This review contains plot spoilers and is based on the UK release of the film.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Written by JRR Tolkien
Screenplay by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Guillermo del Toro
, Peter Jackson
Directed by Peter Jackson
Released on 14 December 2012
After Peter Jackson
’s critically and commercially lauded The Lord of the Rings
trilogy, it was only a matter of time before he returned to Middle Earth and gave us his take on J.R.R. Tolkien
’s other much-loved novel. Set sixty years before The Lord of the Rings
, The Hobbit
follows Bilbo Baggins, a conservative Hobbit who is reluctantly drawn into a company of Dwarves on a quest to defeat a dragon and reclaim a lost kingdom. The first of three films that make up this latest adaptation, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
is in cinemas now.
One of the most interesting things about this film is the medium itself. Decrying traditional 24 frames per second, 2 dimensional cinema as a thing of the past, Jackson shot The Hobbit in 48 frames per second, in 3D, and in high resolution, enabling IMAX screenings. What this all comes down to is a plethora of ways to watch the film. The HFR (high frame rate) 3D version, which is the version I watched, is causing different reactions from different viewers. Some say that the higher frame rate makes them feel nauseous, some say it makes the sets look like they’re clearly sets, some say it improves the experience. Here’s the experience I had – Bilbo Baggins’ house, which many people are saying looks fake in HFR, looked absolutely fine to me. Many other areas, such as caves, Goblin cities, and the like, looked constructed. I also found that it somehow felt wrong when either the camera or something in front of it moved quickly. It’s hard to describe how it felt wrong, other than it seemed unnatural. The point is, it was noticeable, which distracted me from my immersion with the story, which is not a good thing. Regarding the 3D, I’ve heard it said that the higher frame rate makes 3D effects less distracting and more real. For me, this was not the case, and the third dimension only took me further away from enjoying the film’s story. But not everyone agrees with me; different people have had different experiences of the new technologies at work behind The Hobbit
, and you should choose to see it the way you want to see it. The high frame rate technology is in its early days and I don’t want to say it’ll never work on the basis of one film, but, for me, Peter Jackson is wrong, there is absolutely nothing wrong with watching films in 24 frames per second and two dimensions, and neither the higher frame rate nor the third dimension added anything to my enjoyment of An Unexpected Journey
But that’s not the biggest problem with the film. The biggest problem is that it’s too long. Which, frankly, isn’t a surprise given that it’s the first of three nearly three-hour long films from one children’s book. Some critics have said that the first half hour of the film, in which Bilbo meets the dwarves one by one and they throw his kitchenware around, needs to be cut down heavily. I agree that this could be shortened, but actually felt more strongly that some sequences towards the end of the film were losing my interest and would be better off left to a director’s cut. The company encounter obstacle after obstacle, monster after monster, and, by the encounter with a group of stone giants, as expensive as the effects must have been, I was thinking – what is this scene adding that couldn’t have been incorporated into other scenes? A general rule of mine is that if I notice the temperature in the cinema, I’m losing interest. Wow, was it warm in that cinema. Two films of two hours each could easily suffice. Admittedly, I’m not a Tolkien fan – I gave up six pages into the book when J.R.R. was still describing Bilbo’s front door – and I know devout fans of the series who appreciate the detail and care put into the world of The Hobbit
, so have less of a problem with the length. Jackson himself is a fan and the impression is given that he is not making three long films, as some may accuse him of, in order to exploit as much money from the public as he can; rather, it feels like he is making three long films because he loves the source material and believes he is making the best films he can. A large amount of the audience, including myself, finds this dreary and indulgent, but, if the fans disagree, good for them.
So, how good is the content making up those three hours? Jackson was insistent on getting Martin Freeman
to play the title role of Bilbo Baggins, even rescheduling filming around the star’s Sherlock
timetable. Indeed, it’s hard to argue against the fact that Freeman is the perfect choice for the role. From The Office
’s Tim to Doctor Watson via Arthur Dent, Freeman has made a name for himself as the actor of choice for straight man roles, for the character reluctant to take part in the adventure, who acts as a grounded, ironic commentator on the surreal madness unfolding around him. Which is a pretty good description of Bilbo Baggins, the Hobbit who hates adventure and would rather stay in his hole with his furry feet up. Freeman does indeed show a lot of acting talent in An Unexpected Journey
, but I never felt that it’s one of his best roles – in fact, his talent is underplayed. Given that the story is meant to be more light-hearted than that of The Lord of the Rings
, the film could be more engaging if it played more for comedy, both with the script and with Freeman’s comedic talents. I’m not asking for ironic looks to camera or for outright send-up, but would have liked to have laughed more and would point to Avengers Assemble
as the model for this – a film which brought lots of humour and great one-liners out of its subject matter without ever losing the action appeal or becoming parody. For me, The Hobbit
could have been stylistically more like that.
On the plus side, the action itself, though there’s too much of it, is often very well put together, as anyone who’s seen a Lord of the Rings
film would expect. While a chase through a Goblin city and an encounter with Azog, the Orc equivalent of Captain Hook, are thrilling and unpredictable scenes, a highlight is certainly Andy Serkis
’ cameo as the creepy Gollum, in which his confrontation with Bilbo takes the form of a riddle competition. Though tangential to the main storyline, this is undoubtedly one of the defining scenes of the film and one that’ll stick in the mind. Outside of Mr Freeman, the cast contains a number of recognisable faces, with the ever-reliable Ian McKellen
returning as Gandalf, among other returning characters. The new cast members, though none particularly stand out, seem mainly known from British television – there’s Spooks
’ Richard Armitage
as dwarf leader Thorin Oakenshield, who has an interesting back story of his own, plus appearances from Ken Stott
, James Nesbitt
, Aidan Turner
, and, proving that being a classic Doctor Who
doesn’t necessarily put you out of business, Sylvester McCoy
as the manic wizard Radagast.
All in all, An Unexpected Journey
is a film mainly to be enjoyed by the fans. It’s not an awful film, it’s not badly paced for its length and it has many enjoyable sequences, but it isn’t as good as The Lord of the Rings
, it’s too long and it often loses the interest of those who aren’t really bothered about the finer details of Bilbo’s front door. I can’t say I’m looking forward to another six hours of this.