‘The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey’ Review
Pop culture enthusiasts can be forgiven if they approach Peter Jackson's J.R.R. Tolkien prequel trilogy thinking about 'Star Wars.' Will this next (but previous!) chapter in one of Fandom's key franchises broaden the cinematic universe we love so much, or will this be another case where they should have let enough alone?
Well, as is so frequently the case in life, I can't give you such a black and white answer. For starters, we may not be able to fully analyze 'The Hobbit' until all three chapters are in. Nevertheless here we are and 'An Unexpected Journey' does, indeed, have a lot going for it. It is also saddled with tangents, jabberjaw scenes that never end and far too many beats whose sole function is to remind you how much you love the original 'Lord of the Rings' films.
The story of 'An Unexpected Journey' is quite light. A young Bilbo Baggins, played charmingly and effectively by Martin Freeman, is pressed to join Gandalf (still the Grey) and thirteen dwarves on a quest to recapture their gold and their home from a killer dragon named Smaug. In this film we watch them get part of the way there.
Much as 'The Return of the King' had a string of endings, 'An Unexpected Journey' has about three beginnings. It's nice to see Ian Holm and Elijah Wood again, but I'm not sure how necessary it is - especially in a film with a near-three hour running time. This is, I guess, the crux of it: this new trilogy isn't a regular film series. It is an exercise in fan excess. Jackson and company are rolling around in Tolkien's pages with unbridled admiration. The Dwarf dinner, while amusing, spreads itself out on the screen like the uninvited guests at Bilbo's table. True believers will revel in every lengthy moment of the Rivendell conference between Gandalf, Elrond, Saruman and Galadriel, squeeing with each turn of Elvish or Dwarvish phrase. It's stuff that works in a book. In a movie it dies. Unless your dreams are populated by denizens of Middle Earth, endless footage of them simply talking or walking is a lot less spectacular than Peter Jackson thinks it is.
Listen: I'm no monster. I dug 'Lord of the Rings' so my heart fluttered a bit at the in-universe moments (Gandalf whispering for help to a moth AGAIN!), but this is a penny-wise and pound-foolish crutch. The best moments in 'An Unexpected Journey' are ones unique to it. The Dwarf singing is tremendous as are the new, Dwarf-specific moments in Howard Shore's score. The fearsome White Orc looks like a Middle Earth Randy Couture, and The Goblin King, as fat and as gross as Jabba the Hutt but with a funny British accent, may be the best villain we've seen in any of Jackson's Tolkien films. Indeed, humor works really well in this film, and it's a good thing too, considering that the stakes are considerably lower.
The picture ends well with two major action set pieces as well as a run-in with Smeagol. Bilbo is finally accepted by his Dwarf comrades and they lean heavy on this being a quest to return home, rather than just capturing gold. You'll leave with a smile, even if you spent a good portion of the past three hours yawning.
If you see this film in the new HFR/48 fps format, you'll likely break into lively discussion, as well. I'm sure the film's visual appeal is on a par with Jackson's other work, but with HFR 3D you'll be too taken with the strangeness of the new format to compare. Is 48 fps good? It isn't a case of good or bad. It's an aesthetic choice, like Michael Mann's use of video in 'Public Enemies.' I never "got used to it." In fact, I found it a distraction. When Ian Holm was giving his early exposition, I couldn't hear a word of it, because everything looked so unusual and that's what held my attention. Here are some things you can expect:
- When people run, they look like they are on the 'Benny Hill Show.'
- Fire looks weird. This doesn't matter too much when it is just a burning hearth, but when it is dragonbreath or hurled, flaming weapons, it is a problem. As a result, a moment that should read as triumph ultimately comes across as goofy. It looks so strange and unusual (as do many of the special effects) that it looks somewhat. . .cheap.
- Anything shot in daylight looks like a BBC production from the 1970s. The movement is too smooth. And yet, when the camera moves, too, it looks somewhat jerky.
- You really recognize the cuts between exteriors, effects shots and sets. There's a scene on a cliff where Storm Giants fight that probably looks terrific in the traditional format. Watching it here all I could think about was "oh, that's them on a set. Oh, that's an effects shot. That looks like an actual mountain. Ooh that cut brought us back to the set again." I've watched the similar Misty Mountain sequence in 'The Fellowship of the Ring' many times and I never once considered our heroes being on a set - I fully suspended my disbelief and thought they were in peril.
People interested in tech should see 'An Unexpected Journey' in 48fps (which is being marketing as HFR 3D). People just looking to see a great movie should just see it in 24. Of course, anyone looking for a great movie will be disappointed. 'The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,' despite its many gimmicks, is just an okay movie.
'The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey' opens in theaters on December 14th.
Jordan Hoffman is a writer, critic and lapsed filmmaker living in New York City. His work can also be seen on Film.com, Badass Digest and StarTrek.com.