long, laborious slog getting there.

    Tonally there is a problem as well. The book The Hobbit is a novel for children, written before the more adult LOTR. But the films The Hobbit follow one of the most successful adult-oriented fantasy advenures in history. The movie The Hobbit tries to be true to the tones of both its source material and its cinematic predecessors. The result is a mish-mash of styles: you get the sort of schoolboy humour and blatant mugging that wouldn’t be out of place in a British Christmas panto in some scenes. These are interspersed with battle scenes featuring death by decapitation. The LOTR movies had their share of low brow humour and mugging as well, but much less often and, overall, those movies had much more of a consistent tone.

    The 48 frames per second “high frame rate” technology has its pros and its cons. On the one hand it makes for a very smooth 3D experience. For the first time I forgot that I was wearing the glasses. And the big special effects driven scenes look stunning. On the other hand the high frame rate makes the movie look like it was shot on video tape, so the more domestic scenes look like they come from a 1970s BBC TV version of the story.

    Overall, despite some strong moments towards the end, The Hobbit was a disappointment to me. I haven’t been this bored by a movie since the second Pirates of the Carribean movie, and the same complaint – that nothing of importance happened in the first 45 minutes or so. I never felt the need to see any of the subsequent Pirates movies. And I’m not sure now if I’ll bother with the Hobbit sequels (although, granted, I thought each of the LOTR movies got progressively better, so maybe the same will hold true for the Hobbit movies).

  • Krysmo

    The 48fps was fantastic. Combined with the 3D it really felt like you were looking into a real event. For some, given the fantasy nature of the story, that might seem weird. But I loved it. More, please.

    Only drawback for me was the really slow opening, particularly the dwarf story. But hopefully that’s beyond us now. I can’t imagine an extended cut of this film!