Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
PLOT: A hobbit, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) is recruited by Gandalf (Ian McKellen) the wizard to join a company of thirteen dwarves, led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) on a quest to reclaim their home Erebor from the dragon Smaug.
REVIEW: Nine years after THE RETURN OF THE KING, Peter Jacksonís long awaited first installment of his new Middle-Earth trilogy, THE HOBBIT, has finally arrived. This is one of those fanboy dream projects that, for a while, looked like it would never come together, having acquired and then lost a new director, Guillermo del Toro, before the reins were finally taken by the only man who ever really could bring J.R.R Tolkien to the big screen- Peter Jackson.
One thing must be addressed- expectations. I know, from reading tweets, Facebook status updates, stories, etc., that a lot of the hardcore LOTR fans are expecting some kind of masterpiece. I liked AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY- but it's no masterpiece. It's a fun spectacle, but I doubt even the biggest Jackson fans will ever say this measures up to the LOTR trilogy. Now don't fret- this is not THE PHANTOM MENACE all over again, but it does, perhaps inevitably, fall a little short.
Still with me? Good- let's slog on...
Whether or not THE HOBBIT- a less epic work than LORD OF THE RINGS, deserves the three-film treatment is a question we wonít be able to answer until the third film hits theaters in (presumably) July 2014. However, the first installment, AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY is likely to please most LOTR fans (and who isnít to at least some extent?) - even if the saga may not be as immediately gripping as it was in FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING. My biggest fear going in was that- at 160 minutes, THE HOBBIT would feel padded out to epic length, as itís only based on 1/3rd of a book. Truthfully, AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY does feel a bit like an "expanded edition"- even though I'm sure it'll be even more expanded on Blu-ray. But it was still pretty jam-packed with thrills, chills and chuckles. The Tolkien fans who thought Jackson condensed too much of LOTR will no doubt be thrilled with how faithful he is here (in addition to adding some novelties of his own). Even for everyone else though, it shouldn't be too much of a problem. With Jackson's Middle-Earth films, you either go on the ride, or you don't. I decided to go on the ride.
Reuniting most of the original trilogyís team, AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY really does feel like it could have been shot at the same time as the original trilogy. The only way youíd ever know ten years have passed is by noticing how the CGI has actually improved- even though it pushed the envelope back in the early Ďaughts. The actors that return for the new trilogy, including Ian McKellen, Cate Blanchett, and Hugo Weaving- along with a few other surprises, look exactly like they did in the first series, giving it a nice continuity that most other prequels would never get.
The key player in Jacksonís new saga is Martin Freeman, who is mostly known stateside for his role on Ricky Gervaisí original edition of THE OFFICE, along with his role as Watson in BBCís SHERLOCK. As Bilbo, Freeman is an ideal choice, being able to turn from nearly slapstick comedy, to swashbuckling, to a bit of pathos on a dime. Heís absolutely spot-on, picking up beautifully on Ian Holmís original performance of the aged Bilbo in LOTR. He anchors the series in the same way Elijah Wood did as Frodo, and itís inconceivable to think of anyone else in the part.
If Freeman is this sagaís Elijah Wood, a strong case could be made that Richard Armitage, as the heroic warrior prince Thorin, could be THE HOBBITís Viggo Mortensen- although letís not go quite that far yet. However, Armitage is pretty great as the bold dwarf prince, handling most of the big action scenes, and bringing the kind of gravitas and absolute sincerity a fantasy like this requires. Likely, people will be championing him as THE HOBBITís big discovery.
Meanwhile, good old Ian McKellen doesnít miss a beat reprising his iconic role as Gandalf. Itís so much fun watching him play the mead-loving, mischievous Gandalf the Grey again, as opposed to the more serious Gandalf the White we saw in THE TWO TOWERS and THE RETURN OF THE KING. Gandalf, even in the midst of battle always has that twinkle in his eye, and McKellen isnít just good in the part- Iíd say heís downright immortal. The same could be said for Andy Serkis, whoís back as Gollum in the filmís major set piece, which is the famous battle of riddles between him and Bilbo. Gollum looks even realer here than he did the last time around.
Meanwhile, the other twelve dwarves are all a lot of fun, even if none save for Ken Stott as the aged Balin and James Nesbitt as Bofur really has the opportunity to distinguish themselves right away. Many of THE HOBBITís other major new players, including Evangeline Lily, sit this one out (although I may have seen Lily as a flute-playing Elf at one point).
Just as important, in his own way, as Jackson is composer Howard Shore, whose score for THE HOBBIT is very much in the tradition of work on LOTR. Many of his famous themes are reprised here, and overall the score just as stirring as youíd hope, although his newer cues may not be as immediately memorable as they were in FELLOWSHIP.
Now- the one thing that absolutely has to be addressed is the whole 48fps issue. I got to see it in this new fangled-format, and Iím sad to say I absolutely loathed the experience. To me, the movie- in 48fps, looks like video, as if I was watching a football game on my HDTV, or something on the BBC. Maybe it just takes some getting used to, but itís simply not cinematic, and the ultra-fast motion was disorienting, and distracted from an otherwise good film. I have no doubt people will love this ďrealisticĒ approach- but who goes to THE HOBBIT for realism? For me it was a huge drawback, although I tried not to let it affect my rating too much, as I know only about a third of the prints will be affected by the technology. One thingís for certain- if I see it again itíll be in 24fps. Of course, itís also in 3D, which is about as good here as the technology gets, even if Iím not a fan of the gimmick in general.
That aside, I really enjoyed going back to Middle Earth with Jackson and co. Being that itís THE HOBBIT and not LORD OF THE RINGS, donít expect the same ultra-epic battle of good versus evil, as this is a far more lighthearted romp. Still- itís a ton of fun, and Iím certainly looking forward to the next two installments.