‘The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey‘ is a fulfilling and entertaining adventure that is sure to please most Middle-earth enthusiasts. Filled with direct book-to-screen moments and some unique new additions, the film stands as a strong first installment of a three-year adventure. If you think of it as a fine art masterpiece in a beautiful museum, it can sit proudly next to its LOTR siblings. Well, sorta. You see, someone chose an overly busy frame with bright colors and fancy patterns that distracts from the essential content. Luckily, in your experience, you can easily swap out the frame.
As you’ll read later, this reviewer suggests this may be the wisest course first-up.
As an adaptation and expansion on Tolkien’s 75-year-old children literature classic — emphasis on children — this film is more fantastic and at times more ‘cartoony’ than its trilogy predecessor. A quick example… while in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring we see the four Hobbits trying to escape Farmer Maggot and falling down a long slope with nothing but a broken carrot, in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey we see the Company of Thorin falling down a 1000-foot crevasse (multiple times) and simply dusting themselves off.
That theme permeates the film. The ‘bad guys’ are not quite horrible monstrosities that cause death and destruction but instead are similar to villains in an episode of the A-Team. You know, where no matter how many times they shoot at our heroes, they never actually hit their mark. It ultimately makes for exciting confrontations, but no real concern the heroes will meet their doom. Some who are not familiar with the childish nature of The Hobbit might find this a bit odd when they compare the drama to the LOTR films.
The acting by the core cast was astoundingly good. Martin Freeman IS Bilbo Baggins and as expected delivers an amazing performance with true emotion, humor and feeling. Ian McKellen is a less serious version of his LOTR-self and in many ways a lot more likable. His sense of humor comes across more in the performance and it is very endearing. Richard Armitage delivers a dead-on performance of Thorin. For those of us who know what the future holds for Thorin, I can clearly state the casting was perfect. Andy Serkis returns as Gollum and provides yet another amazing performance. ‘Riddles in the Dark’ will be one of your favorite scenes — guaranteed!
The dwarves were always a bit of a concern for me because I thought we’d be spending a lot of time getting to know each and dealing with lot of childish humor. This is not the case. They do all get introductions and each has their own distinct and unique contribution to the film. There is of course some ‘potty’ humor, but nothing that is overdone or inconsistent. Ken Stott as Balin delivers a stand-out performance — one that does not go unnoticed and puts him on par with the other key players.
The rest of the cast provide strong performances but some are a bit constrained by the visual performance that accompanies their acting. If you are looking for the awesomeness of The Goblin King from Rankin/Bass, I fear you will be a bit disappointed. And Radagast, while semi-interesting and fun in a childish sense (which is okay!), seems to be just thrown in to have another wizard.
Some of the folks I saw the film with had issues with the ‘slowness’ of the story, but I did not. I was surprised how fast the film felt – when it ended I was surprised at the time.
To avoid major spoilers, I’ll just say that there were definitely a few points where I felt the small things were ‘overdone.’ Take Elrond’s reading of the moon-letters on the map.
The book: …The moon was shining in a broad silver crescent. He held up the map and the white light shone through it. “What is this?” he said. “There are moon-letters here…
In the movie it’s not nearly so simple. You see, apparently the Elves in Rivendell have painstakingly built a ledge on a massive cliff-face complete with a special moon-table. To read moon-letters, you must gather around this table and place the suspected moon-letter document on the table. The table then glows with moon-light and reveals what is on it. I can’t imagine this ledge gets much use — typical of the wealthy elves to be so wasteful with space and function. Heh — yeah, I had a bit of a chuckle at that point.
There is one BIG negative from my viewing of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. It has nothing to do with the plot, acting, score or any other aspect of the actual content of the film. It has to do with wrapping this masterpiece in the inappropriate frame of HFR 3D. It was quite simply unnecessary to saddle this film with this presentational wizardry.
And it’s something I had hoped that was not going to be the case.
In fact, I was very excited to see this new technology and experience the ‘future of film.’ I was ready for it! Even with the uproar from those crusty cinema owners last year, I figured that was a bunch of old fogeys who simply didn’t want to update their equipment. I was fully expecting to be blown away and fall in love with this next evolution in film. I felt this way right up until the opening scenes of the movie. Then it happened…
I told myself: ‘Oh Chris, your eyes will get used to it… just a bit longer.‘
Nope — never got used to it. I couldn’t help but think, ‘Why does this look like some highly produced BBC TV drama?‘ In fact, about every 10 minutes or so (or maybe whenever something was particularly bright on screen) I found myself being literally drawn out of Middle-earth and back into the present — the theater. And therein lies the issue. I was constantly taken out of the story and performance because my brain was distracted by the ‘bells and whistles’ on screen. I was jolted out of the content of the film and noticed the tech behind it. That is unfortunate.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a great movie that is saddled with this unnecessary mission to advance the future of film. So here’s my slightly controversial suggestion: Watch this film first in good ole fashioned 24fps. Then, for your second viewing, go and see it in HFR. This way your initial experience won’t be compromised by the tech and second-time-round you may actually be able to enjoy the high frame rate as well!
As an aside, I did consider that I’m simply too old for this type of presentation. I’m 38. I don’t play video games and don’t run out to see IMAX or 3D viewings of films on a regular basis. So maybe the thirteen-year-olds of the world will love it.
To summarize, rush out and see The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and enjoy the ride! As long as you bring along your inner child you’ll have a wonderful time. If you have a choice, DO NOT see it in 48fps for your first viewing.