Director Peter Jackson’s fourth journey to Middle-earth can’t quite recapture the amazingness, emotional impact or charm of his Lord of the Rings trilogy, but there’s nonetheless much to enjoy about The Hobbit An Unexpected Journey.
A classic book known to millions worldwide, most of whom were introduced to it in childhood, The Hobbit An Unexpected Journey is appropriately lighter in tone than the more apocalyptic Lord of the Rings trilogy. It’s a happier time in Middle-earth, or so many think until word comes of a Necromancer and a gloomy, but certain threat looming somewhere that foreshadows the later events of Lord Of The Rings, when Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) sees himself besieged by Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) and 13 dwarves asking this meek, comfort-loving hobbit to leave his home behind and join them on a life-threatening journey. These 13 dwarves, led by the sulking king Thorin Oakenshield (played by Richard Armitage), are out to take back their homeland and treasure from Smaug the dragon (seen only in the briefest of glimpses here).
This quest will found Bilbo — chosen as the gang’s burglar since Smaug doesn’t know the scent of hobbit — prove himself to the doubtful Thorin (and to himself) as they pull themselves through a series of risky encounters with the many creatures and races of Middle-earth.
Jackson, together with his co-writers Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro pad out this first work in what is now a trilogy adaptation of a rather slender kid’s novel with additional material from Tolkien’s other works, additions meant to not just draw out the tale into three movies but to also further explain some characters’ intentions and whereabouts, as well as to establish more connective tissue to the Lord Of The Rings movies.
This elaboration on events once left to footnotes makes The Hobbit clock in at 160 minutes, which isn’t noteworthy (considering the runtime of the Lord Of The Rings movies) except that unlike the preceding trilogy it takes a full hour for anything to actually happen here. The first hour — which features the entertaining invasion of the dwarves into Bilbo’s domestic joy and their subsequent song-and-slapstick dinner — drags along and robs the move of a sense of urgency and forward momentum. For a movie that’s more child-friendly than its predecessors — there are snot jokes and belching gags sure to make kids giggle — it’ll be exciting to see if youngsters will have the patience to stick through the entire film.
Prolonging this prelude to the main narrative — the dwarves’ quest to the Lonely Mountain — is a scene reintroducing audiences to elder Bilbo (Ian Holm) and, in a entirely unnecessary cameo, his nephew Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood). Seriously, why is Frodo in this movie? He achieves two things in his almost 10 minutes of screen time: he gets Bilbo’s mail and reminds him of his gang, which will lead directly into the events of Fellowship of the Ring. The use of a fast-moving body double for Holm is quite obvious throughout this scene, which coupled with Frodo really having no reason to be featured makes you wonder when the hell the show will literally get on the road.
Once the journey properly kicks off, though, The Hobbit, like the novel, becomes a relentless series of chase sequences and action episodes, from hungry trolls to Rivendell to the netherworld realm of the goblins to Bilbo’s fateful meeting with Gollum (Andy Serkis, who also directed second unit). One of the subplots is the chase for Azog (Manu Bennett) and his orc horde; Azog, we realize in an early flashback, lost his arm to Thorin during a war, an act which beget Thorin his surname Oakenshield. Azog longs for his revenge and his pursuit of Thorin and company leads to the movie’s action-heavy climax.
Sadly, Azog, like all the orcs and goblins featured in The Hobbit, is a CGI character. Remember how formidable and threatening the Uruk-hai were in the Lord Of The Rings films? It’s because they were portrayed by actual actors in makeup and wielding real weaponry, monsters who had a presence that CGI just can’t recreate. The fakeness of these CG-heavy creatures makes The Hobbit seem as inorganic to Lord Of The Rings as the prequels were to the original Star Wars movies.
There’s really a lot of less than stunning visual effects work here, whether it’s Azog — who feels like he walked out of a video game — or the horde that chases Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy) or the wargs. The Goblin King (Barry Humphries) and his minions are all CGI. At a certain point during fight scenes with these CGI characters it becomes clear that the main actors are swinging at nothing; you never get the sense of anything’s actually connecting and so you’re never fully invested in these fights or what happens to anyone in them. It’s makes you believe that if you went 20 minutes in any direction outside of The Shire you’d wind up in Toon Town. Add in the brighter landscapes and The Hobbit often feels more like a Narnia movie than a Lord Of The Rings one.
The CGI character that works best here is, of course, Gollum, and his appearance is a welcome return of an old fan favorite at exactly the right moment. After such an onslaught of pursuits and action set-pieces (plus a diversion to Stone Giant Fight Club), Gollum and Bilbo’s game of riddles is a nice piece of character interaction that reenergizes the story in-between fights. It’s sad when thinking we’ll never see Gollum onscreen again.
As for the film’s “real” characters, this is Freeman, McKellen, and Armitage’s show and they don’t let you down. Freeman is wonderful as Bilbo, even if he can’t quite single-handedly out-charm the original trilogy’s Fab Four of hobbits. Still, Freeman brings a warmth, cleverness, and, well, a humanity to all the affairs. McKellen is as regal and coy as ever as Gandalf, while Armitage adeptly captures the bitterness and drive of the rather cold fish that is Thorin, portrayed here as much younger than he’s traditionally been depicted.
The rest of the dwarves are basically sight jokes. While it’s understandable that most of them would get short-shrift (no, that’s not a mean height pun) because of the sheer number of characters, the only ones who actually register outside of Thorin are Balin (Ken Stott), Bofur (James Nesbitt), and Kili (Aidan Turner), who will play a more crucial role in the next two installments. Problem is that by the end of this first film, you don’t really care as much about all these characters as you did about the Fellowship by the end of the first LOTR. Still, much of the film’s fun and humor comes from their interaction with each other and their growing fondness for Bilbo.
Jackson and company make the dwarves’ quest part of a more epic diaspora, a decision that elevates their journey above being a simple treasure hunt like it was in the original story, but the stakes of The Hobbit just don’t have the gravity or impact of those in Lord Of The Rings. It’s not as if the entire world as the characters know it would cease to be if the dwarves didn’t get their kingdom back (or at least as is evident in this film).
I viewed this film twice; the first time in 24 frames-per-second and 3D, and the second time in 48 frames-per-second and 3D. While we’ll address the 48 fps issue in greater length in a later feature, I will say that it certainly looked better than it did at CinemaCon and ultimately didn’t bug me as much as I thought it would. Still, it robs a fantasy film of its escapism by making it seem too “real”; it still looks like broadcast video, making the 48 fps presentation of The Hobbit feel like the best BBC or PBS production ever. I’m glad I watched it in 48 fps, but more glad that I first watched it in 24 fps.
The film looks just fine in 24 fps — the format most people will experience The Hobbit in and the one which we’ve decided to review – even though the 3D in either frame rate simply didn’t add enough to justify paying the higher price for ticket. I would be curious, though, to see The Hobbit in IMAX as I suspect that might be an ideal format for this oversized saga.
The Hobbit An Unexpected Journey nearly attains amazingness yet despite so many moments of epic fun, amazingness remains just out of its reach. This is a very good and entertaining movie even if it never quite recaptures the wonder or mystique of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. However flaws and all, it was just nice to return to Middle-earth again. It’s a minor miracle The Hobbit even exists after such a storied and arduous journey to the big screen, so we’re thankful for The Hobbit and eagerly await seeing the next two installments in the trilogy.