The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Directed by: Peter Jackson
Written by: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson and Guillermo del Toro (screenplay), J.R.R. Tolkien (novel)
Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellan, Richard Armitage, Andy Serkis, Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett, Christopher Lee, James Nesbitt, Lee Pace
When it was first announced that Peter Jackson would once again be taking the director’s chair for The Hobbit, there were few who would have questioned his triumphant return to Middle Earth. Those who had read the book, however, knew that the predecessor to The Lord of the Rings was a very different beast and that it probably deserved to be handled a little differently on screen as well. While there was something to be said for maintaining consistency between these adaptations, there was also a possibility that the spirit of the original book might get lost in the shuffle. Sadly, this possibility has become a reality with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.
As the movie arrives in theatres this weekend, it is heavily overshadowed by a couple of things. The first is that Peter Jackson has decided to expand the story into a trilogy, filling in narrative gaps with material from Tolkien’s other works and some original ideas as well. The second is that he has chosen to shoot the movie at a higher frame rate, making for a completely new (and potentially unpleasant) viewing experience. Amidst all these distractions, it is difficult to discern whether or not there is a genuinely good movie here, but when all is said and done, it most certainly does not live up to the lofty standards set by The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
It’s fairly well-known that the story is a direct prequel to The Lord of the Rings, chronicling the adventures of Frodo’s uncle Bilbo Baggins and how he came into possession of The One Ring. At his home in Hobbiton, Bilbo is complacent and comfortable leading a simple life, but when Gandalf shows up on his doorstep one day, he is inadvertently volunteered for a dangerous quest with a band of dwarves. Despite his reluctance, he is soon thrust out onto the open road with Thorin Oakenshield and his followers, in search of a dragon and its stolen treasure.
Tolkien wrote The Hobbit prior to The Lord of the Rings, and the result is a light-hearted and breezy children’s story. He had supposedly tried to rewrite The Hobbit years later to reconcile it with the darker tone of The Lord of the Rings, but gave up because he could not do so without tainting the original. Now Peter Jackson is essentially attempting to do the same thing without much success himself. This first movie feels like a weird hybrid of both; it still brings some enjoyment but is inherently unsatisfying.
With a running time of almost three hours, An Unexpected Journey really takes its time getting underway. It indulges in plenty of flashbacks and additional exposition, all of which weigh the story down considerably. Things don’t really pick up until they reach the Misty Mountains, which is well over halfway through the movie (but only the fourth chapter of the book).
More supporting characters are also inserted into the film, including Galadriel, Saruman and Radagast the Brown, who was cut from Peter Jackson’s LOTR films. It’s pretty telling that a minor character who was left on the cutting room floor for The Lord of the Rings ends up getting plenty of screen time here. As enjoyable as it is to see some familiar faces, it really takes away from the focus of the film, which is supposed to be The Hobbit himself.
Indeed, the strongest parts of this movie almost all involve Bilbo. Although there was a part of me that wanted a more unknown actor in the role, Martin Freeman is great fun as the Master of Bag End. His comedic timing is impeccable and his grumpy yet polite demeanor carries you through the film. Bilbo’s initial meeting with the dwarves is executed to near perfection as is his encounter with Gollum.
Speaking of which, the effects for Gollum have come a long way since The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and he is now more expressive than ever. Andy Serkis still has a firm grasp on the character, who is much more playful here, although sadly he doesn’t have such a crucial role this time around. In general, it feels like there is a lot more CG than there was in The Lord of the Rings, which I suppose is to be expected. Unfortunately, there is also a tendency to use CG for most of the major enemies, which makes them much less memorable in my opinion.
Not all of the blame should fall on Peter Jackson’s shoulders; there are also some flaws in the source material. Bilbo and the dwarves are constantly being saved by others without doing much for themselves. After having seen The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Thorin Oakenshield feels a bit like a rehash of Aragorn, another king seeking to reclaim his throne. Also, with so many dwarves, it’s hard to get to know any of them. I wouldn’t blame anyone for saying that this just feels like The Lord of the Rings with lower stakes and less interesting characters.
As for the 48 fps projection, I’m not convinced that this was the right way to introduce it to the general public. It only makes the movie seem even more chaotic and muddled and I will readily admit that it had an adverse effect on my opinion of the film. I had hoped that HFR would be something I acclimatized to quickly, but I found it so distracting that I could barely concentrate on anything else. In addition to the “soap opera” effect, at times I found that many of the actors appeared to be moving in fast-forward. Yes, there is enhanced clarity, but somehow it makes you feel like you can see the seams holding everything together — which is a pretty good summary of my entire experience with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.
Just like the extended editions of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, hardcore Tolkien fans are likely to appreciate the attention to detail in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Unfortunately, the rest of us are forced to endure a fantasy flick that is twice as long as it needs to be. I hope that my opinion will change after seeing the entire trilogy as a whole, but as of right now, it feels like just another mediocre blockbuster. Still an impressive achievement, perhaps, but the sense of wonder and magic is missing. — Sean