Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

The Hobbit Movie Poster

Director: Peter Jackson (Lord of the Rings trilogy, King Kong, Heavenly Creatures)
Screenplay: Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Guillermo del Toro
Producers: Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, Zane Weiner, Carolynne Cunningham,
Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Andy Serkis, Richard Armitage, Ken Stott, James Nesbitt, Graham McTavish, Aidan Turner, Sylvester McCoy.
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running time: 169 min.

Note: This review concerns the 3D version of the movie as well as the higher 48 frames per second.

Fewer follows ups have been more anticipated than The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the first in a new trilogy of films set in the much beloved Middle Earth, previously seen in the hugely successful Lord of the Rings trilogy. After on-going behind-the-scenes troubles, previously attached director Guillermo del Toro left the project to pursue other things (though he still remains credited as one of the screenwriters), ultimately resulting in Peter Jackson stepping back in to take on the prequel to end all prequels, as some might call it.

Set 60 years prior to the beginning of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the film follows a young Bilbo Baggins (this time played by the ever likable Martin Freeman) who lives a happy and quiet life in the Shire. His life is disrupted one day when the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) turns up at his door practically demanding he go on an adventure with him and a band of proud and eccentric dwarves who are on a quest to take back the land, and their treasure, once taken from their ancestors by the fearful dragon Smaug. At first severely reluctant, Bilbo is ultimately convinced and joins the dwarves on their journey.

I think Jackson has to be commended for, quite bravely, deciding to jump in at the deep end once more by taking on yet another set of films, where the story is not so much saving the world but helping a band of warriors reclaim their home. What results is an understandably less epic film than any of the Lord of the Rings (even Fellowship) but one which repeatedly goes out of its way to try and capture the more light-hearted tone of this particular story. I’m not a massive Lord of the Rings fan anyway and as such The Hobbit is a welcome diversion from that style. Having said that, it’s sometimes jarring in tone as it flips back and forth between comical and perilous, with scenes of the dwarves spouting what are effectively one-liners to huge sequences involving falling rocks or ambitious battles atop a mountain. It feels a little like Jackson is caught between a rock and a hard place of trying to bring the book to life while at the same time emulating what he did with the LOTR trilogy.

At almost three hours long the film does feel overstretched, with a set-up period of at least 45 minutes which moves at a languorous pace as it doles out arguably unneeded exposition and character motivation. It reeks of padding the story just for the sake of making it long (lest we forget The Hobbit book is much shorter than any of the Rings books) and it suffers because of that tactic. It takes way longer than was necessary to finally pick up its feet and get going but once it does the last couple of hours zips along fine, with the last two thirds of the movie basically being made up of a sequence of big set-pieces which vary in effectiveness, some relying too much on CGI or being repetitive while others are unique and eye-catching in their own right. Again, there’s a certain sense that a few of them are simply there as filler to up the runtime to match the extended nature of the previous trilogy when it really doesn’t need it; a much tighter film would have been welcome.

Where The Hobbit succeeds best is in its casting. First off, Martin Freeman is a fantastic Bilbo, a well enough known actor so as to be a draw but not so famous that it’s difficult to buy him in the role, convincingly playing a young Ian Holm while still putting his own mark on the character. With his deadpan remarks, comic stubbornness and charming bewilderment, he is a joy to be in the company of as the film’s wary protagonist. It’s a real stroke of casting brilliance.

The all-important 13 dwarves, headed by Thorin Oakenshield, are brought to life with real verve by the likes of Richard Armitage, Ken Stott, James Nesbitt, Graham McTavish and Aidan Turner. Each of them bring their own distinct personalities to the table, so to speak, and provide a lot of the film’s comedic relief. Their comedy is, admittedly, rather hit-and-miss, ranging from welcome relief to being a bit too much on the slapstick side but it ultimately lends the film the more light-hearted nature it needs in comparison to the far more serious Lord of the Rings stories.

Crucially returning is Ian McKellen as the iconic Gandalf continuing his brilliant portrayal we all know and love, as well as Andy Serkis as Gollum. The latter, like in Lord of the Rings, is the best part of the movie as his signature scene where he and Bilbo “have a game of riddles” absolutely steals the show. The previously groundbreaking CGI effect is improved here (if that’s even possible), once again capturing the mannerisms and movements so well that he feels just as real as any of the actual actors. Other familiar faces turn up including Cate Blanchett as the elf Galadriel and Hugo Weaving as Elrond Lord of Rivendell, while Sylvester McCoy is a jovial addition to the proceedings as Radagast the Brown.

Peter Jackson decided to shoot his telling of The Hobbit in 48 frames per second (double the normal rate). It won’t be shown in most places in that format simply because there are few places equipped to do so but those thinking of making that extra effort should think again. The 48fps is horrible, lending the film a distracting ultra-realism effect resulting in such a fine level of detail that it ironically takes away from the cinematic quality of the picture. It’s too real in many ways, annoyingly mimicking a TV play or filmed pantomime which perpetually distracts from the otherwise impressive production design. And the 3D, on top of being pretty unnecessary as it usually is, doesn’t exactly help matters as it only adds to the disconcerting 48 frames effect. It becomes less of a problem when we enter into full blown CGI-laden action sequence territory where fire and orcs are being flung around the place or when we get far away shots of the sweeping landscapes. However, one still wonders why on (Middle) Earth Jackson chose to shoot his new trilogy in this way and not allow the detailed world to be shown off in all its cinematic glory instead of it being masked by this peculiar effect (of course this won’t matter in regular 24fps 2D).

It’s disappointing that The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey doesn’t fully deliver on what it promised. An uneven tone which tries to mix comedy with danger and some superfluous action (among other things) hinder the film from being the completely entertaining experience it had the potential to be. Nevertheless this sufficiently faithful adaptation should please most fans of the book, and is a promising start to the new trilogy when it rests on the shoulders of its strong cast by playing to their strengths and accentuating the once again stunning production design and Howard Shore’s damn near perfect score.

Click “play” to see the trailer:

This review was previously published at Thoughts On Film.