Review: “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey”

A welcome albeit less magical return to Middle Earth, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” kicks off a likely nine-hour cinematic trilogy based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s quite slim pre-“The Lord of the Rings” tome “The Hobbit”. Like the books, this is a lighter and decidedly less emotional journey – one with a more playful sensibility and quieter rewards to yield.

This welcome dash of the whimsical is offset by the fact the film is also considerably less efficient in its storytelling manner. Repetitive and pointless action scenes fill out an already bloated runtime, not an unusual problem for director Peter Jackson. His remake of “King Kong” more than doubled the length of that film’s original, in the process adding almost a solid hour of CG creature fights and escapades that had no bearing on the story other than to pad it out. Some of it worked, most didn’t.

“The Hobbit” thankfully doesn’t suffer to the same degree, mostly due to a more carefully crafted story. Concerns were raised about how Jackson and his co-scribes were incorporating elements from the appendices from “The Lord of the Rings” into this film. It’s hard to believe, but the film itself really only covers the first six chapters of “The Hobbit” – about 100 pages in all. Yet the big surprise is that much of the added material includes many of my favorite scenes in the film.

One sequence has former “Doctor Who” star Sylvester McCoy as the hippy wizard Radagast the Brown investigating a Necromancer who has taken up residence at the abandoned fortress of Dol Guldur. Another is the meeting of the White Council which sees four of Middle Earth’s most famous faces discussing politics. There’s also a few throwbacks to the structure of “The Fellowship of the Ring” be it the mid-point arrival at Rivendell, a distinct Orc as this chapter’s antagonist, and the final scene with the dwarves looking into the distance at the mountain they are trying to reach. Most of these scenes worked wonders and magically transported me back to the Middle Earth of the former trilogy I remember.

Yet these are only occasional stretches in a film that overstays its welcome. Like ‘Fellowship’, this is essentially a road movie with our heroes crossing the countryside to get to the other side of the Misty Mountains (the ‘Rings’ sequels then took them south, these ones will take them east). The stakes, the urgency and the danger are considerably less though, which makes the overall journey feel more slipshot and episodic in nature. Jackson’s adaptation keeps the tone darker than the admittedly kid-friendly novel, but even at its darkest points this never approaches the more adult sensibility of the original trilogy.

There’s a half-hour dinner scene at the start, a twenty minute game of riddles with Gollum, and a whole hour in which our heroes outrun Orcs, fall down a shaft, outrun goblins, talk on a hillside, and hide in trees from Orcs. It’s a movie that takes a good amount of time to get going, and once it does it’s not sure in which direction to travel. A longer runtime would be justified if it helped us get to know these characters better. However, all but three of the dwarves remain fairly anonymous.

Those three are amongst the best things in the film though, not surprising when you consider all three have years of British television experience under their belts. I’ve been a fan of Richard Armitage for a while, especially during his days on the spy thriller “Spooks,” and here he brings a solid gravitas and regality to the leader Thorin Oakenshield. James Nesbitt adds both mirth and a warm earnestness to his strangely capped Bofur, making the most of his few lines. Same with Ken Stott as the eldest dwarf and sage advice giver. The other dwarves aren’t bad, but they are very much in the background here despite the long runtime.

This film however is all about Martin Freeman and Ian McKellen. The former is just a perfect fit, bringing his comic sensibility to a part that has more warmth than some of his other roles in the past. There’s mini-arcs in play here, Bilbo’s self-actualisation and Thorin’s ultimate acceptance of him, and Freeman pulls it off in a believable and welcome manner. McKellen meanwhile just has a ball, getting to do more than usual whilst having sly fun as the more human and rascally ‘Grey’ version of Gandalf.

From a production value perspective, “The Hobbit” is exactly what you’d expect. With basically all of the team from the original ‘Rings’ films back in place, this Middle Earth feels very much like coming home. It’s an earlier version, one not blanketed by a feeling of impending doom and one more simple and magical in its sensibility. As a result it’s a little brighter, more colorful, and sadly a bit more populated by computer generated creatures than before.

There’s less consistency overall. With a heavier reliance on computer graphics, the results are surprisingly mixed. The sequences with both the cave trolls and Gollum look smashing, the creature effects have a weight and quality to them that’s actually quite astonishing. Less effective are the Orcs and Goblins, with both Azog the Defiler and the scrotum-chinned Goblin King coming off very poorly. These stand out as otherwise the cinematography, the musical score, the digital landscapes, etc. are all impressive and near or on par with the previous films.

Now we come to the other elephant in the room – HFR. I watched the film in the new 48 frames per second 3D technology, and the effect was one that definitely distracted and subtly detracted from the filmgoing experience. As someone who grew up on 1970s and 1980’s BBC shows, those making comparisons to that “look” are kidding themselves. Those comparing it to either video games or TruMotion 100Hz/200Hz TVs are much more accurate in their description. It’s not that the film is “hyper real”, it’s just certain shots look sped up without any frame lag or the sound going out of sync.

The stupid decision was made to start the film with nearly ten minutes of roller coaster-like swooping shots and narration. Nausea-inducing to those of us unfamiliar with the look, it really seems as if the film is being played on fast forward. When the action shifts to Bag End and you see people talking whilst moving strangely fast – you come to realise this is the effect. Much like the way 3D is not good at handling quick cutting or shaky cam style filmmaking, certain types of shots work much better with the HFR technology than others.

The upside of this technology is that it solves almost all the problems of 3D. Eye fatigue, ghosting, overly dark shots, etc. are gone. It’s also surprisingly good at giving more weight and believability to digital characters – Gollum for example really feels as if he’s a part of the actual scene being filmed rather than added in later by digital wizards.

It does however show up the phoniness of filmmaking at times. When the group is caught in a rainstorm, you can really tell it is just people hosing them down from above. A flashback to the dark history that Thorin shares with Azog gives us a big battle sequence that looks almost entirely lifted from a “God of War” video game. At best the tech solved some minor irritations with 3D, at worst it was a stomach-churning distraction. Most of the time though all I could think of was if the shot I was watching would look better in 24fps 2D. More often than not I came to the conclusion that it would be.

Jackson is obviously trying to recapture the spirit of Middle Earth with “The Hobbit” films, but this first chapter only succeeds at the challenge at certain moments. It’s as polished as it ever was, if not more so, but the approach of expanding out a thin story rather than cutting back on a large one has resulted in a film that’s frustrating in its indulgences, its pacing, and its lack of focus – especially in its early stages. Judicious self-criticism and restraint are as much qualities of great filmmaking as ambition and scope, and here they have not been obviously employed. A great journey on par with the three previously films could’ve been on offer. What we’ve got, though not in the same league, is still a nice weekender away.