Film Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

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Finally, the prequel trilogy to Peter Jackson’s The Lords of the Rings trilogy is upon us. Jackson and his team have been tooling away on this new batch of films for what seems like an eternity.

The first of The Hobbit trilogy, subtitled “An Unexpected Journey,” focuses on Bilbo Baggins, uncle of Frodo, and the journey that saw him come to be in possession of a certain “precious.” This story involves, as expected, epic journeys and lots of ups and downs along the way.

Since The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey has been one of more highly-anticipated films of the year, as a special treat, two of our film reviewers will share their very differing point of views on the film. Hit the break for our special review!

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Written by Andrew Pollard

To get it right out there on the front street from the get go, An Unexpected Journey is the first film to ever be shot and viewed at 48 frames per second (fps). That means you will, literally, have never seen a film like it. Films are always shot at a rate of 24 fps -– it’s been that way for the last 80 years or so. Peter Jackson is using new technology to double the frame rate from 24 to 48, meaning that you get twice as many frames that you’re accustomed to. This makes everything a lot clearer, a lot more rigid, a lot more focused and allows detail levels never seen before. Most cinemas seem to be showing the film in 2D, 3D and 3D HFR (High Frame Rate). I’ll come back to how all this affects the film later, but, for now, let’s see if the story itself is actually any good.

The film begins with a prologue depicting the once thriving Dwarf Kingdom of Erebor, its proud King, people, architecture and industry. This all comes to a crashing halt at the hands of a fire-breathing dragon by the name of Smaug, who seeks the riches of Erebor for himself. We’re then treated to a second prologue, this time showing the older Bilbo that film fans are accustomed to, played once again by Ian Holm, penning a letter to his nephew, Frodo, again played by Elijah Wood. The letter is to explain Bilbo’s greatest journey — one full of the adventures a hobbit can only dream of. We then see how these two stories intertwine, as Bilbo, courtesy of Gandalf (played by the returning Ian McKellan), in a surprise gathering, meet a group of thirteen dwarves on a mission to take back their homeland. With Bilbo along for the ride, the group cross paths with orcs, elves, wizards, trolls, goblins, old scores and much, much more.

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An Unexpected Journey has enough familiarity about it to resonate with fans of the original trilogy of films, yet enough differences to appeal to a slightly different audience. The settings of the film, particularly the Shire, the style of the film, the scenery, the creatures, the clothes, etc., are all familiar enough to resonate a smile from loyal fans of Jackson’s previous films. That said, the story, whilst focusing on a cross-country adventure similar to that of the other films, has enough variety to make sure that it doesn’t just appear as a rehash of The Lord of the Rings. For starters, the journey itself isn’t quite as epic in sheer distance as the previous films. Along the way, we find out why the dwarves don’t like the elves, we learn of what other wizards exist, we revisit characters featured in the previous trilogy, we meet new characters and species, and we, of course, meet Gollum.

One thing that certainly stands out here, as with Jackson’s earlier The Lord of the Rings work, is the sheer brutality shown in the fight scenes, of which there are several. We seem limbs cut off, skulls impaled and decapitations aplenty. Of course, this is all perfectly fine as it’s beasties and monsters, as opposed to actual people. The film is rated 12A, although some of the darker, more violent scenes could have easily seen the film given a higher rating. The brutality fits the story perfectly well; although, it may be a bit much for some more sensitive, younger audiences. Once again, though, the orcs are a perfect amalgamation of raw, aggressive savagery that will have you on the edge of your seat.

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Again voiced and animated by Andy Serkis, the scenes involving Gollum are fantastic and intense. The character is only featured for a relatively short time, but his exchange with Martin Freeman’s Bilbo is a highlight of the film. Serkis’ performance as Gollum and his split personality is a joy to watch; one minute he’s playing nice, the other he’s reaching for a rock to bludgeon somebody with.

As well as Serkis being great in his role, Martin Freeman also shines as the lead of the film, Bilbo Baggins. Freeman’s Bilbo shows humor, awkwardness and understated courage at all the right times, with his performance also fitting the tone set by Holm’s Bilbo.

As for the rest of the cast, we’re treated to a fantastically strong ensemble, largely made up of some of Britain’s finest and lesser known talent. The leader, and King in waiting, of the dwarves, Thorin, is played superbly by Richard Armitage. His passion for his fallen land and family is etched in his being, with his focus being solely on reaching Erebor and protecting the men that follow his lead. Thorin is almost to this group and this film what Viggo Mortensen’s Aragorn was to his group and his film series. The rest of the supporting cast are made up of Graham McTavish, Ken Stott, James Nesbitt, Aidan Turner, Dean O’Gorman and Sylvester McCoy, amongst others. There’s also small appearances by some familiar faces as the group go about their journey.

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The film is visually stunning, with the detail and the landscapes being arguably the most visually impressive thing I have ever seen on the big screen. The 48 fps certainly does the job. Sure, the film takes a few seconds to get used to, and it almost gives a “too real” feeling initially. Once your eyes get accustomed to what you’re viewing, though, then everything is ridiculously clear and has a crispness and freshness about it. I can see why 48 fps may have its detractors, but Jackson pulled it off brilliantly here. With the amount of detail visible, and the clarity of it, it puts enormous pressure on the crew and the actors. Everything has to be just right, down to exact facials, expressions and effects work. Whilst there is a lot of CGI used here, it’s mostly of very good quality.

Personally, I’m a fan of practical effects, but I understand that this isn’t always possible these days. There are a few niggles with the CGI at times, but nowhere near enough to detract from the film and the story being told. This is also all accompanied by a slightly familiar, yet highly effective, score.

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With its 169-minute running time, some people may wonder if the film will drag at times. Whilst the story is stretched out a little, the film never really loses its focus or its pace. With advertisements and trailers, I was in the cinema for over 3 1/2 hours, yet the time seemed to fly by. Not once did I look at my watch, and not once did I hope that the film would rush to a finish. When the finish does come, it just leaves you wanting more and wanting to see how the next part of Jackson’s prequel trilogy plays out.

Now, I’ll plead ignorance and say that I haven’t actually read The Hobbit or any of Tolkien’s work, so maybe my opinion isn’t that of a Tolkien loyalist. Don’t get me wrong, I like to read; I just tend to read about cinema history, 70′s blockbusters, 80′s slashers, Kevin Smith stories and comics. So excuse my ignorance if An Unexpected Journey isn’t quite what you Tolkien fans were hoping for. As a pure cinephile, I thought the film was a brilliant start to what, hopefully, will be an epic trilogy.

GO Rating: 5/5

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[Images 1, 2, 3, 4 & 5]

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Written by Steve Attanasie

Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy has taken on mythic status in the worlds of film & pop culture — and rightfully so. As a bold experiment, they were worthy of your time and attention. They artfully condensed three dense fantasy novels into three action-packed films with tons of characters to relate to. The fact that they haven’t aged well in the decade since their release does not preclude them from consideration as major milestones in the serious advancement of fantasy filmmaking.

The most significant trend that those films birthed, however, was the notion that any filmmaker could bloat any adaptation of any book up to interminable lengths. Even trifles such as Eragon and the Twilight novels were turned into two-hour-plus unwieldy monstrosities. Now the man that started the whole trend returns to the scene of the crime.

Peter Jackson took the directing reigns away from Guillermo del Toro and gives us his film version of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings prequel, The Hobbit. Where he previously gave us a book to film ratio of 1:1, he has inexplicably decided now to increase that ratio to 1:3. Now, I understand very clearly what he has said in regards to this decision — I just don’t accept his reasoning as sound logic. Cramming in superfluous and ancillary material from appendices and minor works by the same author does not give you license to bloat an otherwise jaunty little novel.

The other fundamental problem is that he’s working in reverse. By having already given us the main course (LOTR) with stakes that went as high as the destruction of Middle-Earth, to now go back and try and give what amounts to an appetizer the same sense of import is just nonsense. The stakes involved in the novel and story of The Hobbit couldn’t be lower in the grand scheme of things, but since ravenous audiences are demanding of more, bigger, faster, louder, crazier… the follow-up films need to deliver. It’s a chicken and egg situation, but ultimately I fault Jackson for his need to turn The Hobbit into something it isn’t.

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The film opens with another flashback sequence designed to get audiences up to speed on the plight of the once proud race of Dwarves that dwelled in the Lonely Mountain of Erebor, until their home was usurped by a dragon named Smaug. That’s all well and good, but the film then gives us the equivalent of a 1970’s Christmas Variety show scene where old Bilbo (Ian Holm) & Frodo (Elijah Wood) give us a new perspective on the events of the day leading up to Bilbo’s 111th Birthday from The Fellowship of the Ring. Setting up this thoroughly unnecessary and absurd framing device was the first sign that I had that something was afoul in Hobbiton.

Soon, we’re flashing back to see young Bilbo (Martin Freeman) and his first meeting with Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen). Gandalf has selected Bilbo to be the fourteenth member of a party of dwarves that will be following their pre-ordained leader Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) on a quest to reclaim their home. The fact that this sentence more or less encapsulates the entire plot of not just this film, but all three, can give you some indication as to how much filler we’re going to be dealing with. It’s never a good sign when I can sum up the plot of three films in one sentence.

Such dalliances away from the main plot include several prolonged sequences involving one of Gandalf’s fellow wizards Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy) that do nothing to further the plot. In fact, his only purpose is to alert Gandalf to the fact that an ancient evil has come back to Middle Earth, but since we already know how that all shakes out thanks to the LOTR trilogy, the stakes couldn’t be lower. I understand that in the future, watching it all in sequence may make these scenes important, but as a counter argument I present this thoroughly unnecessary sequence involving a meeting at Rivendell between Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), Elrond (Hugo Weaving) and Saruman (Christopher Lee). The scene exists only to get nerd boners pumped up because there’s no proper introduction to any of them. We already know who they are because of the previous trilogy, so what exactly is happening here? I just want to know what the intended order should be for these two trilogies.

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Those of you jonesing for a bland but messianic leader will get your rocks off on Thorin. He’s got all the nobility and bluster built up that Aragon has in the previous trilogy, with a healthy dose of heavy-handed backstory to ensure that you root for him. The most egregious issue that this film has, though, is its never-ending series of climaxes. If you thought Return of the King had too many endings, it seems downright full of restraint in regards to the number of climaxes in this film — all of which, I might add, are resolved through increasingly ridiculous Deus ex Machina. Not one predicament that these characters get in can’t be solved by someone or something literally coming out of the blue to rescue them.

The dwarves of Peter Jackson’s Middle-Earth are a bunch of over-the-top, helpless, comic relief hounds that serve no other purpose than to get themselves into predicaments where they either require rescuing or end with a “fatty make a funny” punchline. This contempt for the dwarves is nothing new — it was prominent in the original trilogy, but it’s just getting egregious now. Shoehorning in burps and cutaways to fat dwarves falling down seems to be the only thing amusing Jackson in the editing room.

I got to see the film in the highly touted 48 frames per second projection and I cannot stress enough how much you should avoid this. It was quite the curiosity for me as a film fan, but it caused everything to look like a Discovery Channel documentary. It didn’t look like a film at all. It looked like the most expensive documentary on Larping ever made. On top of that, people moved with a sped-up eeriness that recalls old footage of Babe Ruth running the bases after hitting a home run. It serves only to distract and made the cgi characters look like video games. The evil Pale Orc ended up looking like Kratos from God of War — and I don’t mean that as a compliment.

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While the film is not a total debacle on par with the Star Wars prequels, it reeks of being inessential. Had he devoted one film to The Hobbit and then another to Gandalf’s stupid side quests and elf lineage, there might have been a reason for all the bloat. As it stands now, I cannot fathom what they’re going to do with another six hours of film time to go. The final shot of the film puts Erebor at such a distance, in spite of how far they’ve already traveled, that it made me roll my eyes at how much they’re desperately trying to keep this thing going.

There’s a great film that can be made from The Hobbit and the assorted other stories from the Tolkien ephemera, but Peter Jackson is not the man to make those films. Handing him back the reigns was the worst decision anyone involved with these films made. He is not the genius everyone makes him out to be, and he doesn’t have enough perspective on the material to know what should stay and what should go. His love for the source material makes him the worst possible choice to turn it into a film. The fact that we live in a day and age where this film runs the same length as Cloud Atlas which managed to cram an entire novel into an identical running time lets you know a bit about what we’re dealing with here.

I’ll end up seeing the other films in this series — I know I will — but the bar may as well be buried at this point. I don’t hold out any hope that things will get better, but as far as I’m concerned, I really dread them getting any worse.

GO Rating: 1/5

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[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]

Steve Attanasie

Steve Attanasie

Film News Contributor & Reviewer (joined 04-2012)

An avid movie lover from the age of six and a film critic since the age of twelve (Junior High newspaper counts, people), Steve brings a unique perspective to film criticism. As a father to two young girls, he sees virtually every kids’ movie released, but he’s also a big fan of smaller, independent, auteur driven films as well as the occasional mindless shoot-em-up action film.

Favorite films include Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Wizard of Oz, The Godfather, Amadeus, American Movie, Magnolia, Her, Rashomon, City Lights, Vertigo, Rushmore, Dr. Strangelove, & Last Year at Marienbad. Steve tries to respond to all questions, comments & criticisms, so please feel free to leave any combination of the three on his reviews or news items.

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Aw, he gave her his heart and she gave him the clap #YouSaidICouldSayAnything – 5 days ago

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