In the week preceding the release of Peter Jackson’s first film based on J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, I avoided reading reviews or checking its Tomatometer over at RottenTomatoes.com, focusing instead on reading the book for the first time (my review here). In the book, we are introduced to a magical world of hobbits and wizards and goblins and dwarves, a world that was captured beautifully on the big screen in Jackson’s film trilogy based on Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. To say that Jackson and his team had a lot to live up to is a bit of an understatement. While it isn’t as good a film as we might have hoped, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey still manages to do Tolkien’s original novel justice.
The story is first presented from the point of view of the older Bilbo Baggins, played by Ian Holm, who is in turn writing the story down for Frodo, played by Elijah Wood, on the same day that The Fellowship of the Ring began. Of course, this was just the filmmakers’ subtle nod to the previous films, but it stands mostly independent of its predecessors. The advantage of the film to the book is that tales that were mentioned only in passing, such as Gandalf’s adventures away from the company, can be expanded and intertwined with the journey of Bilbo, Thorin, and the rest of the dwarves. Radagast the Brown, a wizard who was mentioned only once in the book, plays a larger role in the film, fitting in to a subplot that sets up the rise of Sauron for the story told in The Lord of the Rings. Through this subplot, we are re-introduced to Saruman the White – and it seemed to me that the filmmakers were hinting at Saruman’s corruption by Sauron, but that may be me looking too much into it.
Much of this film is definitely exposition and explanation, which could not be avoided in order to properly introduce the audience to the task at hand; even so, the amount of time telling of the past rather than exploring the present is a bit frustrating at times. There are two extensive flashback scenes where we are told the stories of Smaug’s overtaking of Erebor and how Thorin cut off the arm of the pale orc, Azog. This second flashback is significantly different in the book; while Azog is certainly mentioned, he is not alive for the events of The Hobbit. I was curious to know why this would have been changed, but the story arc that it creates for Thorin allows for something that was in the book, the dwarves’ growing respect for Bilbo, to be better explained onscreen, since the film doesn’t have a narrator like the book does telling us what is happening in the characters’ heads. Speaking of the dwarves, it is difficult to keep up with who is who in the film because of our lack of time spent with each character. This isn’t too big of a deal since Thorin is really the most important of them, but it would have been nice to be a bit more familiar with each dwarf.
My biggest complaint about this film is the special effects; they seemed cartoon-y and cheap. Azog, Gollum, the orcs, and the wargs are all heavily affected by this issue, and it literally made me cringe while watching. Perhaps part of the this can be blamed on the heavy use of CGI to create the orcs (versus the relatively CGI-free orcs in The Lord of the Rings), but I saw the film in IMAX 3D at 48fps, so I’m hoping that I can blame the poor special effects quality on the higher frame rate. Aside from the special effects, the higher frame rate didn’t bother me at all…it certainly took some getting used to, but the overall effect was a nice crispness that, while I can understand others’ disdain for it, I felt brought me further into Middle-earth.
While Richard Armitage does a great job of embodying the nobility and perseverance of Thorin Oakenshield and Ian McKellen makes a splendid return as Gandalf the Grey, not enough praise can be heaped on Martin Freeman’s portrayal of Bilbo Baggins. He perfectly captures the wit, the reluctance, and the overall spirit of the hobbit created by Tolkien; there were plenty of moments in the film where all of my smiles and laughter were solely inspired by what he was doing onscreen, whether it was him reacting to dwarves invading his hobbit hole or his negotiating with Gollum or any other number of things.
I walked into the theater for this film knowing that it probably wouldn’t be as good as Peter Jackson’s first venture into Tolkien’s Middle-earth, but I still had high expectations, especially after reading the original book. My expectations weren’t completely met, but I still enjoyed this film a great deal – minus the issues with the special effects. The other parts of the film that I didn’t particularly care for can be attributed to the fact that it’s meant to set up the rest of the story, which will be explored in the following two films. Despite its shortcomings, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is fine storytelling, and I now have no doubt that there is plenty of material to create three quality films – which had been a doubt of mine before. I would personally recommend seeing it in 24fps if you can (3D or not doesn’t matter), but, either way, be prepared for quite an adventure!
After viewing this film for a second time in 2D at the usual frame rate (24fps), I am happy to announce that my issues with the CGI were (mostly) resolved with the lower frame rate, and I have accordingly raised my original rating from a 3.5 to a 4. Whether you see it in 3D or 2D, IMAX or not, I would personally recommend you view The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and its sequels in the standard (non-HFR) frame rate.
Rating: 4 (out of 5)
MPAA: PG-13 – for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence, and frightening images
P.S. – Read my review of this film’s score, composed by Howard Shore, here!