This first installment of director Peter Jackson’s adaptation of JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit, sub-titled “An Unexpected Journey”, clocks in at almost 3 hours long and has been deliberately crafted to (hopefully) re-create the awe and wonder that Jackson achieved with Fellowship of the Ring all those years ago.
Overall, I found the film a mixed bag. I’ll start with things I did not like, first.
There is nothing “unexpected” here. Being a prequel of sorts – although of course, The Hobbit (the book) predated the Lord of the Rings trilogy – we know that the titular character Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) will make his journey with the 13 dwarves and wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen), despite his stated reservations. There was not enough set-up provided by the film to suggest otherwise.
Jackson tries too hard to relate The Hobbit with Lord of the Rings. Even before we see the young Bilbo (Freeman), we are actually shown the opening segment of Fellowship of the Ring where the older Bilbo (Ian Holm) has a conversation with Frodo (Elijah Wood) – all of which was unnecessary to the narrative. Only purpose it served was to remind everyone of The Hobbit‘s connection with Lord of the Rings.
To expand on this idea – there are too many action scenes here which mirror scenes in Lord of the Rings. The battle with the Goblins in an underground mine, the rescue by the giant eagles, the company being chased by orc-riding wargs and the dangerous trek on the side of the mountain. All of which are just too familiar and smack of Jackson simply repeating himself. On emught argue that this flaw is evident in all prequels/sequels but I sincerely believed that Jackson was capable of better.
Jackson seems also to be confused about the correct tone to be used for his movie. The Hobbit book, as most will know, was written for children whilst Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy was dark, gritty and grotesque. Was Jackson thinking of young children when he inserted the wizard, Radagast the Brown? That entire sequence seems almost Disneyesque, especially with the woodland creatures, albeit twisted in Jackson’s inimitable fashion (as Radagast is accused of eating too many mushrooms later in the film) – not to mention his rabbit-driven sled!
Not only that but I cannot decide whether the whole dwarf ensemble is meant to be taken seriously or not. Compared to Gimli in Lord of the Rings, many of the dwarves appear fanciful/ridiculous and it would be rather difficult not to be reminded of that other famous aggregation of dwarves (from Snow White).
Yet, for the most part, the film is filled with mishappen, ugly creatures (like the Goblin King and the Pale Orc) and violent action sequences (dismembering and decapitations abound) and certainly not fit material for the young children who would have been thrilled by Tolkien’s original book.
Finally, there’s the issue with the increased frame rate that the movie was shot on (48 frames per second over the conventional 24 fps). What this means is that the film is given added clarity (high def) and this is exacerbated when viewed in 3D as well. The unfortunate result is that certain elements of make-up, costuming and special effects look FAKE. Which, when you consider that this is a fantasy movie, is an alarming development!
With all of the above in mind, is The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey a bad movie? There are moments of cinematic magic still – in many of the action sequences that come across like a roller coaster ride, in the encounter between Bilbo and Gollum (aided by technological advances in motion capture) and in Jackson’s ability to keep the tension at a maximum level at the appropriate times.
In the final analysis, there is much to admire and criticize here. With over five hours of storytelling before us, one hopes that Jackson can work out the kinks that made “An Unexpected Journey” a bit of a disappointment.