First things first: Do not see this movie in 48fps. Simply don’t. While some of the action sequences that are primarily digital may benefit from the format, it’s not enough to warrant wading through two hours of uncomfortable dramatic scenes to get there. The format simply isn’t ready for prime time and it makes whatever The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a lot less effective.
Second things second: There’s a discussion to be had about the fact the appetizer is following the main course with this new series of Tolkien adaptations. There’s also one to be had about the idea of splitting a small book into three films. This isn’t the place for those discussions. With that handled, let’s proceed.
Forty minutes. That’s the amount of time it took for Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey to start feeling like a true soulmate of his legendary The Lord of the Rings. It looked the part. It sounded the part. Something was askew. There’s a warmth that permeated nearly every frame of The Fellowship of the Ring, a franchise building magic that is free of sales pitch, shortcut, and bland manipulation which has become so transparent in the decade since.
While Howard Shore’s excellent music is there, Martin Freeman’s casting as Bilbo is spot on, Sir Ian McKellan is pitch perfect as Gandalf, and Peter Jackson’s grace with the material is still there something doesn’t click. Until the band of adventurers leaves the confines of Hobbiton to see the riches and dark crevices of middle-Earth it was a facsimile suffering from generation loss. And then it clicked. This is The Fellowship of the Ring all over again, at least structurally. That film is also one which defies the traditional three act structure and goes along at its own pace in its own way. The difference then was that it was fresh and though it was the first foray into this world it slowly introduced the characters audiences were to spend twelve hours of screentime with. The Hobbit unloads a horde of dwarves into the film very early on and it isn’t until the film has clocked nearly an hour that it has hit a stride worth following. Once it’s going it’s quite good though hardly of enough punch and truly epic feel to expect even close to the box office and awards tally of the previous films. As worthy holiday season entertainment, it’s exactly what it needs to be. It’s just not much more than that.
The evil dragon Smaug has commandeered the proud kingdom and riches of the dwarven empire and turned them into a roaming, beaten people. A group of rogue dwarves led by Thorin (Richard Armitage) band together with the mighty Galdalf to reclaim what was lost. They lack one component: A burglar. Bilbo Baggins (portrayed in a prologue and the original films by Sir Ian Holm and here by Martin Freeman) is chosen for that role despite his complete lack of burgling skills and the fact he’s a homebody who abhors adventure. All of this happens in the film’s first forty-five minutes and the combination of exposition and instant immersion into the singing, feasting, and drinking ways of the dwarves is difficult. Especially when the characters are brand new. It helps that excellent actors like Armitage, Graham McTavish and the typically serious James Nesbitt (a revelation here against type as a cheery dwarf) are involved but it’s a tall order. The band eventually leaves the town and begins a journey which in this film involves orcs, goblins, giant spiders, wizards, and other assorted creatures and it’s then that Jackson’s skills as a storyteller come to the fore.
Those long sweeping tracking shots across prairies and classically expanded vistas through FX house Weta’s beautiful work and sensational battle choreography make Tolkien’s text come to life and escalate to pure fun, they are where Jackson is highly articulate. Economy of scenes, tempo, sometimes not as much. Without a Viggo Mortensen or breakout stars like Orlando Bloom and perfectly cast quartet of hobbits too much of the burden is put upon the new characters. As good as McKellan and Freeman are, and they are superb, there’s a lack of resonance. No dwarf does enough to capture the heart to build the goodwill present in the original series. Even with Christopher Lee, Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, and Elijah Wood showing up to marry the films together there’s a sense that the filmmakers were trying to find any tools possible to keep the audience diverted. Luckily the action sequences are a lot of fun. There’s not the sense of loss and danger from the original films and they are very much on rails but Jackson hasn’t atrophied one iota as a director of epic action and the intricate ballet of adventure and combat. The Hobbit as a source is light fare and as a film based on such material goes this builds up momentum and delivers a really entertaining second half. Combat and subterfuge and heroics. And Gollum. Gollum as performed by Andy Serkis and executed by Weta under Jackson’s direction is peerless. The “Riddles in the Dark” sequence anchors the film and is undoubtedly the high point as both a companion to the original trilogy and reason for this film existing.
Ultimately, the structure of the film hurts it with its awkward cliffhanger ending but the end result is a film that is fun, interesting, and once they’re given time to shine, graced with some memorable characters. It’s far from a classic but a safe above grade holiday season family movie night out. See it in 3-D at 24fps.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars