Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

The Hobbit movie poster
The Hobbit movie poster

How does The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey compare to The Lord of the Rings trilogy? It’s “a lesser son of greater sires,” a disappointment based on the lofty expectations set by its predecessors.

Sixty years prior to The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) visits hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) in the Shire, and tricks him into hosting a company of dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), who are under the mistaken belief that Bilbo is an expert burglar who will join them on their expedition to reclaim their home from the dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch). Meanwhile, rumors of a dark threat called the Necromancer (also Cumberbatch) worry Gandalf.

Director Peter Jackson (The Lord of the Rings, The Lovely Bones) returns to the fictional world of his greatest cinematic success, but he just can’t recreate the same cinematic magic and poetry. I very rarely give any film a full five stars, but every one of the LOTR films earned it and then some. I’m convinced that it will be difficult for another high fantasy film or series of films to reach that level of greatness. J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel The Hobbit was never cut from quite the same epic scale of cloth as his Lord of the Rings, so perhaps the problem here is Jackson trying to make it into something it isn’t, and as a result, it falls short of the mark. On the positive side, Jackson’s eye for visual sweep is intact, even if there are a few surprisingly clumsy sequences.

Jackson and his principal LOTR writing collaborators Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens had to figure out how to compress the massive text that was LOTR into three films of three to four hours in length. They face the opposite task here, to turn a much shorter text into three films of three hours in length each, which strikes me as a commercial rather than a creative move. It transpires that they’re better at compressing than expanding. Every scene in the LOTR films, even in the extended editions, had a purpose that moved the story forward in a compelling manner. In contrast, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey drags along. After nearly three hours, the characters haven’t even reached their destination of the Lonely Mountain.

An additional writer was involved here, Guillermo del Toro (Hellboy, Pan’s Labyrinth). After Jackson initially dropped out of directing the film after delays resulting from a legal dispute with New Line Cinema, del Toro was brought in to co-write and direct. After numerous production delays resulting from MGM’s financial woes caused del Toro to also drop out, Jackson returned to direct. Del Toro is credited as a co-writer and a creative consultant. It’s not easy to discern an obvious del Toro influence, although the scenes with the Great Goblin strike me as having some, so it’s hard to say if his presence helped or hindered this adaptation.

Along the way, the writers make some rather dubious choices. Wizard Radagast the Brown, who was mentioned but never seen in The Hobbit novel, has been turned into an eccentric with bird poop caked in his hair, travelling around on a sled pulled by rabbits. Oh, and his pet hedgehog is as sugary cute as any animated Disney animal, and one almost expects it to speak like one. Thankfully, the writers spared us that horror. But, oh, they didn’t spare us a terrible one liner from the Great Goblin that is cringe inducing.

Jackson chose to shoot the film in the experimental High Frame Rate 3D digital video format. I say experimental because this is the first film to be made using this process. While it does result in impressively sharp, clear, and deep images on screen, it also has a live video look that uncomfortably reminds one of a daytime soap or a live television broadcast. Also, the images are so sharp and clear that sets look like sets, props look like props, special effects makeup looks like special effects makeup, and CG visual effects look like a video game. The format also has the odd effect of exaggerating character movements, including gestures and facial expressions. It’s just another burden keeping the film from being engaging. For a fantasy film, calling attention to its fakery is a serious flaw.

Cinematographer Andrew Lesnie also worked on The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and he does his best here to re-create that look, but those films were actually shot on film. While I think digital video can look very good, especially with the current generation of cameras, it’s easier to match the look of film with film. With the use of the High Frame Rate format, the final result looks very different, less painterly and more video gamey. That said, the use of 3D itself in the film is quite good, and there’s one scene where myself and several other audience members flinched in our seats because the 3D effect of fire being thrown in our faces was so convincing.

Production designer Dan Hennah (the supervising art director for the LOTR films) recreates the Shire and Rivendell, and creates several spectacular new environments. Unfortunately, the quality of his work is overshadowed by the High Frame Rate format making his sets look like sets rather than real structures. The work of costume designers Richard Taylor (LOTR), Bob Buck (the LOTR extras coordinator), and Ann Maskrey (The Mumbo Jumbo, Thunderpants) is also affected by the format but not to the same degree.

The visual effects by Weta Digital seem to rely too much on CG, and not always rendered convincingly (example: some of the goblins in Goblin Town look more like Muppets), which is surprising considering how the same effects studio revolutionized CG with their work on Avatar.

LOTR veteran Howard Shore returns to score the film, and his work this time is good but not great. The best music, one song aside, seems to be cues from LOTR.

In general, the most solid aspect of the film is its cast. Martin Freeman is well-cast as the young Bilbo Baggins, living a comfortable life in the Shire before he’s whisked away on an adventure into the wider, and wilder, world of Middle Earth. Ian Holm also returns as the older Bilbo, in framing scenes set on the same day as his eleventy-first birthday (as seen in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring), and Elijah Wood makes a brief appearance as Frodo.

Among other returning LOTR cast members, Ian McKellen is Ian McKellen, meaning he demonstrates once again why he was born to play the pivotal role of Gandalf. Christopher Lee, Cate Blanchett and Hugo Weaving also return as wizard Saruman the White, and the elves Galadriel and Elrond, but don’t quite recapture the effortless perfection of their previous performances.

One returning actor, however, completely steals the film. Andy Serkis, once again playing the motion capture Gollum to perfection. It’s a more humorous performance this time, but he shines. The scene between Freeman’s Bilbo and Serkis’ Gollum represents the film at its absolute best.

Among the new cast members, Richard Armitage is a heroic and proud Thorin Oakenshield, former Doctor Who star Sylvester McCoy does what he can with the role of Radagast but can’t salvage the mess the writers made of his character, Benedict Cumberbatch’s two motion capture characters Smaug and the Necromancer are only very briefly seen so no real judgment can be rendered, and Ken Stott stands out from the rest of the dwarves as Balin. The problem is there’s too many dwarves, and the film doesn’t give most of them much to do to really have a chance to stand out.

The acting was harder to judge than usual, because High Frame Rate’s tendency to exaggerate character movements, including gestures and facial expressions, also makes the performances seem exaggerated. If this format continues to be used, actors will have to learn to underact.

After seeing the LOTR films well over a dozen times each, I still remain emotionally invested in the story from the first scene to the last. I never really felt that while watching this film. I really think part of it is the High Frame Rate, which was more distraction then benefit. Any time a film’s format serves to point out that it’s all fakery, it’s not good, unless the filmmaker’s intent is to point out that it’s all fakery, which isn’t the intent here.

Now if you get the impression that I’m calling The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey the worst film ever, that’s really not the case. It’s just disappointing based on the expectations I had. Some people will no doubt find it entertaining. It just didn’t have the same magic for me, and I’m saddened by that. I first read the The Hobbit as a child in the late 1970s, and it’s where my love of the fantasy genre began. I expected the film version to be better.

Disclaimer: I found the High Frame Rate format to be so fake looking and distracting, that it no doubt made it even harder for me to get into the film. Which means that my review is biased by how I experienced the film. So if you are going to see this film, I would suggest seeing it in 2D or standard 3D. If you like the film enough to want to see it a second time, maybe then you could see it in HFR 3D if you’re really curious.

[2.5 out of 5 stars]

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