If it ain't broke, don't fix it, but Peter Jackson thinks otherwise. In his heralded return to Middle Earth, the director of the award-winning Lord of the Rings franchise keeps many things the same but makes one very risky change that has a detrimental effect on the overall film. Your opinion of the film will rely heavily on whether you can get past this alteration.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a largely entertaining, enjoyable and energetic adaptation of the first part of J.R.R. Tolkien's relatively short prequel. Unlike The Lord of the Rings, where the fate of the world was at stake, The Hobbit is much more an adventure tale, with more lighthearted moments and significantly more random action. As long as you can accept that, you're in good shape so far.
The book is approximately 300 pages, or, in other words, less than a third of the length of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. And yet Peter Jackson has still decided to split the book into three movies, each nearly three hours long. My fear was that Jackson, still delirious from the critical praise he received from his other movies, would forget to cut out the boring parts. While there are portions of the film that could have easily been cut, the film's pacing is surprisingly fast, the characters engaging and the adventure fun. So far, the decision to split the book into three parts doesn't appear to have significantly detracted from the overall movie-going experience.
There are parts that don't work, however. Jackson bookends the movie with scenes that take place shortly before the events of The Fellowship of the Ring, with Ian Holm and Elijah Wood returning as Old Bilbo Baggins and Frodo Baggins, respectively. The scenes didn't really work for me, and were unnecessary. The most jarring piece of storytelling revolves around Radagast, the brown wizard. Jackson introduces him too soon and without explanation, and even when compared to the multitudes of dwarves he's an overly cartoonish character that seems like he rode into the wrong movie on his rabbit-drawn sleigh.
The actors do good work in their respective roles, at least once the story gets moving. Gandalf's introduction is somewhat awkward and many of the other characters come off as too goofy early on, but once things settle down, so do the performances. Martin Freeman does a fine job as Bilbo; his comedic timing is good as expected, but he also carries the right amount of gravitas for the role. Richard Armitage, who plays Thorin, is also good, though once again the real highlight is Andy Serkis as Gollum.
The best scene of the first Hobbit is the scene where Bilbo encounters Gollum and steals his ring - the ring. Their exchange is masterful and as close to the book as I can recall from my distant memories. Just as importantly, Gollum is both frightening and humorous, dangerous but likable. And thanks to improved special effects, he looks better than ever.
The visuals overall, however, are a mixed bag. There are times when the movie sparkles with incredible detail, especially at the new higher resolution found through the higher frame rate upon which the movie was recorded (more on that in a minute). The scenic shots look incredible, and the detail is consistently impressive.
Less impressive are many of the CGI creatures, from the trolls to the one-armed Orc dude, whatever his name is. While featuring incredible detail, it's clear these creatures are computer generated, much more so than they should be given the franchise's budget and prestige. As a result of both their appearance and the way they move (way too quickly at times), it's challenging to feel much dread when they are on screen. However, the goblins by and large look pretty good.
Stemming from the visual effects comes the great risk that Peter Jackson took with this new venture into Middle Earth. Whereas most movies are filmed at 24 frames per second (fps), The Hobbit is filmed at 48 fps, resulting in significantly higher "resolution" and clarity. It's understandable why a director would want more detail in his movie; it's less understandable why you would mess with a perfectly good thing that audiences are accustomed to. The increased frame rate negatively impacts The Hobbit. At times the movie looks terrific; at other times, it looks cheap. At its worst, it looks downright bad.
The increased frame rate works best when the camera is holding still, during dialogue scenes and scenery shots. The sequence between Bilbo and Gollum stands out as looking particularly good. When the camera pans, the lack of motion blur is disconcerting and makes the movie look like a cheap television soap opera. But the frame rate has the biggest impact during action scenes, and not for the better. When Jackson has things moving quickly - which is often - the special effects do not blend into the surrounding scenery like good special effects are supposed to do. The characters often look like cardboard cutouts against a painted backdrop. The visual effects team should be especially embarrassed about the moments where Radagast is sleighing through the woods.
The Hobbit is an expensive franchise to experiment with, and the experiment doesn't pay off. With Jackson's attempt to give his special effects team the ultimate gift, he in fact handicapped them tremendously. There are scenes - significant scenes - that just don't work as a result.
The Hobbit is not without its flaws, and as a result of its source material it is a smaller, less significant story than the three The Lord of the Rings movies. And yet it largely overcomes its shortcomings due to Jackson's love for the material and its entertaining, fast-paced storyline. It is a welcome return to Middle Earth. Unfortunately, the increased frame rate puts the movie at an extreme disadvantage, and if you end up watching the movie at a theater showing it in this format, your satisfaction level may depend on whether you can overlook its visual failures.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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