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Review: 'The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey' is an Expected Treat

by
December 14, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

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.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey - Gollum

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 Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey - Thorin

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

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  • http://www.facebook.com/joshuaddisson Joshua Addisson Roach
    i also fell in love with the 48 fps. it took about 10-15 min, but once i forgot about the frame rate, i couldnt help but just take in the lush, vivid, vibrant visuals. landscape shots felt like i was riding in the helicopter filming them myself. everything seemed just so damn clear. great job. film was awesome.
    • Dforst
      Did you read the review? He said the 48 fps was terrible.
      • Jericho
        he also said its a personal opinion about that after addressing everyone loves it.....
        • castingcouch
          But everyone doesn't love 48fps.
          • jsmith0552
            Well fortunately like 3D we still (at the moment) have a choice as to watching it in 48p or not. Until they take that choice away, it doesn't bother me. I will probably seek out a theatre that offers it, but I won't be watching it in that format the first time out cause I don't want anything to distract from my enjoyment.
  • tobi
    sukd
  • RickyDipster
    This movie was alot of fun! Smiled the whole way through. It's definitely more comedic than the Trilogy.
  • hi hello
    I thought it dragged on for the first 30minutes. I blame the dwarfs and their long intros and cleaning dishes scene. Probably would of been better to just cut out half of them altogether. Gollum,Bilbo, and Gandalf are brilliant. And Gollum+Bilbo scenealone is worth seeing this film for.
    • tom
      Yeah, amazing in such a long film that skips such a lot, it takes them 40 minutes to leave The Shire. There is enough in the book for a trilogy imo, without adding bits from other works and inventing stuff. They should have taken out that useless (imo) Holm and Wood intro (Wood blatantly couldn't find his Frodo vibe again - might as well have been a different actorm, for me). I swear about 1/4 of the film was them all on a bridge/mountain pass/tree/giant dildo (might as well have been!) that then drops into an endless abyss, killing all the enemies but leaving them unscathed. Wonder how many times we'll see that tired old cliche in the trilogy (we got it only once or twice in Jackson's Fellowship didn't we?)...
  • Hark it up
    This is a damn kids movie derived from a kids book for crying out loud. Dont expect it to match the LOTRs trilogy. Now shut your traps cause you can hawk all you want. Nothing will change how this movie is going to fell now.
    • jsmith0552
      I never understand the "this is a kids movie" argument when someone is critiquing something. It's the most empty, meaningless response a person can give. Do good kids movies follow some kind of different aesthetic than other films when it comes to quality? A good film is a good film period, and while content can be discussed; (as there are some topics a film targeted for kids could handle badly) execution, pace, and cinematography aren't one of them. Besides we all know that while the Hobbit was a "children's book" this film is not targeted at children only, but being geared toward appealing to all those people who enjoyed LoTR as well. Try not to sound like a fanboy that thinks that everything Tolkein, or Jackson is beyond reproach. The guy gave a fair review and talked about the good and bad points. It's an honest balanced, and "well-thought" out critique. How about a similar response in return?
      • doogansquest
        I think the "it's a kid's story" is in response to the pre-screen critics that appeared everywhere. Namely those from ABC News and Rotten Tomatoes. The first words out of their collective mouths; the first headlines even, were: "The Hobbit falls short of Lord of the Rings." People went in expecting the same feel. The same dark, epic, world-ending transition from fantasy land to men. The death of Gandalf and Boromir jerked a few tears, while the evil of the Ring was heavy and looming. The Hobbit doesn't have that feel. It was never meant to. It was a children's bedtime story. Tolkien said as much. From a quality standpoint, this film is every bit Rings' equal. The critics had the flawed strategy of comparing it to Rings' before it even hit the cinema. What's funny is, the only critique of the first trilogy centered around changes from book to film, but most of those changes were necessary. Some of the moments from the book (Tom Bombadil, the Scouring of the Shire) would have been death to the story on screen. Really? Tom isn't affected by the Ring at all? It's not really so powerful then, is it? Why doesn't he just keep it, or hell take it to Mt. Doom himself? Or how about introducing a new problem back in the Shire after the audience has waded through 12 hours of epic, emotional, blockbuster film making, and the climax has already been reached? Those would have been clunky scenes, and general audiences would have been lost. The Hobbit sticks almost PERFECTLY to the book, plus some added goodies from the Appendix, and yet people are saying it's "not as good" as the films which deviated from the books. Sort of defeats the idea that sticking to fluff makes for a better, or purists tale... The "it's a kid's story" response is not arbitrary; it's for the moron critics who expected it to be just as dark and adult as Rings. It makes perfect sense.
        • David Darida
          Well...sometimes a little is more than lot...that's what makes LotR perfect, and Hobbit bad...IMHO
        • tom
          Just watched it and it differs as much from the book at The Rings Trilogy did - if not more - it's nothing like it at all. I understand why it was left out, but The Scouring of the Shire was really one of the main points of the LotR (books). While I am understanding of why it was done, there are very many worse changes of scenes, character, and motivation, in the first trilogy than that from what WAS actually shown on-screen. How about the completely pointless messing with Faramir to turn him into a (temporary but completely unnecessary) 'baddie', for starters? I'm a huge fan of Jackson's original films, but he messes with Tolkien just apparently for the sake of messing, and it's not necessary. The best bit of the film is Gollum - both for Serkis' standout performance and because it actually sticks to the book. Your criticism is completely invalid, I think. It's said in The Fellowship EXACTLY why Bombadil has no interest in the ring or ability to do anything with it (he cannot leave his land). Also implied is why it doesn't affect him. It's all discussed in great detail at the council at Rivendell. Have you even read these books?
  • David Darida
    I would give it 5/10...And I know that most of the people liked it so I am not gonna act like my opinion is right, or better...I actually never do that lol...it's just, the pacing, the storyline felt weird to me, I found none of the characters interesting (read: i wouldn't care if some of them died), except for Gollum, awfully long movie with 20-30 min. scenes that just killed me...So in conclusion, it may be studio's fault which wanted 2-3 movies out of small book what made the movie so boring, or I may have expected something else, or maybe it's just that the book isn't that interesting...I mean, fate of the middle earth is pretty more interesting and epic than the tale of Bilbo and some dwarfes...People like it though, and I have already been crucified on YT for my opinion about the movie...so I should rather shut up....PEACE lol
    • Szkari
      Amen. I couldn`t agree more. Althought I must say it was quite entertaining (beautiful music, great shots and makeup, nice acting).
  • TK
    Only just got to see the movie now here in Australia. Wow I must say that Peter Jackson has done an amazing job. I actually really loved 48fps. It felt a bit off at the start but I got used to it and was absolutely blown away by it. They changed quite a fair bit from the books. They added some bits and pieces to fill it in. A few of the stories, if my memories serves me right, they took from the book of lost tales. Another thing that really made the movie, was the score. The music and the pacing was amazing and really just added to the grandeur of it all. I am a big fan of the book and was surprised that they could drag it out to 3 movies and being 2.5+ hours, but by the end of the movie I truly hadn't realised that 2.5+ hours had passed. I'd give it 9/10. Loved it.
  • David Darida
    Another weird scene, with those mountain-giants...as bilbo was hanging there all of the dwarwes - what were they doing? lol...

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