Film Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)
Nearly ten years after the conclusion to the incredible Lord of the Rings (LOTR) trilogy, Peter Jackson invites audiences back into the fantastic world of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth via The Hobbit: Un Unexpected Journey (2012), which is just part one of three based on the novel The Hobbit. It is a wonderfully nostalgic and expectedly spectacular adventure, but much of the magic that made the LOTR so exceptional is missing or less apparent here. In particular, the movie suffers from a bloated runtime and admittedly lighter and weaker source material, among a few other criticisms. Nonetheless, An Unexpected Journey is still a technically advanced, fabulously enjoyable and faithful (to a fault) return to Middle-Earth, despite its narrative shortcomings.
The film opens with events that occur just before the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring as Bilbo begins writing his tale, which begins with Gandalf asking/coercing him to join him on an adventure. Pretty soon he is off on a journey with the Grey wizard and thirteen dwarves, led by Thorin Oakenshield (heir to the dwarf kingdom), in order to reclaim their fallen kingdom and its vast riches deep inside the Lonely Mountain, which is guarded by the terrible dragon known as Smaug (a short prologue recounts the fateful desolation of Smaug). Bilbo is the company’s burglar; he will sneak into the mountain and hopefully steal the prized riches out from underneath Smaug’s fiery nose, if the dragon is still alive as he has not been seen for many years. Bilbo is quite hesitant to go on and continue with the adventure, but he must go forward confidently if he ever hopes to return to the Shire again, as they face many perils ahead.
The studio/filmmakers’ decision to split the roughly 270-page book into three (originally just two) parts is a blessing to some but a curse to many others. This installment covers only about 100 pages, yet it is still almost three hours long. As a result, Tolkien’s story is almost fully fleshed out (and then some), but the pacing is long-winded, especially early on. Indeed, as many critics have pointed out, the theatrical version actually feels more like an extended edition with many scenes lingering too long or even extraneous to the plot. Even with adding in other material from Tolkien’s other books and appendices, the story feels stretched and neuters some of the magic. Sure, it does justice to the source material, but doing so does not automatically justify a swollen runtime.
Take The Fellowship of the Ring for contrasts sake – it is 400 pages but they fit all of it into one three-hour (and solid four-hour extended edition) film without upsetting too many Tolkien purists, as the movie is absolutely spectacular (and they only got better in the LOTR trilogy). Thus, splitting The Hobbit into two films seemed like an acceptable choice as we all cherish the LOTR and don’t mind spending more time in Middle-Earth, but by splitting it into three-films the studio has limited the film’s chances of being as great. Even some more prudent trimming of this nearly three-hour installment would have helped a great deal. Nevertheless, fans of the first trilogy and most moviegoers won’t complain too much while watching this still rather enjoyable blockbuster.
However, it is subject to the prequel curse – because we already know that Biblo and Gandalf live to tell the tale, some of the suspense disappears. We definitely get caught up in the moment of fast-paced action, but we know he must find the ring and carry it home so he can pass it on to Frodo. Nevertheless, with such great imagery and a well-crafted production, going along for the journey is still a joy, despite knowing its basic end as far as characters go.
The other major problem is not from the film, per se – rather, it is the audience’s expectations. This is by no means on the same level as the LOTR trilogy; the source material itself is more flawed and less engaging. Instead of a plot to save the world from evil, it is about Bilbo helping the dwarves gain riches and reclaim their homeland. While the latter is admirable and the stakes are high as they try to accomplish such goals, the world is largely unaffected. On the other hand, many viewers will wholeheartedly relate to their troubles and root for them, as the nostalgia kicks in and the spectacle overwhelms. Yet, investing in this particular plight is not as an immediate and relevant one. Besides, The Hobbit is more like children’s fare than it is serious and adult-oriented, as the LOTR seems to be in contrast (though this film has its moments and hints at an approaching doom with an “ancient enemy”). It is quite cheeky at times with more slapstick and silly humor than perhaps the entire LOTR combined, but by the end the film does manage to build a breakneck pace with more gravitas. In short, managing one’s expectations going into the movie is essential, unless you are a diehard LOTR/Tolkien fanatic in which you will most likely love it – for the rest of us and probably the majority of moviegoers, it is simply a good film with a few great moments.
On its own merits, An Unexpected Journey is a mighty accomplishment in production terms. Once again, Jackson and his sleep-deprived cast and crew have crafted an almost unparalleled immersive experience, at least in terms of technical details. The production design, cinematography (apart from the new format and use of 3D), score and so forth are largely consistent with that of the LOTR trilogy, meaning the production value is excellent. In particular, Andrew Lesnie’s visuals are colorful and beautifully rendered (though personally it seems a bit too colorful and “clean” at times as I prefer the dirty look of LOTR), and Howard Shore reprises his role as composer with yet another first-rate original score, though it may not be as unforgettable as the pieces from LOTR (parts of which are hinted at or re-used at times here). Also, as a side note, the score is a bit too reminiscent of his one for Hugo (2011) and threw me off at times, but the casual viewer should not have problem and ought to enjoy the quality musical composition.
Speaking of technical aspects, the issue of the new high frame rate (HFR) of 48 frames-per-second (FPS) is a debate worth discussing. The new format, in which Jackson filmed in, certainly aids the 3D, as it helps to limit the motion-blur and brightens the picture with a hyper-real look. However, in “quieter” scenes, the look is a bit distracting; it looks like one is watching a sports game on an HDTV or some BBC television show – the soap opera effect occurs at times (it is less noticeable in the bigger scenes). After a while, though, one adjusts to the HFR. However, whether one wants to is another question – it simply does not look/feel as cinematic and hopefully will not catch on with every film. In fact, I saw this in the old-fashioned “2D”/regular 24fps format, and it looked just as grand if not a bit more realistic, as our eyes more closely match this format. Besides, the LOTR did not have this at its disposal, and yet it was amazing anyway. Then again, the advancements in technology have allowed viewers to feel “closer” to the characters on-screen with clearer images and crisper special effects; indeed, the film is a joy to watch.
Although the cast is not as filled with recognizable faces as the LOTR trilogy, it still features solid performances all-around. Martin Freeman is an ideal choice to play the swashbuckling yet quietly heroic Bilbo Baggins; he does a fair job carrying the film here and will likely only become stronger as this new trilogy continues on. Richard Armitage is stellar as the brooding and brave Thorin Oakenshield, even if he is a notch less charismatic than Viggo Mortensen’s Aragorn; viewers will invest in Thorin’s plight as they discover more about his past and true, upstanding self despite the cold exterior. Unfortunately, the rest of the dwarves do not have enough time to fully distinguish themselves, but each actor puts forth earnest performances. Sylvester McCoy puts in a decent turn as the loopy Radagast the Brown, one of the other wizards of Middle-Earth. Lee Pace very briefly appears as the self-serving elf king Thranduil, whom we shall see much of in the next two installments. Barry Humphries “plays” the Great Goblin, or at least voices him; his character epitomizes the inconsistent tone of the film that somewhat threw me off – his lines are goofy at times which lessens the direness of the situation.
Several notable members of the original LOTR trilogy reprise their roles to varying capacities. Ian McKellen has immortalized the Gandalf role, in which he seems to be having a blast and it shows for the better. Ian Holm, Elijah Wood, Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett, and Christopher Lee all make short cameos as old Bilbo, Frodo, Lord Elrond, Lady Galadriel, and Saruman the White, all of whom put forth quality turns in such small roles; (however, it is sad to see a now 90-year-old Lee continue acting as his age clearly has caught up with him).
It is Andy Serkis who steals the entire show, reprising his role as Gollum. First, the updated special effects have made the lovably pitiful character even more realistic; he looks awesome. Serkis is fantastic to watch as Gollum/Smeagol, though Gollum is clearly the dominating one here. This “riddles in the dark” set piece is perhaps the best part of the film, as Bilbo and Gollum battle each other with riddles.
Tolkien’s works in Middle-Earth are thinly veiled, exaggerated tales of good vs. evil (LOTR more so than this). In An Unexpected Journey, the themes are obviously still present, such as Gandalf’s assertion that “true courage is not knowing when to take a life, but when to spare it” (in reference to Gollum, whom we know is essential to Frodo’s journey in LOTR). However, the messages become a bit preachy at times, such as the scene in which he speaks with Lady Galadriel – Gandalf virtually stares into the camera as he gives his sermon about what staves off evil. While these messages are worthwhile, this film is less clever in conveying them.
In the end, An Unexpected Journey may feel more accomplished when the Hobbit trilogy is complete (Desolation of Smaug in Dec. 2013 and There and Back Again in July 2014), but for now it is incomplete and feels a bit overstuffed. Of course, it is an enjoyable adventure to go on, despite its slower pace, thanks to wonderfully artistry, committed performances and the most powerful tool at Jackson’s disposal: nostalgia. Beyond the feeling of “seeing an old friend again,” this film is not nearly as emotionally-involving as the roller-coaster rides of LOTR are; it’s not hard to imagine many viewers hoped to feel a bit more from this movie. While it is not exactly fair to compare it to the LOTR trilogy, it is inevitable and the expectations are not exceeded, which leads to some disappointment; at best, they are satisfied but not overwhelmed (indeed, this is not even close to Fellowship, which now seems like the weakest of the LOTR, the whole of which is greatly elevated by the slight disappointment here; re-watch LOTR after this and you will be astonished all over again) – hopefully the new trilogy raises the stakes and becomes great, but for now it is merely good and for many that may not be quite enough. Still, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is definitely worth seeing in theaters and on multiple formats (at least for the experience), as it is one of the better productions and more enjoyable films of 2012.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey – 8/10