We should be thankful that the “The Hobbit” actually made it to the big screen after all the setbacks it suffered. Peter Jackson and New Line Cinema kept fighting with one another, the Tolkien estate had its issues, Guillermo Del Toro was set to direct and then dropped out, etc. “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” deserves some kind of award for finally becoming a reality in any format, be it IMAX, 3D or the new High Frame Rate. For a time, it didn’t look like it was going to be worth the trouble.
But here we are back in the land of hobbits, Middle Earth and Rivendell. At the same time, the end result proves to be something of a mixed bag. Perhaps it’s the shadow of “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy which hangs over this one too much, but “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” doesn’t quite have the same magic as the films which came before it. However, if you are willing to endure its nearly three hour length (and many will regardless of what I have to say about it), there are a number of very entertaining moments and several visual splendors to be found throughout.
After a brief prologue which has Ian Holm and Elijah Wood making cameos as Bilbo Baggins and Frodo, the movie travels back 60 years to the past where Bilbo is played by Martin Freeman. Gandalf the Grey (Sir Ian McKellen) comes by Bilbo’s home to recruit him for a journey which Bilbo initially says no to, but Gandalf is not the kind of wizard who takes no for an answer. Pretty soon Bilbo is introduced to a band of dwarves (I’m not going over all the names here) who are looking to reclaim a treasure they lost to Smaug the dragon. This dragon ended up destroying the dwarves’ homes and drove them out of Erebor, and now the time has come for them to slay the dragon and take back what is rightfully theirs.
Now “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” is one of several movies coming out right now that is at least two and a half hours long. Now I don’t mind long movies as long as they are able to justify their length, but Jackson really pushes the limits here. This movie takes a long time to get going and I really started to get restless as the dwarves raided Bilbo’s kitchen and ate all his food. They are a humorous bunch, but I was eager to see the story get underway a lot sooner instead of witnessing a bunch of prolonged introductions.
Then there’s the issue of the whole 48 frames per second deal. The industry standard is 24 frames per second, but Jackson was intent on using the higher frame rate as he felt it would improve the overall image quality. In many ways it does, but it takes a bit of getting used to. At the movie’s start there were many visual effects that swooped their way across the screen and my eyes were like “hey rewind that! I didn’t see all of it!” Some have compared this clarity of image to watching one of those high definition television screens at your local Best Buy, and if that’s true then our mothers were right when they told us “don’t stand so close to the TV screen! It’ll hurt your eyes!” It takes time for the brain to process all the images it receives, and I’m still trying to process half of “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” several hours after watching it.
Having said all that, the movie does get better as it goes along and the High Frame Rate becomes less of a distraction. I loved the visuals that Jackson and his crew came up with especially when the characters arrived at Rivendell. If there is a resort like Rivendell on this planet, please let me know because it looks so damn beautiful that I would kill to take a vacation there.
Once again our characters do go into the mountain and that’s where “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” scores some of its best moments. The scenes with the goblins are visual marvels, and watching them reminded me of how magical a filmmaker Jackson is. The scenes with the goblins and the Goblin King are brilliantly staged as our heroes have to make their way across bridges before they fall apart or crumble under their feet. I was swept up so much by the special effects that I kept wondering how Jackson managed to pull all that off. It’s that wonder which helps to make these movies so good.
It’s also great to see familiar faces like McKellen, Cate Blanchett and Hugo Weaving who return as the characters they played in the previous three movies. McKellen has given this series a certain gravitas as Gandalf which makes everything seem so epic. Blanchett is as heavenly as ever in her portrayal of Galadriel, and Weaving maintains his commanding presence as Elrond.
While we’re at it, I’m really glad see Andy Serkis back as the wretched Gollum who is addicted as ever to the “one ring to rule them all.” Serkis’ performance is a reminder of why he should have won multiple Oscars already for his work in “The Lord of the Rings” movies as well “King Kong” and “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.” The special effects team has done an astonishing job and Gollum looks better here (in a manner of speaking) than he has previously, but it is Serkis who breathes life into the character in a way no computer can.
As for the newcomers to this series, they all give strong performances and there isn’t a weak one to be found in the bunch. Martin Freeman gives a note perfect performance as Bilbo Baggins, and watching him here makes me wonder if he and Ian Holm are actually related or were separated at birth (the latter being highly unlikely). Freeman makes Baggins a wonderfully warm character, but he also gives him the humanity he deserves. This is especially true in the scene where he finally wins the respect of the dwarves and earns the right to join them on this adventure.
“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” is not going to win the accolades that “The Lord of the Rings” received in droves. Despite its running too long and introduction to a higher frame rate we have yet to fully appreciate, there is still much to enjoy once you get past the movie’s rough spots.
It will be interesting to see how this particular trilogy progresses. Whereas “The Lord of the Rings” was this ginormous novel which got split into three books, “The Hobbit” is just a 300 page novel. Splitting the latter into three movies seems impossible, but Jackson seems to understand Tolkien and his work better than any other filmmaker, and he always has a few tricks up his sleeve. Let’s just hope that “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” has more of that “Lord of the Rings” magic than this one did.
* * * out of * * * *
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