The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey Review

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

SCORE: 2 stars

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  • Nic Lipelli

    While I appreciate the depth to which this article was written, I’d just like to comment on the “actors appeared to be moving in fast-forward.” This is the same effect I perceive when watching a TV with 120hz motion smoothing turned on, and I am so frightened it will ruin the experience that I won’t even be seeing it in 3D.

  • BarBar

    Nice review… I think I’ve worked out why the prospect of this film leaves me cold – asides the 48 fps issue, every image (still and motion), everything just seems too clean, polished and new.

  • Peter

    One of the most accurate reviews I’ve seen. The HFR took me out of the movie as well, and what you said about the CG I completely agree with. LotR felt physical because of all the makeup and physical sets/effects, and this lacks that in so many places and characters. Could have done without much of Radagast’s story as well.
    I still enjoyed it a lot, it was a fun watch.

  • Vikke

    I also was not completely sold on HFR. I will see it again in 2D before forming my final opinion of the film.

  • milandob

    i saw it at normal rate but it didnt help the movie anyway… its way too long with almostbno story at all. the only positives were again howard shores amazing soundtrack and when peter jackson gets in the mood and remembers his bad taste days (with mega budget of course) and is gory, but still kids friendly (gandalf cutting head off)… the biggest low where the three stooges trolls and one dwarf asking if they serve CHIPS! wtf was that about?

  • patrik

    I really liked the movie. I only had the option of seeing it in 24 fps which I think might have been better after everything I’ve read. The only real problem I had with it was the CG orcs and creatures in general. Seems they’ve gotten a little lazy cause I can’t imagine they didn’t have the resources to do practical again. Still really liked it though.

  • Kasper

    This is rare, but more or less you are writing EXACTLY what I am feeling, Sean. This is a beautiful moment – and calling it the soap effect is an effective way of characterizing HFR, I need to remember that phrase. I’ve been trying to tell people how shitty it was, without properly being able to express myself, instead going off on tangents about it looking like old timey scenes from history channel specials, and people looking at me oddly having no idea what I’m talking about.

  • Henrik

    First Sean came up with the idea of doing a top 20 of the decade list, and now he coins the phrase soap opera effect!

    As Frank likes to say… What a man.

  • ProfessionalCynic

    Sounds like Mr Jackson has not learned from any of his previous efforts, longer is not better. King Kong needs 1 hour 30 taken out, not added Peter! I won’t be bothering now, but to be honest I really didn’t want to see it anyway, this just feels like a LOTR reboot in 48 Pukes per Second.

  • Sean

    What can I say… it’s no “trilogy cred”

  • Goon

    I was pretty so-so about the first hour but enjoyed it after that quite a bit. Glad I saw it in 24 frame rate instead, no 3D.

  • Steve

    Ever since you gave Prometheus a thumbs down, I take all your reviews with several grains of salt, Dwy-guy.

    All joshing aside, I’m still really looking forward to this. I’ve never seen the theatrical cuts of LotR, only the extended, so I’m fine with a 2.75 hr runtime. I’ve always seen these movies as pretty straight adaptation; putting as much of the source material on screen as possible, so for me they live in a weird sphere outside of story criticism. Most of my beef with the first three films is tech and effects stuff, not story.

  • kyri

    oh, boy, I was going to go see this tonight but instead I stayed home and did some programming.. Thank God I didn’t go and waste my precious money.. although to be honest Steve has a point about Prometheus since it turned out to be the best film of the year so far,(..I haven’t seen Twilight yet) So I am going to wait till monday to hear what the rest of the sexy group is going to say..
    Or maybe I ll give the man a break and say there is now a mere 21% chance it is actually good..

  • La Menthe

    I don’t think the spirit of the first films is lost in The Hobbit. In fact, I think he is spot on on capturing the same atmosphere as the LOTR-films, and it feels a lot like watching them again. I think people are disappointed for two reasons:

    1. The Hobbit was, if I’m not mistaken, written as a children’s book. Tolkein clearly had a younger audience in mind when he wrote the book – compared to the LOTR-trilogy that was defiantly more mature and darker.

    2. People remember the LOTR-trilogy wrong, or have, to a degree, grown out of them. I remembered the old films as being these amazing fantasy films that I had easily given 8/10 and 9/10. But upon rewatch I was quite disappointed; the films were still good, but not the as good as I remembered them.

    I don’t want to be hasty with my opinion about this film, as I saw the premiere, which was pretty late (00:30), and I was really tired. But I was actually pleasantly surprised, as it managed to capture the exact same feeling as the old films – especially through replication from the previous films (which I think is extremely positive). It contained of course a lot more spectaculars and ‘fun moments’, but this is of course due to the book and its juvenile nature. I still think it handled it quite well, and I was thoroughly entertained in Jackson’s timeless adventure-style. The best way to describe this film is The Fellowship of the Ring on ecstasy.

    I also liked Bilbo considerably more than Frodo – who was annoying as hell in the LOTR-trilogy. Hopefully they will spend more time on him in the next two films.

    PS: I preserve to right to discard everything I have said above, if I happen to hate the film upon rewatch – this time when I’m not half-sleeping.

  • La Menthe

    Someone here mentioned that LOTR felt physical and had little CGI; something which I think is completely untrue. The LOTR-trilogy is full of CGI-effects, a lot of them so dated that they become uncomfortable (and sadly this new trilogy will experience the same descent). I agree that they used a lot more CGI in this film; but to be honest, it didn’t distract me any more than the CGI in LOTR-films.

  • bullet3

    I think the big thing people are jumping to with the CG argument is that most of the creatures in the original LOTR, especially in Fellowship, were real actors with awesome make-up and costuming, whereas in this they’re now all CGI for absolutely no reason.
    Like I can’t even fathom that, it’s gotta be way more expensive to have all your bad guys done digitally than to just get some guys in orc armor, and it ends up looking way worse.

  • MrHorse

    i’m not even going to go futher with the CG debate, just saying this much: it SUCKS.
    you think you’re so magnificent as to expose it with HFR? than, ergo, vis a vis, concordently.. the joke is on you

  • SunGun

    This was a colosal waste of a Friday evening. The 48 fps sucks big old moose cocks. My eye never got use to it and it lent the entire picture an artificiality I could not get past. Put it this way, it sucks big old moose cocks.

  • La Menthe

    I completely agree with the parts that didn’t need CGI at all — this upset me mainly because I hate the use of CGI in films in general. I noticed how some of del Toro’s touch was noticeable in the creative art in this film (like the awesome messenger orc that had a wheel, as part of his body, stuck to a line of rope as a way of transport). The extensive use of CGI, however, is what saddened me about his departure; I’m pretty sure he would have forced make-up upon a large number of the creatures (such as the villain orc, and almost all orcs in general) if he had stayed.

    Some CGI-scenes were awful to watch too. The most noticeable was the retelling of Erebor and Smaug’s invasion, and the ending with Smaug hiding in the gold.

  • Gerry

    Thanks for the spoiler about the ending La Menthol.

  • Kasper

    #20 Don’t worry, that’s not really spoiling anything of importance. Like the first LotR movie this was about the journey (which should hopefully be clear from all the promotional material) – they don’t battle Smaug yet. It’s just an establishing shot of Smaug being dragony and villainous.

  • kyri

    Thanks for the spoiler about the ending Kasper

  • jarrod

    a big wet noodle

  • La Menthe

    Thanks for the clarification, Kasper. Smaug hiding in the gold is hardly a spoiler. It’s merely the premise of the book (and films); a dragon guarding a great treasure.

    But I think we have both made ourselves a target to angry souls looking for a chance to express their anger ;-) .

  • kyri

    I was being facetious La menthe ::: piss off,

  • La Menthe

    Don’t worry kyri. I didn’t take take you seriously anywhay.

    I am however wondering whether I should do it now.

  • Glen

    I wish more of the movie was shot using the landscape of New Zealand substituting for Middle Earth than CGI backdrops.
    Also the 3D version wasn’t worth the extra $3. I didn’t notice many 3D effects in this movie.

    There were 10 people at my local matinee screening of “The Hobbit” in St. Catharines, Ontario on Saturday. Have the filmmakers over estimated the popularity of this film?
    If so good luck trying to sell the middle movie in this trilogy.

  • kyri

    nah.. I am too old for this shit..

  • daphne loves shaggy

    The Prometheus fanbase are quickly becoming the rudest and most annoying faction of geekdom. Sean’s opinion of Prometheus is just as valid as those who consider it among the best of the year. Stop the hate.

  • Owozifa

    Seems a bit of a reactionary opinion now that I’ve seen the film. I did not mind the CG of the dragon, and thought the invasion of Erebor was quite awesome. I didn’t see it in 48fps which I judge to be for the best. There were not that much fewer practical make-ups (I felt a more “cartoony” style to the Goblins was appropriate even) as there weren’t that many outside of the Orcs in the first place. The design of the Wargs was much improved. I detested their design in Two Towers.

    The addition of Azog was kind of pointless. In the book both the Wargs and the Eagles talked (they even have a talking eagle in the LOTR War in the North game) and I found that omission of awesomeness as equally baffling as the addition of a big villainous Orc I didn’t care about.

    But the movie was still one of the best fantasy adventures of the last decade. Or two.

  • kyri

    I saw the film as well.. and I think Sean was right on spot this time,it is oxymoronic to force Frodo and other shallow stuff into the film to make it “consistent” and yet you film it digitally and on different frame-rate. I mean.. whatever who cares but it just looks sooo ugly.
    … The “future” is starting to look a little like a SouthPark parody..