Review: 'The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey' is an Expected Treat
by Jeremy Kirk
December 14, 2012
Even with the notoriety of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit fans weren't immediately sold on Peter Jackson returning to Middle-Earth, his Middle-Earth to be precise, for not one or two, but three feature films telling the tale of Bilbo Baggins' adventure with Gandalf the Grey. The Hobbit was never as exciting a story as Lord of the Rings, and it wasn't as if they could just make another follow-up to that awesome trilogy. Fans can take heart, though. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a pleasant return to Jackson's world of fantasy that, save for a potentially ruinous and distracting new film format, leaves us still wanting more.
Told in flashback from the welcomed return of Sir Ian Holm as the aged Bilbo Baggins, we're quickly taken back 60 years to when Bilbo was a younger Hobbit, living a quiet and peaceful life alone in The Shire. Quiet and peaceful, that is, until one evening when his friend Gandalf, once again played remarkably by Sir Ian McKellen, knocks on his door along with thirteen dwarfs. Masking the evening as a dinner party, Gandalf talks Bilbo into travelling with the band of dwarfs, led by their kingdom's heir, Thorin, to the Lonely Mountain and help them slay the dragon Smaug. Naturally, much adventuring begins in this first of the three installments.
That's one hurdle to always get over in planned trilogies. You know the story won't end before the credits roll, and sometimes that dampens any excitement you might feel in the adventure at hand. Not so with An Unexpected Journey. Jackson, along with fellow screenwriters Fran Walsh, Philipa Boyens, and Guillermo del Toro, find a nice pacing while convincingly slowing down the action for exposition or silly side plots. This film definitely has those, but it only feels superfluous a time or two. One of those times is the introduction of the Necromancer, whose presence in the future films is highly anticipated, Benedict Cumberbatch voice and all.
An Unexpected Journey does feel like Fellowship of the Ring lite in that the structure is right on, complete with a climactic battle with orcs, but there's a childish quality to it all. While the Lord of the Rings trilogy clapped digital and practical effects perfectly together, this first film of a new trilogy suggests the effects will take a harder CG turn. There's nothing wrong with that as long as the effects still blend well with the world, but we'll get to that. What it does do, though, is make the film and world it's set in more fantastical, almost ridiculous at times. Matched with the more kid-friendly story at hand with The Hobbit, there's nothing wrong with the decision to increase digital effects work here. As far as WETA's work goes, it's still top-notch.
First and foremost in that department is the return of Gollum, again played brilliantly by a motion-captured Andy Serkis. Yes, it's the same character we were introduced to a decade ago, and while there aren't any additions or changes made to him - his skin might be a bit better here than it will be 60 years from now - his movement seems even more effortlessly crafted. His interaction with Bilbo in their famed riddle sequence may be the high point of the film. Unfortunately, he's here and gone in an instant, but Jackson and crew might find a way to shoehorn him in more down the line.
As far as the new cast goes, Martin Freeman is spectacular as the much younger and much tenser Bilbo Baggins. Freeman shines through nervousness but brings that in droves when needed. Bilbo's turn towards bravery as his adventure continues is a much smoother transition here than it was with Elijah Wood in Fellowship. This isn't to say Wood did a poor job as Frodo. Freeman just feels more comfortable as the reluctant hero than the previous trilogy's protagonist.
McKellan, as well as the rest of this film's stunning cast, brings life back into Gandalf the Grey. Christopher Lee, Cate Blanchett, and Hugo Weaving round out the rest of the returning cast, while Richard Armitage holds sturdy, leading man ground as Thorin the Dwarf King. The actors playing his 12 dwarf companions are too numerous to single out, but, save for the issue that it's impossible telling one from the other, they all do a fine job projecting through loads of atrocious makeup.
It's high time we addressed the format issues surrounding The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, but a little film history might be required for some uninitiated. Not all of you are as big a film nerd as some of the rest of us. Everyone knows that film generally plays at 24 frames per second, but more progressive filmmakers - James Cameron and Peter Jackson being two of them - want to move film to 48 frames per second, which is what Jackson has done here with An Unexpected Journey. The higher frame rate allows for more visual detail in the image so that in a scene involving thousands of digital orcs fighting a dozen warrior dwarfs, every character can be clearly seen if the image was paused. It's essentially super, ultra, mega, awesome, high definition.
The negative effect this format has is that in scenes involving one or only a few characters moving or conversing, the movements seem sped up. When characters walk from one side of the frame to another, they appear to do so in fast motion. This combined with everyone talking in normal speed disorients the viewer and essentially taking them out of the film. The higher frame rate also makes digital effects stand out, so that when giant wolves, or Wargs as their known as in Middle-Earth, are running across a New Zealand countryside, you can tell it's superimposed. Some fully digital characters look like clay figures, again disorienting the viewer when it comes from human characters to them.
There could very well be an adjustment period for 48FPS, as there was with 3D. If that's the case, some are already adjusting well to the new format and enjoying the film for what it is. This experience was lost on me personally, as the film's 169-minute run-time wasn't long enough for me to adapt. It's possible to push past that, try to bounce back quickly every time the format jars your attention, but a moviegoer shouldn't have to do, especially a die-hard fan of Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy wanting a grand return to Middle-Earth. 90% of the showings of An Unexpected Journey have been converted back to 24fps, so the higher frame rate may not even be available in your area. It's just something to be consider when you see the film, and it's good to have someone's detailed experience with it. Personally, I say the higher frame rate can get dropped into Mount Doom to burn.
Pushing past the God-awfulness that is 48FPS as it is now, though, one can definitely find The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey to be a very expected treat, particularly for fans of Peter Jackson's take on Tolkien's world thus far. The Lord of the Rings trilogy will forever be known as the definitive, cinematic vision of Tolkien's great epic, and The Hobbit looks to be the very same thing for Tolkien's cute, little adventure that came earlier. The Hobbit films won't go down as classics. The real achievement has already been taken by Jackson in this realm. Yes, An Unexpected Journey is the beginning of a trilogy that feel lesser than, but there's no reason it can't be just as much fun. On that note, Jackson succeeds. Just stop messing with the frame rate, okay?
Jeremy's Rating: 8 out of 10