Suffering under the weight of the previous Lord of the Rings films, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey tries really hard to be its own entity while still tying into the previous franchise. Unfortunately, this film is nothing more than an adequate filmmaking exercise that strikes most of the same beats as Lord of the Rings without any of the importance, epic scope or je ne sais quoi is that a movie has to have in order to be really successful. That’s not to say this is a bad film, just one that wants you to believe that it’s great based on sheer will, 48 fps, a long running time, and closeups of the cast.
[zoom in on Thorin Oakenshield]
The plot of our merry adventure kicks off with an extended scene of Smaug (whom we never see fully) attacking the Lonely Mountain the dwarves call home, being drawn there by the gold the King was hoarding. [Thorin closeup as the castle is attacked]. We then are treated to a bit of fan service with old Bilbo beginning to write his story down with a young Frodo walking around before flashing back to 60 years before. After an encounter with Gandalf (Ian McKellan) and a band of dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield [cuts to Thorin walking in a room], Bilbo (Martin Freeman) joins the company on a journey through Middle Earth. Along the way, we meet up with some familiar characters (Galadriel(!), Elrond (!), Saruman (boo! hiss!) Gollum (!)) and Bilbo encounters an object that will set in motion an epic quest that will redefine the whole of Middle Earth.
If that plot description felt a little light, its because the script is woefully thin on substance. You might not feel the running time with this movie, but you sure will feel the stakes being ridiculously low and the movie dragging because of that. The quest to help the dwarves just can’t hold a candle to trying to destroy the Ring. While I agree that it is unfair to compare these films to the previous trilogy, at least the original films felt like contained entities with a sense of forward momentum. By the end of this film I found myself wondering where the rest of the story was, which is a terrible thought once you realize that there are two more films left in the franchise of perhaps equal length. In thinking about this movie it feels more of a spiritual cousin to Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, in that it does a lot to set up something but doesn’t care about being a particularly good movie. It’s a shame really because there are some interesting characters and settings that we get to explore. Martin Freeman acquits himself nicely to the role of Bilbo Baggins, Andy Serkis and Ian McKellan are their usual fabulous selves, and the dwarves are an enjoyable bunch to hang around, especially Aidan Turner as Kíli and [dramatically pans camera] Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield.
[loving closeup of Thorin Oakenshield]
The problems from this film really stem from the decisions made by Peter Jackson. The blatant cash grab that splitting these films into was really hampers the storytelling. Rather than not bowing to corporate greed and crafting two weighty films, he is forced to include things that have no bearing on the plot (stone giants?) and shots that had he might never included had he only had two films. The Hobbit could easily could have been 30 mins shorter if he took out the fan service flash forward and stopped spending so much time giving characters long expositional speeches and lavishing Thorin Oakenshield and the rest of the cast with closeups. Dear Peter Jackson, my eyes rolled more times from the extended zoom in on Thorin, than they ever did with the 48 fps.
[fade away from a Thorin closeup]
The being said, Jackson’s decision to use a higher frame rate to film this movie saves this movie from being a complete mess. I’ve heard the complaints from everyone about how the film doesn’t look “real” or it’s too pristine, but anyone who has watched a television show in HD shouldn’t have a big problem with this format. Rarely do I ever agree with the man, but Jeff Wells had it right coming out of CinemaCon with regards to 48 fps being a great way to see a big blockbuster like this. For someone like me who abhors blurry images brought on by camera movement, 48 frames per second is a blessing. While it renders some of the CGI action incredibly fake, it all but erases the problems movies, especially those in 3D, have with regards to blurriness and clarity of action. The scene in the cave with Gollum and Bilbo Baggins was immaculate, so much better than one would think because of the high frame rate and bright cinematography. The only problem I foresaw with this is that some of the fight scenes go by in fast forward, something I’m sure they’ll address in the next film. Any vomit inducing effects from the format can be attributed to how Jackson kept swinging the camera around or cutting action like he did on the previous films, which doesn’t necessarily jive here with a higher frame rate. Had Jackson gone against his instinct to do more of the same this film probably would have been better for it. Also someone who should have gone against his instincts, Howard Shore, whose score was essentially cut and pasted from the previous films, except this time with a dynamite song, Misty Mountains.
Walking out of the theater, I found The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey to be an enjoyable, but instantly forgettable film. I tried to muster up the enthusiasm to give this film a higher grade but the more I think about it, the more this just feels like an old dog trying to do new, less interesting tricks.
[SERIOUSLY THERE WERE TOO MANY DAMN CLOSEUPS OF THORIN OAKENSHIELD]