REVIEW: 'The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey'

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J.R.R. Tolkien wrote The Hobbit for children. As he worked on it, he read sections to his kids as a bedtime story. And the tale suits the target audience: it takes place in a more innocent time in Middle Earth, 60 years before the world needed saving by Frodo and company.

It’s important to remember that when you see the first installment of Peter Jackson’s adaptation of the book, An Unexpected Journey. There’s a youthful energy in the movie that sets it apart from The Lord of the Rings. Jackson has more fun with his camera and his script, and his characters are more broadly drawn than the mature heroes we see in Rings. But underneath all that, Jackson presents the film using a fancy new technique: high frame rate 3D. And while the format is wonderful to behold, HFR hurts the film just as much as it helps it.

We begin with a prologue that sets up the main quest of The Hobbit: the Dwarves of the Lonely Mountain are driven out of their mining kingdom by the greedy dragon Smaug, who lusts for their treasure hoards. A century and a half later, a small company of thirteen Dwarves hire Bilbo Baggins of the Shire (Martin Freeman) as their “burglar”, to help them infiltrate the distant mountain and reclaim their kingdom.

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After some convincing, Bilbo eventually joins the Company, but soon discovers that the world is a lot bigger and more menacing than he thought. And as the Company travels east, they find that the world is changing. A dark power is massing its strength, and it becomes clear that hobbits could play an unforeseen role in opposing the threat.

Unfortunately, the adventure itself gets off to a bit of a slow start. The Company doesn’t actually depart until an hour into the film. In that space of time, we meet the Dwarves and hear about their plans to take back the mountain, but after a while, we just want them to get underway.

What’s worse is that Jackson wastes his chance in the party scene to properly introduce the Dwarves. Unless you’ve been slavishly following the production of the movie, you won’t know that Nori has a reputation as a thief, or that the axe in Bifur’s head keeps him from speaking in anything but old Dwarfish. Since we’ll be following these thirteen characters for two more movies, it would be nice to know more than four of five of them.

When the film does get moving, it’s invigorating. It’s good to be back in the sweeping landscape of Middle Earth, tracking the Company with panoramic camera work and swept up in the score by Rings composer Howard Shore. You might have to resist the urge to dance in your seat in time with the swelling music.

The cast is particularly strong, in line with Jackson movies of the past. Martin Freeman anchors the film, and offers a standout performance in the scene with Gollum in the goblin caves. The “Riddles in the Dark” chapter, as it’s known, is one of most beloved by Tolkien fans, and it’s great to see it filmed after all this time.

Andy Serkis plays Sméagol/Gollum, the tortured owner of the Ring

Richard Armitage and James Nesbitt provide much of the Dwarf acting firepower as Thorin and Bofur - in particular, a scene between Nesbitt and Freeman when Bilbo considers turning back. Elsewhere, returning cast members Ian McKellen, Hugo Weaving and Cate Blanchett are as professional as ever. Happily, McKellen is given more room to play than in Rings, and we see a more fun-loving Gandalf here, compared to his largely solemn appearances in previous films.

I’ll leave much of my reaction to the high frame rate (HFR) presentation for a companion article. But the format affects the film in a way that needs to be discussed in this review. Certainly, HFR is breathtaking. The first few minutes of An Unexpected Journey were both amazing and profoundly weird. Rather than sticking out into the audience like most 3D films, the frame extends into the background, making the film feel like a giant stage production. Based on that level of immersion, it’s clear that HFR will have an effect on how movies are made in the future.

Sadly, the HFR in An Unexpected Journey is a mixed bag. For scenes on static sets, or with simple CG backgrounds, HFR works beautifully. But when there are a lot of CG creatures dashing around, or the digital environments take over the frame, it begins to look fake. Orcs riding Wargs look like they were pasted onto the terrain; the prologue scene with Smaug resembles a video game. It’s not distracting, but it’s noticeable, and I can only wonder how that will carry over into the Hobbit films to come.

This is a movie that should be watched for its story and performances. Tolkien’s Middle Earth is so rich and colourful, any chance to explore it is a delight. And while the presence of the HFR format will likely pit many people against the Hobbit films, HFR still works very well in certain scenes. I can only hope that as Jackson moves on to the next installment of The Hobbit, his use of HFR will mature, and he can be more sparing with its effects. As Bilbo Baggins demonstrates in this movie, even a little bit of power can have a big impact. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey gets three stars out of four.

Three Stars

What did you think of An Unexpected Journey? Did you like Jackson’s first foray into this decidedly different story? If you saw the movie in HFR, did it help or hurt your experience? Join the conversation in the comments section, and if you liked this review, share it with your friends and followers! You can also browse through my recent reviews here:

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