FILM REVIEW: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)

REVIEW SUMMARY: Plodding, ponderous, and ultimately pretentious, Peter Jackson’s prequel to The Lord of the Rings trilogy never reaches its predecessor’s epic heights.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Gandalf the Gray and a gathering of Dwarves enlist Hobbit Bilbo Baggins into a quest to reclaim treasure stolen by the dragon Smaug.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Breathtaking realization of the riddle scene and the goblin kingdom beneath the Misty Mountains; impressive rendering of goblins, Gollum, and the brief glimpse of Smaug.
CONS: Lumberingly paced; script stretching the source material to excruciating lengths; Peter Jackson’s restless yet surprisingly murky direction; 48 frames-per-second resolution giving the entire movie a cheesy look.

They’ve made a mistake.  Several, actually.  Though clogged with too many songs and meals, J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, or There and Back Again benefits from a deft touch and, despite occasional lapses, an elegance in its telling, even when the twee narrative spills into the annoyingly cute.  While it occasionally touches on big themes, it recounts the adventures of the Hobbit Bilbo Baggins, the wizard Gandalf the Grey, and a band of Dwarves out to reclaim familial treasure from the Dragon Smaug in a way that never bogs down.  Perhaps it lacks the epic sweep of The Lord of the Rings, but its relatively simple quest makes it more immediate and, in a way, more engaging.

The Hobbit makes for a breezy, charming, diverting tale, and so should make for a breezy, charming, diverting movie.  Certainly it seems in good hands.  Peter Jackson, who brought Middle Earth and its denizens to life in the Lord of the Rings trilogy nine years ago, returns to helm The Hobbit: An Unexpected JourneyLord of the Rings screenwriters Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens (as well as Guilliermo Del Toro) join him in crafting its screenplay, practically guaranteeing a degree of continuity that might not have existed had Del Toro also directed.  With Howard Shore returning to score the prequel, the return of Sir Ian McKellen as Gandalf and Hugo Weaving as the Elf king Elrond—and, of course, Andy Serkis once again lending his motion capture talents Gollum, all should unfold beautifully.

Unfortunately, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey never lives up to either the majesty of its predecessor or the winsome manner of its source material.  It wants to; Jackson and company obviously so love Tolkien’s world that they decided to visit it again to tell Bilbo’s story, but in transferring the book to the screen somehow failed to remember their own lessons in adapting the previous movies.  The Lord of the Rings, seen in its totality, may stretch to twelve hours (depending on the versions you watch), yet each installment stays generally within the framework of the individual books.  By contrast, The Hobbit stretches its single tale into three movies (this is only part one), justifying its length by stuffing unnecessary characters and elements of The Simarillion into its 169-minute running time, making it feel far more like The Unexpurgated Journey.  One might be glad to once again see Cate Blanchett as Galadriel and Sir Christopher Lee’s Saruman again, but rather than provide the mystery and menace they brought to the previous trilogy, they instead sit in Rivendell with Elrond and Gandalf speaking in ominous tones of impending conflict.  It sounds as if it came from the blog of a Tolkien fanboy.

The screenplay covers the novel’s first third.  Bilbo (Martin Freeman) finds his everyday world in the Shire suddenly uprooted when Gandalf brings to his home a band of Dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), where they present him with a proposition: join them on their journey to the Lonely Mountain and help liberate Dwarven treasure stolen by the dragon Smaug, and they will give him a fourteenth of what they recoup.  Of course Bilbo resists at first, Hobbits not being great adventurers, yet of course he goes, encountering along the way a trio of hungry trolls, marauding orcs, and the warrens of a goblin kingdom.  Some sequences display incredible beauty; Jackson renders the goblin kingdom as a maze of stairs and platforms, while the latest CGI and 3D technology animates the movements and features of the goblins themselves.  The same could be said of every creature in The Hobbit—especially Gollum, now even more fully realized in the previous movies.  And yet the technology that perfectly details these creatures—specifically, a frame rate of 48 per second—also robs the movie of truly grand visuals.  Despite the clarity of the shots, too often The Hobbit looks like a BBC or PBS production cobbled together with the sensibilities of a big-budget blockbuster.  Though it works well in such moments as the riddle scene between Bilbo and Gollum (perhaps the movie’s highlight), too often it looks cheesy.

Jackson, too, appears to have fallen into the trap of filmmakers like Steven Spielberg and George Lucas in offering a good deal of action but at the expense of interesting characters.  Extending The Hobbit to three movies might have offered more depth to not only Bilbo but also Thorin, but what characteristics the screenwriters do fill in never rise beyond the level of the trite and routine.  Worse, Jackson drenches the movie with sentimentality, shooting scenes with such saccharine sweetness that the unwary multiplex patron might lose his foot to diabetes at the 90-minute mark.

But the biggest sin The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey commits is one involving history.  It’s been almost a decade since the release of The Return of the King.  Now we have not just a prequel but a prequel trilogy, causing one to remember not The Hobbit but another much-loved trilogy that saw the release of a prequel trilogy.  If The Lord of the Rings was Star Wars for a new generation of moviegoers, it’s hard not to see The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey as something very dire: Lord of the Rings: The Phantom Menace.

18 thoughts on “FILM REVIEW: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)”

    1. Don’t forget about losing your foot to diabetes! I freaking love this review. Might be my favorite movie review ever written :D

  1. Sigh. To think, that a technically more advanced feature – something as simple as merely more images per frame – has become associated in the public consciousness with low-budget productions. All thanks to Hollywood’s unwillingness to evolve with the times, the blurry washed-out paintblobs of 24fps adaptation is now ‘the grail’ of cinema scene…

    Anyway.
    When I heard about the Hobbit being moved onto cinema form as two movies (before it was decided as a three-parter), well, the main thing I thought was: ‘they will have to rewrite the tale to be much darker and serious-er to have a similar style to LoTR movies’. Sounds like they haven’t done that.

  2. I haven’t seen it yet. But Peter Jackson’s films were never so much about the script (it just has to have everything there and work) but about being in that world. It is a little bit like LARPing on the most “authentic” level possible. That is why they can behave relatively freely in the world and make use of other things that are there. To some extent this is even Tolkienesque, and a natural evolution of the style of the original movies (that is just to say what it is, not to praise it). It was clear all along that it was going to be like this, and it is partly what most are expecting. The question is where it goes from there despite that, is it actually worthwhile and working or not. With all this in mind along with the natural difference of the source material AND the movie versions (and Peter Jackson’s quirks), I doubt you can be seriously let down. They also said that there would be more of Thorin’s and Bilbo’s character developments later on. And most importantly, let’s see about Smaug.

  3. We obviously didn’t see the same film…or I guess we saw the same film through different eyes.

    I liked all the ‘slow’ parts. The songs, the meals, the shots of characters running through gorgeous Middle-earth, er, New Zealand landscapes with Howard Shore’s score swelling majestically from the IMAX speakers. I guess if a person didn’t like the extended editions of the LOTR films then it would make sense from a consistency point of view that they would like this one.

    Me? I wasn’t bored once. Did it start slow? There were probably some slow parts, but I was enjoying the spectacle of it all.

    Sentimentality and saccharine sweetness? Well, first off its based on a book written for children so doesn’t that sort of go with the territory? On a more personal level, I want the sentimentality and the sweetness. These are dark films. Even this one with its many more lighthearted, goofy and improbable scenes still had a great deal of dark, foreboding moments and to balance them with moments that tug the heartstrings is the reason I still watch the LOTR films regularly and I would have been wildly disappointed had they not been present here.

    I was worried long ago, worried that the more kiddy nature of The Hobbit would clash too much with the serious nature of the LOTR stories. My worry lessened when I read that they were stretching out the story by working parts of the appendices in.

    Is it a perfect film…well no, but none of them are (although the theatrical version of Fellowship comes damn close). Is it Phantom Menace? Come on now, that’s just silly. Phantom Menace was filled with poor performances, CGI that dwarfed (pardon the pun) any and all “acting”, and was filled with embarrassing racial stereotypes and unlikeable characters. The Hobbit was worth seeing merely to watch Martin Freeman act. He was fantastic. The scenes with Gollum in the cave were worth the price of admission.

    I don’t disrespect your opinion. I learned long ago that we all have different experiences with the things we read and watch.

    My two cents worth: The Hobbit exceeded my expectations and I look forward to seeing it again. Better yet, get me the extended edition DVD with extras so I can delve into a proper geek out over it.

    1. Interesting. Did you go to see the 3d/48fps version, or a 2d/24fps showing? From the people I know who have seen the film by now, generally the ones watching the older format have been more positive about the movie. Then again, that’s such a small sample size that it could well be just personal preferences towards storytelling styles.

      1. No, this review confirmed what I had also read some other places, that going to the 48fps version would probably be very distracting, at the very least, and if I hadn’t liked it then it really would have colored my feelings about the film.

        I’m sure part of it are personal preferences. Personally the extended editions of the other Lord of the Rings films are the ones I prefer. They are long, sprawling and are not edited with the same considerations for movie-going patrons. In watching The Hobbit I felt like Jackson was operating more on the assumption that this is the kind of viewing experience people wanted, and he could have been wrong about that given some of the criticism. I didn’t see anything really wildly different from the other LOTR films other than more of an emphasis on the silly, which honors the tone of The Hobbit novel. Otherwise it looked and felt like yet another chapter in the Lord of the Rings saga.

        It will remain to be seen how I feel when the next film comes out and we start seeing more of the “made up” characters, like the Elf played by Evangeline Lily, and if that is distracting or if it manages to add to the story.

  4. Holy F@ck!

    I just got back from the 48 version and it was heinous, like a sci-fi channel movie from the year 2000, no kidding. However, THAT film would still look better because The Hobbit had the film quality of a videotaped TV soap opera.

    Sometimes.

    At other times when everything was CGI it looked “okay” but still not up to the standard of a current videogame cut scene.

    Visually, it was a half star film; I was shocked.

    The acting, the story, and even the slow parts were enjoyed. I thought the slow stuff was quaint because I like the setting, don’t mind hanging out with the characters, and so on. But, only a fan could enjoy this movie.

    How producers with millions on the line approve this stuff is beyond me.

    1. I guess I’m confused. You liked the acting, story and even the ‘slow parts’ and yet only a fan could like the movie? Or are you solely referencing the 48fps look?

      I have to tip the hat to all of you willing to see it that way for the first time. I personally wasn’t willing to have my experience of the film colored by a new technology, especially since I hadn’t heard anything positive about it.

      Actually I’m not sure it isn’t a win-win for the producers. First they are guaranteed to make millions off this franchise with PJ at the helm of Tolkien’s work again. Second, there are a bunch of people that will see it more than once. Some who, like you, will see it this way, hate the way it looks, and go back to see the film in a visually appealing non 48fps version. And then there are a bunch who will see if first then here about how awful the 48fps is and will want to go check it out for themselves just to see what all the fuss is about. For this one film, at least, I’m not sure they could go wrong.

  5. I find this review didn’t make a whole lot of sense. You’re not reviewing it on the basis of the movie itself, you’re review it compared to the book and the fact that it’s three movies.

  6. Carl V,

    I’m a huge fan of Iain Banks.

    I would be happy, to some degree, about any production of his Culture novels. A radio play, a puppet show, a cartoon, or a full blow 400 million dollar movie staring all of my favorite actors.

    Likely, I would find the puppet show most annoying, but could still appreciate the story. However, I would not want a person unfamiliar to be introduced via a puppet show. I’d want the giant production with the best CGI, sets, and actors to add to the quality of the story.

    Sets and effects matter in sf/fantasy because they create awe. A fan does not necessarily need as much awe as the uninitiated.

    1. Oh I agree, I just couldn’t figure out from your comment if it was ONLY the 48fps thing that bothered you or if the rest of the production in general bothered you. Because having seen it without the high frame rate experience, the sets and special effects in this certainly were the very best that money can buy. It is unfortunate that the frame rate gimmick made it all look cheap.

  7. Carl V,

    I haven’t seen the standard rate yet, but I’m glad you had a good time and it will be worth future viewings.

    The version I saw was true crap. I was shocked that the wargs/wolves had the plastic toy look of 90s CGI animals before proper hair effects were achieved. I guess the same film problem that made things look like videotape flattens images to the point that CGI is ruined.

    I’d love to have an expert explain it.

    1. It would be interesting to hear an expert explain it, but the fact of the matter is that you (and here I’m assuming you are not an expert) noticed that the 48fps thing made everything look cheesy and fake. That is a real shame. Even without that there were moments even in the other LOTR films that just didn’t quite work as well as others and were still obviously CGI. The technology still has a long way to go, but to have a version of the film that makes those flaws look obvious is just not a good idea, in my opinion. It is why I have a personal ongoing love/hate battle with bluray and often wish HD DVD had won that battle.

  8. Carl V,

    Any flaw you saw in LOTR would look like master work as compared to the average CGI in the 48 version, and I kid you not. This looked like special effects created by a teenager who downloaded a CGI program and taught himself.

    I would congratulate that kid, but in a film like this it was strong “wtf” throughout. That mixed with denial while I tried to enjoy.

    When we left I said to my wife I couldn’t believe how crappy it looked. She, not a big SF fan, was relieved because she didn’t want to seem like a curmudgeon. The relief she felt was amusing.

    1. Yes, that is just too bad. Makes me even more sure that when I inevitably see it again at the theater that I won’t go see the 48fps version just out of curiosity.

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