Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
PLOT: Sixty years before the events of THE LORD OF THE RINGS, Bilbo Baggins embarked on an amazing journey to the Wastelands of the Lonely Mountain to help a tribe of dwarves reclaim their homeland from the villainous dragon Smaug and, in the process, went from meek, content Hobbit to a brave, noble warrior.
REVIEW: Going in to see THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY at this point without baggage is impossible. The film is, of course, Peter Jackson's prequel to his beloved adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy, a tough act to follow considering the awards, plaudits and heavy following. Then there's the matter of the high frame rate Jackson made the film in; perhaps you've heard that the director shot his movie at 48 frames-per-second, double the normal rate, which theoretically gives the movie (when projected in 3D and at 48fps) a hyper-real, you-are-there look but has been deemed unusual and off-putting in many early reactions. It's a curiosity at best, the consensus appears to be, and ultimately a major distraction.
My own experience with THE LORD OF THE RINGS has been one of sincere admiration mixed with aloofness. I find the films alternately astounding and boring, and while I acknowledge their beauty and grandeur, I can't count myself among those who cherish them because I'm emotionally kept at arm's length. Put it this way: I'm more apt not to watch them if they're on cable than I am to immediately flip them on... So walking into THE HOBBIT, I was frankly more intrigued to experience the frame rate controversy firsthand than to revisit Jackson and Tolkien's fantastical world of wizards, elves and trolls.
Gratefully, I found the film to be more or less in line with past trips to Middle-earth. It can often be a plodding, exposition-heavy drag, but can just as often be a truly exciting spectacle in the tradition of the great cinematic epics, with Jackson proving again several times that he can build and sustain a rousing action sequence as well as anyone ever has. People who love the original trilogy can rest assured that THE HOBBIT is wholly keeping with the general aura and atmosphere of those movies, while perhaps falling somewhat short of the novelty that they presented a decade ago.
The first act is the weakest, thanks to a large amount of exposition and a general sense of waiting for things to get exciting. THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING suffered from the same problem, although as that was the kickoff of the series, it's easy to forgive its gradual build-up. Here, Jackson and Co. are spinning their wheels while attempting to create complex drama out of what is essentially a very basic tale: a group of dwarves, led by the stoic Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), seek to reclaim their homeland from the fearsome dragon, Smaug, and have enlisted the assistance of the great wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen). Gandalf, in turn, recruits a complacent Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) to join their quest in the role of “burglar.” And while the Hobbit is frightened and unsure of himself, he agrees to the challenge.
Much of THE HOBBIT's opening is a sort of knowing parallel to FELLOWSHIP's first hour, with a getting-to-know-you period for the large clan, with an uncertain Hobbit caught in the middle acting as the audience surrogate. The problem here, however, is that we don't have a disparate bunch of unique personalities; a couple of exceptions aside, all these dwarves more or less act and look very similarly. They're not an unlikable gang, but they're a big old jumble; Throrin stands out because he's their humorless King, and while Armitage is imposing, he's no Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) in the charisma department. Thorin is thoroughly skeptical of Bilbo's mettle, and keeps the affable Hobbit in the doghouse during much of the journey, while the Hobbit finds the other dwarves more welcoming.
THE HOBBIT has evidently been very faithfully adapted by Jackson, Fran Walsh, Phillipa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro (the project's initial director), and it shows. The movie's early passages are bloated with talk, shenanigans and diversions. The group have several layovers as their mission progresses, and the movie is sometimes content to hang out while they shoot the bull. Paradise for Tolkien purists, most likely, but for the rest of us eager to witness a story unfold, Jackson's film can be frustratingly repetitive at times.
What offsets any boredom felt during the more ponderous passages is Jackson's mastery of the action sequence. THE HOBBIT contains several heart-pounding passages, most of them contained in the thrilling third act, which features a vertigo-inducing encounter with living mountains (terrific), a wild chase within a subterranean goblin kingdom (marvelous) and a cliff-side battle with vicious orcs and their snarling hounds (amazing). Jackson crafts what literally feels like a breakneck pace in the finale, as his camera swoops, cranes, dips and dives through a multitude of environments, with a seemingly endless assortment of objects and characters being thrown our way. There's definitely an argument to be made for another Visual Effects Oscar for Weta's work, as well as Andrew Lesnie's cinematography.
It would be rude not to mention Gollum (once again played with gusto by Andy Serkis), who gets an extended cameo toward the end of the film but whose very presence is as stunning and amusing as it was in the LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy. It may not be overstating things to say that the conflicted, pitiful creature has never been more fantastically rendered; Jackson, Weta and Serkis produce genuine movie magic with this character once again, and it simply never gets old watching him fret and conspire with himself. (It's also worth noting that the 3D in his sequence is terrific, and the 48fps may very well add to how brilliantly effective it is.)
The returning cast is solid, as can be expected. McKellen's Gandalf is such a reassuring presence and it's hard not to smile whenever the old pro looks as if he's pleased as punch to be reprising the role, which is always. Cate Blanchett and Hugo Weaving reprise their roles as luminous elves and they settle in comfortably, while Christopher Lee's Sauromon has a cameo that finds the wizard in a more benevolent state of mind than in LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy. (It's great to see Lee once again, but it's becoming sadly apparent just how tough it is for the now 90-year-old actor to act at this stage.)
Freeman's Bilbo is a bit of a problem, at least at first. Like the character, Freeman sometimes seems to be trying too hard, and his overly emphatic puzzlement and exasperation frequently comes off like shtick in a BBC sitcom; he's very much a frazzled Brit throughout, even though everyone else is, you know, dwarves and wizards and such. Of course, Bilbo grows during his perilous journey, and it's only toward the end that we see Freeman lose the familiar affectations.
It remains to be seen if THE HOBBIT is worth spreading into three movies (as mentioned, I've not read the book but I understand that the consensus is three movies is about two too many), but if they are, it would not be unappreciated if Jackson comes to the realization that an epic needn't be three hours. He's loyal to a fault to a material and finds it necessary to over-stuff when restraint is called for.
We'll wrap up with a quick word about the 48fps: I'd recommend skipping it. THE HOBBIT looks completely bizarre for at least the first 20 minutes, as characters appear to move too fast and a strange inauthentic quality hangs over most of the Hobbiton sequences. One does adjust, more or less, but just when you think you're used to is, a scene comes along that throws you out of the immediacy of the picture once again. Action scenes or sweeping aerial shots look appropriately grand, but simple conversations or character moments are unorthodox in a most unwelcome way. I'm glad I saw this high frame rate experiment, if only for the sake of saying now I know what it looks like, but I don't think I'd want to witness THE HOBBIT – or any other movie – this way again.