Title: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Director: Peter Jackson
Cast: Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Ken Stott, Graham McTavish, William Kircher, James Nesbitt, Stephen Hunter, Dean O’Gorman, Aidan Turner, John Callen, Peter Hambleton, Jed Brophy, Mark Hadlow, Adam Brown, Ian Holm, Elijah Wood, Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett, Christopher Lee, Andy Serkis, and Sylvester McCoy
What is there to say about Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey?” The film, now a series, has been in the works since 2009 after Jackson’s “The Lovely Bones” bombed at the box office and was panned by critics and audiences alike. After the disappointment of his 2005 film “King Kong,” Jackson saw fit to go back to the well and return to Middle Earth. After a brief flirtation with Mexican director Guillermo del Toro, Jackson decided to direct the film, now films, himself. “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” is great for the New Zealand economy, but bad for “Lord of the Rings” fans (like me).
Taking place 60 years before the events of “Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring,” Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) is recruited by Gandalf The Grey (Ian McKellen) to go on a journey with 13 Dwarves to take back their homeland Sindarin Erebor (Lonely Mountain). Let’s just put it out there, the film is needlessly over long. The film feels as if it needs to pad every moment mentioned in J.R.R. Tolkien’s 1937 book.
Starting with a 20-minute prologue that gives the audience information about the world is not too excessive as an introduction but when we get into the film it takes an hour before we even start this unexpected journey. When sequences involving Dwarves washing, collecting, and putting away dishes, then there’s something wrong about starting off your movie with a bang. An introduction to 13 Dwarves leaves nothing to the imagination, as we have no idea who is who as the movie unfolds. Look, that Dwarf has a beard and that one doesn’t. What are their names again? Look, that one likes food, and so does that one. It seems like so much time was put into each Dwarves’ look and personality, which somehow someone forgot to put that information on the page or on the screen. What a waste!
As the journey lumbers on, we realize that this overlong journey has no stakes or consequences for the audience to get invested into it. The Dwarves seem to be engaged but that never translates to the audience watching these events. There is no drama. “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” kept me at arm’s length throughout, as it’s more concerned with artifice rather than substance. It feels like business as usual for Peter Jackson with “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” and there’s nothing in the film that would suggest the next two installments would be any better. It seems like the series will have diminishing returns as the years pass by.
The film was also shot with a revolutionary 40 frames per second (FPS) film technique. This doubles the “normal” way we watch movies from the usual 24 FPS. No way around it, this gave me a splitting headache. Not only during, but after and moving into the next day. It was so bad that even mentioning the words “48 FPS” gave me a headache as it reminded me of watching the film. The pros of shooting with this film technique are a better quality 3D presentation and a seamless look between physical actors and CGI characters. The CGI characters felt real and part of Middle Earth, which is an advantage to the film. The cons, well, everything felt like I was watching a TV soap opera or BBC TV series from the 70s and 80s. While I love John Cleese & Connie Booth’s “Fawlty Towers,” I don’t want to watch a movie that looks like this. It makes it look cheap as you can see the seams of movie makeup and costuming. 48 FPS never immersed me into the world but, again, it contributed to my “keeping me at arm’s length” feeling towards “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.” Buyer beware.
The film feels like a money grab. While “The Hobbit” will make a lot of money, “The Hobbit” as three movies will make MORE money. I’m not a fan of this trend in Hollywood. It’s quickly killing Hollywood moviegoing. So far, the movies that have been split into two (and in “The Hobbit’s” case three) movies, there have never been a good example of why this practiced should be used, outside of making MORE money. “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” felt like half a movie, “Twilight: Breaking Dawn” felt like two movies, and “The Hobbit” feels like one-third of a movie. Even Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” suffers from being bloated and overlong. Who pays good money to see one-third of a movie? Do we really want a film trilogy to be split into six movies (or forbid nine movies) in the future?
“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” is not a bad movie, but it’s not a good movie either. In comparison to “Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring,” it’s pretty middling. There is just no drama or character conflict in this film. It’s true, while Thorin and Bilbo don’t see eye-to-eye on if he should be on this journey with the 13 Dwarves, there is nothing that would go any deeper than just understanding the other character’s perspective. It just feels as if flashing images and somewhat thrilling adventure would be the only thing that would pacify an audience. We’re simply not invested.
While Andy Serkis’ Gollum is a great performance and great interaction with Bilbo, we’re only familiar with the character because of who and what he is in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. Don’t confuse audience engagement with a shortcut to audience engagement.
In the end, we have two more movies to “look forward to” but I’m not sure if audiences are willing to go back to Middle Earth for a second time in 2013. While I’m not a fan of the 48 FPS technique, it will take a long time for me to re-watch this film in 24 FPS, not that I don’t want to, it’s just that this movie is so boring… and long… and needlessly padded. While “The Hobbit” is “An Unexpected Journey,” it is, in long stretches, a long and very boring journey too.