If it's crap ... We'll tell you
How does one even begin preparing themselves to create the follow-up to some of the greatest movies of all time? The Lord of the Rings trilogy not only has garnered accolades and commercial success, but also managed making the Academy Awards take a genre film seriously. The films have near flawless execution in terms of story, scope, music, casting, characters, editing, and action set pieces. Seriously, if you haven’t seen the Lord of the Rings trilogy just because you don’t like stories with Elves and magic, give these films a try, and I promise you’ll find something to love. Putting aside my fanboyism of the original films, I’m here to review The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, and let me say that even though the first film in the planned “Hobbit Trilogy” doesn’t quite reach the stratospheric highs of the original films, rest assured that this is certainly on the short list for one of the best films of the year.
After a lengthy and problematic history of production delays, director Peter Jackson returns to middle-earth telling the story of a young Bilbo Baggins, the uncle of Frodo, the main protagonist in Lord of the Rings. Opposed to the daring spirit of Frodo, we’re instead treated to a hero conflicted about a tempting life of danger and excitement versus his cozy security he's fashioned in his house under the hill. A traveling Wizard, Gandalf the Gray, and a company of Dwarfs interrupts his peaceful home with the promise of adventure and treasure as the dwarfs long to reclaim their long-lost home from the dragon, Smaug. As the dragon has never smelled a Hobbit before, Bilbo is in the perfect position to act as the necessary burglar on the trip. Though reluctant, Bilbo eventually gives into his desire for excitement, joining the dwarfs on their quest, and faces the many challenges along the path to riches and glory.
The inevitable problem with adapting a single book into three separate films is the lack of content to justify the sequels. The filmmakers have decided to not only adapt The Hobbit but several other story elements from appendixes and other books to create several subplots to accompany the main story. However, they seem to lack significant relevance to the main storyline, appearing disjointed and distracting from the main experience of Bilbo’s adventure, as everything else around the excitement of the journey is stopped occasionally by developing story threads to connect to the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Speaking of disjointed thoughts, here's one of mine: if I’m critical of anything in the original novel version of The Hobbit, it’s that the dwarves are fairly generic and hard to distinguish from one another, save for some small exceptions in the story. In this film, Jackson and company endeavored to give the dwarfs distinguishing characteristics, even if they’re merely using specific props in an interesting manner; it also doesn’t hurt that they all have outstandingly varied costume designs and makeup to allow them to stand out from each other.
Martin Freeman deserves top praise for his role as Bilbo Baggins, a blustery man whose only experience with the world revolves around his books. When he starts his adventuring, Freeman plays the character with tentative interest in almost every scene; even when things are going horribly wrong for our dear hobbit, his curiosity seems to intrigue him to venture further. The absolute befuddlement Freeman brings forth whenever other characters look to him is both hilarious and endearing as the everyman-character who’s just barely keeping up with this grand quest. The character of Gandalf returns, played again brilliantly by Ian McKellen, who once again brings out his charisma and stoicism he had in the Lord of the Rings films, but this time he’s allowed to stretch out a bit more of his playful and humorous nature given that the story is a more lighthearted affair than the Lord of the Rings films. However, do not assume ‘lighthearted’ means ‘it doesn’t have dark moments.’
Though generating a good amount of genuine chuckles that don't feed on the crass, The Hobbit is almost a return to form with Jackson as much of the humor embedded in the movie invokes the same surreal, cartoon-esque comedic moments of Jackson’s earlier work, like Meet the Feebles or Braindead, even during violent battle scenes. For the squeamish, be warned, there are a fair amount of decapitations, dismemberments, and disfigurements for a PG-13 film. The action scenes here are thrilling excellent cinematography and choreography, especially when the dwarfs come into the fray. While all of the actors playing the characters of the dwarfs are good, none of them truly stand out (but given this film is an ‘introduction’ it isn’t surprising), save for Richard Armitage who deftly plays the character of Thorin Oakenshield who’s conflicted between his family’s heritage and his desire to see his people return to their once great kingdom under the mountain. Andy Serkis returns as the scene-stealing Gollum who mines an even greater amount of emotion in the “riddles in the dark” segment than the entirety of his stint in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Sacrilege opinion, I know, but Serkis pulls it off with the special effects team making him look even better than he did in the previous movies. Despite almost every scene is packed with lengthy exposition, the film moves at a brisk pace and filled with great action set-pieces that I won’t spoil for those interested in seeing the movie. Bilbo's character arc is particularly satisfying to see evolve, even knowing well that this particular story ends on a cliff-hanger.
For those of you interested in seeing the film in 3D, be warned: your screening of the film might be at 48 frames per-second (hereafter referred to as ‘fps’). Traditional film has a frame rate of 24 fps, which gives film its distinctive look. At 48 fps, the image looks smooth enough to look like more comparatively to a home video camera recording, making it reminiscent of older BBC shows (click to see an video example) and making the overall film look less "cinematic." The frame rate change was implemented to make the 3D look less jarring, but it seems to have had a far more negative effect than intended. My particular screening wasn’t with the changed frame rate, but it wasn’t mentioned on my ticket, so if want to avoid the higher frame rate and want to know ahead of the screening, make sure to contact your theater or check online.
The movie doesn’t quite have the same intrigue as Fellowship of the Ring especially since the group dynamics just aren’t as interesting since almost every character, save for Bilbo, has the same overall goal and how to achieve it. The friction is what made Fellowship so captivating to watch, and without it the movie doesn’t falter, but it feels like there should be something more happening with the characters to live up to the cinematic legacy. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, although not as strong as the films that came before it, is a good staring film into this new franchise (however, as it ends as the ‘first act’ of the story, it can only be ‘truly’ assessed when the rest of the films are released). Charming, imaginative, and downright exhilarating, audiences hungering for adventures in middle-earth won’t be disappointed.