Hobbit, The: An Unexpected Journey (United States/New Zealand, 2012)

December 10, 2012
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Hobbit, The: An Unexpected Journey Poster

In 2001, only a few months after the fall of the World Trade Center, Peter Jackson swept us away to Middle Earth with The Fellowship of the Ring. It was a wondrous three-hour achievement: the first major attempt at serious, big budget epic fantasy. It succeeded beyond anyone's wildest imagination ("imagination" being the key term), and Fellowship, along with its follow-ups, The Two Towers and The Return of the King, convinced Hollywood that there was unexplored ore in the fantasy mine. Now, nine years after closing the book on The Lord of the Rings, Jackson has returned to the scene of his greatest success. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the first installment of a three-part adaptation of Tolkien's first Middle Earth adventure, is both more and less of the same. There are numerous concrete reasons why An Unexpected Journey fails to live up to the standard set by The Lord of the Rings, but the most critical is also the most intangible: the magic is gone (or at least muted). An Unexpected Journey is a competent, entertaining effort but it neither enthralls nor amazes in the way its predecessors did. There's no question that Jackson is attempting to recapture something elusive and, although there are stretches when he comes close, he never quite attains that goal. It would be monumentally unfair to label The Hobbit as a "failure," but calling it a "disappointment" would be reasonable. Jackson established expectations with The Lord of the Rings; his inability to fulfill them is perhaps a trap of his own making.

The book The Hobbit was written by Tolkien about 17 years before The Lord of the Rings reached print. First published in 1937, The Hobbit arrived before the storm clouds of war had gathered across Europe. The Fellowship of the Ring came after the world (or at least part of it) had been altered by more than a half-decade of carnage. It's no surprise that the tones of the books are so different. The Hobbit is fast-paced and jaunty; The Fellowship of the Ring is considerably darker and more serious. The biggest challenge faced by Jackson is how to address this tonal shift, and his solution is imperfect. To "fit" The Hobbit into his overall cinematic vision of Middle Earth, he slows down the pace and blackens some of the lightness. He incorporates elements found not in the text of The Hobbit but in appendices and references in Tolkien's other works. And, most tellingly, he opens the movie with establishing shots set in The Shire during a time period just preceding the opening of The Fellowship of the Ring. The Hobbit is essentially one long flashback, with old Bilbo (Ian Holm) writing a memoir. While it provides a spark of nostalgia to see Holm again (and Elijah Wood as Frodo), it also adds 10 dull minutes to the beginning that might have been better relegated to a DVD "Extended Edition" release.

The Fellowship of the Ring is 400 pages; Jackson adapted it into a three-hour theatrical release. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey covers the first 100 pages of a 270-page book; the movie version runs only 10 minutes shorter than The Fellowship of the Ring. And therein lies this production's Achilles Heel: its long-windedness. An Unexpected Journey does not earn its 168-minute running time. From the beginning, there's a sense of bloating and self-indulgence. Roughly the first half requires a dose of caffeine to stay awake and focused. Things improve considerably during the second half. In fact, the final 45 minutes are tightly paced and riveting. But the strong ending cannot fully compensate for the way the movie meanders and stumbles during its first two hours. I think there's a very good, perhaps even a great, movie contained within An Unexpected Journey, but a ruthless editor was needed to unearth it. Perhaps the DVD Special Edition for this picture should feature less footage rather than more.

The story is well-known to fantasy aficionados. Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) is minding his own business doing hobbit-things when his world is turned upside down by the arrival of the wandering wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellan) and the exiled dwarf king Thorin (Richard Armitage) with his band of twelve followers. They recruit Bilbo as their "burglar" - they're going on a quest to retake Thorin's kingdom from the marauding dragon Smaug and they need Bilbo to break into the dragon's lair. The first part of the trek, as related in An Unexpected Journey, recounts encounters with trolls, goblins, and stone giants; takes the company to Rivendell and high into the Misty Mountains; and provides a few familiar faces: Elrond (Hugo Weaving), Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), Saurman the White (Christopher Lee), and Gollum (Andy Serkis). There are hints of a gathering darkness that will eventually lead to the events chronicled in The Lord of the Rings. Smaug is only glimpsed; we'll have to wait until The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug to see him in his full glory.

In a sense, it's unfair to assign a final "grade" to The Hobbit until all three parts are available. Perhaps, when viewed as a whole, the movies will provide a smoother, more richly textured experience than what is hinted at by An Unexpected Journey. Maybe some of the secondary characters will come to life. In this first chapter, only Bilbo, Gandalf, and Thorin show sufficient personality to distinguish themselves.

Unfortunately, there are also some unforgivably cartoonish moments. The shots of Radagast (Sylvester McCoy) being chased by goblins while riding a rabbit-pulled sleigh look like a video game excerpt. There are other isolated scenes that have a similar problem with the CGI being too apparent. The stone giant battle is impressive but it looks more like an outtake from a Transformers film than something that belongs in The Hobbit. On the other hand, there are some wonderful scenes: a council with Gandalf, Elrond, Saruman, and Galadriel; riddles in dark with the most vivid, detailed Gollum to date; and the climactic stand-off with the White Orc. Jackson does a great job crafting the goblin's underground kingdom. The troll encounter does justice to the book. Rivendell mimics what we saw in The Lord of the Rings. And the glimpses of Smaug make us want to see more.

Visually, The Hobbit is being released in four different flavors: digital 2-D, 3-D at 24 frames-per-second (fps), 3-D at 48 fps, and 3-D IMAX. Having seen it in the 48 fps version, I have a few comments. First, neither the doubled frame rate nor the 3-D adds much to the overall experience. Both are superfluous. The 3-D does not create a richer environment, although neither does it corrupt the experience. The 48 fps is less noticeable than I expected. There are scenes when it causes the images to be crisper and brighter but, especially in instances of high CGI content, it creates a non-cinematic picture. That may be the primary reason why isolated moments feel like video game outtakes. My advice: avoid all the visual flourishes and see this in good, old-fashioned 2-D. The Lord of the Rings didn't need 48 fps or 3-D and there's no conceivable reason why The Hobbit should. It's certainly not better because of it.

My sense is that Tolkien die-hards (as opposed to Tolkien "purists") will adore what The Hobbit has to offer. The slow, uneven pace won't bother them and the "less is more" argument won't faze them. I wonder, however, whether An Unexpected Journey is strong enough to convert a non-believer. The most common complaint will almost certainly relate to the length. There's nothing inherently bad about a 3-hour running time but greater length demands better editing and more tightening of the storyline; that doesn’t happen here, so the criticism is justified. A portion of An Unexpected Journey's audience is going to find this movie interminable.

Still, for all of its faults, which are more numerous than those in any of The Lord of the Rings' chapters, Jackson successfully navigates the return to Middle Earth. It isn't as delirious a journey as we experienced a decade ago, but it's still filled with wonder, monsters, and thrills. Like The Lord of the Rings, it's not definitive Tolkien, but Tolkien as filtered through Peter Jackson. It's grand cinema and fills in the gap of exploring Bilbo's previously unfilmed "great adventure."

Hobbit, The: An Unexpected Journey (United States/New Zealand, 2012)

Run Time: 2:48
U.S. Release Date: 2012-12-14
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1