The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey Review
Posted by Ernest Lin on 12.14.2012
The first film from Peter Jackson's latest Tolkien trilogy, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, has finally arrived! But does the film hold up to the quality of Lord of the Rings? 411's Ernest Lin checks in with his full review!
Directed By: Peter Jackson
Written By: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, Guillermo del Toro (screenplay), J. R. R. Tolkien (novel) Runtime: 169 minutes MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence, and frightening images
Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins Ian McKellen as Gandalf the Grey Andy Serkis as Gollum Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield Cate Blanchett as Galadriel Hugo Weaving as Elrond Christopher Lee as Saruman the White Sylvester McCoy as Radagast the Brown Ian Holm as old Bilbo Baggins Elijah Wood as Frodo Baggins
Arguably the most anticipated blockbuster of 2012’s holiday season, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is the first chapter in a trilogy based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s 1937 prequel novel to The Lord of the Rings trilogy. There has been some controversy during The Hobbit’s production regarding the decision to split the adaptation into two parts and then a trilogy, and of course the highly buzzed about high frame rate (HFR) format. Still, there was hope: the team behind the amazing and groundbreaking Lord of the Rings films--director Peter Jackson and WETA Studios--were at the helm of The Hobbit. Does Jackson’s return to Middle Earth warrant movie-goers to return with him?
For the uninitiated, The Hobbit novel follows titular protagonist Bilbo Baggins on his journey to assist the dwarves to reclaim their homeland. Long ago a dragon named Smaug, attracted to the immense riches in the dwarf kingdom, drove all the dwarves out and now rests on top of the kingdom’s treasures. Bilbo encounters many major characters that appear in The Lord of Rings trilogy such as Gandalf, Elrond and Saruman. But most importantly, he meets Gollum and picks up the One Ring, which he gives to his relative Frodo in The Lord of the Rings. For those familiar with the novel, An Unexpected Journey ends before Bilbo and the dwarves enter the black forest of Mirkwood.
What becomes noticeable in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is its awkward, uneven pacing. There are many moments that come across as drawn out and others that seem redundant. For example, there seemed to be a pattern throughout the film in which a little exposition or drama would unfold then a longer set piece action sequence occurs. And it all repeats again and again like blockbuster video games nowadays. Some choices for the cinematography of some shots are too reminiscent of similar ones seen in The Lord of the Rings as well. Everything has less weight and tension. The progression, urgency and brilliant drama that characterized The Lord of the Rings films are harshly absent here. Jackson makes the same mistake he has made before: making his films bloated and filled with unnecessary padding (e.g. King Kong). So far, the decision to stretch The Hobbit, a novel shorter than any of The Lord of the Rings books, into three films is a bad one. An Unexpected Journey is roughly three hours long so the whole tale will be most likely told in a ridiculous nine hours. The biggest hurdle Jackson and company now face is not maintaining accuracy to the source material or ensuring high quality production values, but rather keeping the audience engaged.
What primarily kept me attentive at my screening was the visual effects and 3D. As one of the best studios in the world for special effects, props and costumes, WETA definitely shows off their visual magic here. The computer-generated effects, animation, and live-action elements seamlessly blend together to create Middle Earth. For me, it all felt too familiar. WETA did not take any big risks by introducing something genuinely new. They have improved on their vision of Middle Earth by polishing what they had done before and adding more, quantity-wise. At times there is so much going on, probably too much, that it unfortunately becomes a beautiful mess to watch. Characters and objects are being thrown around, swords and fists clashing, causing me to lose track of where everyone is and who is alive, injured, or dead. Nowhere does it get as bad as Michael Bay’s Transformers series, but it only adds to reducing the significance of the characters and what is at stake.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is one of only a handful of films I can recommend the 3D version because it is one of the best productions that uses the format. It is noticeable, adding depth and perspective to scenes. I found it to particularly add in an element of immersion during the sweeping, beautiful shots of New Zealand. Jackson took a tasteful approach to his use of 3D yet it will not win over any non-fans of the format. If you do enjoy 3D, definitely see this film with it since it will hold your attention. Certain broad shots still came across as if I was looking into a diorama, although less so perhaps due to the HFR 48 frames per second presentation.
That brings us to the elephant in the room – the controversial high frame rate (HFR) format. HFR runs at 48 frames per second, which is double the rate films run at (24 frames per second). Peter Jackson has lauded it as the future of cinema and that it improves the 3D experience. He was correct about the latter; An Unexpected Journey is one of the crispest and cleanest experiences I have had with 3D. In addition, HFR makes video appear smoother which can be either a good or bad effect depending on who you’re asking. For me, I fell into the majority of critics who do not like it. The 24 frames per second format is what people are used to seeing movies run. Some have complained it made The Hobbit look like a soap opera or stage play. Its appearance reminded me of a BBC movie or show and honestly it did not bother me as much as I thought it would. HFR was not as bad or eerily too smooth as when you have a higher refresh rate enabled on your high-definition television. Nonetheless, it still made An Unexpected Journey look cheesy at times, specifically due to the super-smooth, hyper-realistic appearance it creates. This effect is even more jarring due to the large amount of special effects and CGI in the film. As much as Peter Jackson and some audio-video enthusiasts argue that it is technically superior, HFR messes with people’s perceptions at this time to have much added benefit.
There’s still plenty to like about this film such as the acting and music. Any characters previously cast in The Lord of the Rings had the same actor or actress reprising the role for The Hobbit. Martin Freeman was the perfect choice to play Bilbo Baggins. Freeman conveys enough of Bilbo’s reluctant attitude and newbie behavior without coming across as annoying or pathetic. The best performance has to go to Andy Serkis for reprising the role of Gollum, with the scenes between him and Bilbo offering a nice break from the hectic action. Serkis is a master of his craft with no other motion capture actor matching him in skill. Gollum is still wondrous to watch thanks to him. Howard Shore returns to compose the musical score, so anticipate welcoming back some familiar themes.
Familiar is exactly how I would describe watching The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Aside from 3D and HFR, Jackson has played it safe in this trilogy’s first entry. Fans of The Lord of the Rings will undeniably love it. Regardless, I cannot call An Unexpected Journey a great film because so much of what was good about it has been done before. Luckily, it has been a few years since I have watched a Lord of the Rings film so the experience was akin to visiting a place I hadn’t been to in a while. The times have changed some aspects of it, for better or worse, but it is still recognizable and enjoyable.
The 411: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a good, albeit flawed film. Attempting to stretch the limited source material into a trilogy, Peter Jackson has only given himself the opportunity for error. A lack of even pacing, weight, and progression plagues the first film in this new trilogy unfortunately. The high frame rate/48 frames per second presentation will be disliked by most, but improves the performance of the beautiful 3D visuals. The journey for Bilbo Baggins was unexpected yet audiences should expect a familiar, enjoyable return to Middle Earth.