A note up front: I opted to see The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey at 24fps, rather than the intended 48fps. I hated the High Frame Rate technology when I first saw it displayed at CinemaCon this year, and so I decided I’d rather experience the movie first, and worry about the presentation later. I will eventually revisit the movie at 48fps.
As the film was shot at 48fps, it had to be digitally downgraded to 24fps. This process includes adding fake motion blur and other digital tricks. My experience with 24fps, optimally projected in 3D, was as positive as any other modern digital film.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is an enormously frustrating film. At times it’s absolutely wonderful and delightful and magical, bringing in a sense of whimsy and wonder missing from the original Lord of the Rings trilogy. But it’s also oddly paced and way too long; it takes the film almost 45 minutes to get going, and once it does it keeps stopping for scenes that feel like blueprints for theme park rides and video games.
Take heart: this isn’t the Star Wars Prequels, although there are many points of comparison. The Hobbit is filled with too much CGI, and there is plenty of rude bodily noise and fluid comedy intended to service the younger crowd. But because Peter Jackson, working with Fran Walsh, Phillipa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro, is adapting a solid story, he has a good backbone with which to work. Rarely does The Hobbit fall into that feeling we get from so many prequels, with cheap set ups or nods to future stories (although the film does give us the wholly unneeded backstory of the “No Admittance Except On Party Business” sign on Bilbo’s front door). This feels like a story all its own, even with the added history bits thrown in to pad things out, and connect it better with The Lord of the Rings.
It was the added history bits that worried me in advance; Peter Jackson has bizarrely chosen to drag a 300 page children’s book into three movies, each about three hours long (and don’t worry, extended editions are on their way). It seemed obvious that there was going to be a ton of extra stuff - stuff taken from the Appendices of the Lord of the Rings and stuff made up for the movies - jammed into the films. Yet these sequences were some of what I liked best; Smaug’s attack on the Lonely Mountain and Thorin’s battle with orcs at the gates of Moria added scope and sweep to the proceedings.
The big problem isn’t the expanded canon, it’s the expanded action scenes. Peter Jackson insists on bloating every sequence out to the point of overload. The dwarf escape from the Goblin caves is especially overstuffed; it isn’t helped by feeling like a retread of Fellowship of the Rings’ Moria sequence mixed with a crummy platformer. There’s no sequence in the movie that Jackson can’t stretch out just slightly too long.
That makes the film’s pacing wonky - it’s a real peaks and valleys experience. The movie is never boring, but it does often meander and wander, which gets problematic when the story is as episodic as this one. JRR Tolkien created The Hobbit as a bedtime story for his kids, so it has a structure not unlike a cliffhanging serial - one peril is escaped just in time for another to crop up; one strange location is left to come into another strange location. It’s interesting to compare the pacing of this to that of Lord of the Rings; where LOTR was a series of small quests with defined goals - get to Bree, get to Rivendell, get across the mountains, figure out what to do once the Fellowship breaks up - The Hobbit is a series of incidents that happen to the characters. There’s little sense of agency to the misadventures of the group, which is perfect in a story for children, who have little agency. But it makes for a weird movie, where the characters just stumble from one thing to the next... usually getting saved at the last moment by Gandalf.
When the movie fully embraces the whimsy of the original material I was transported. There's a battle between mountain-sized stone giants that transfixed me with wonder. The tone of the film is lighter than Lord of the Rings, but doesn’t feel like it’s taking place in another world. This is the same Middle-Earth, but it’s a slightly kinder, more innocent Middle-Earth. Darkness is on the horizon, but it’s not quite there yet. Jackson wisely plays it as an age that doesn’t know it’s ending, as opposed to filling everything with portents of doom.
Some of those portents are there; one of the extra storylines jammed into the film finds Radagast the Brown - wizard, frequent psilocybin tripper - investigating a mysterious presence at an ancient abandoned fortress. The savvy among us know this is the first inkling of Sauron’s return to Middle-Earth; the characters know only that it’s a Necromancer, raising the dead. This stuff plays well, and I especially liked seeing the White Council - Gandalf, Saruman, Galadriel and Elrond - in action, debating what to do about these events.
If only they had debated what to do about the overuse of CGI in the film. Some of the effects in The Hobbit are so bad they actually made me wonder if this was an aesthetic choice; a chase sequence between Radagast and a platoon of orcs looks about as convincing as that dancing baby on Allie McBeal. Some of the other CG creatures - of which there are about a zillion - look equally crummy. Gollum, though, looks magnificent. Did Jackson ask WETA to make the trolls and the wargs look sort of unreal, as a hedge against the inevitable outdating of the effects? Early stop motion stuff still works because it’s never striving to be photoreal. Perhaps that was the thought process here.
Even if that is the thought process, there are still too many CG characters. The film introduces a villain from elsewhere in Tolkein lore, Azog the Defiler. A huge, albino orc, Azog has a history with Thorin Oakenshield, leader of the dwarf company. For some reason Azog is also a CG character. And he looks it. It’s good CG work, but he’s always, obviously CG. It sticks out like a sore thumb in a series where orcs have been, traditionally, guys in costume and make-up. That drenched-in-CG feeling permeates the overlong Goblin sequence; every Goblin is CG, as is every environment. I liked the tactile elements of The Lord of the Rings, and too often the amount of CG in The Hobbit veers towards the saturation levels of the Star Wars Prequels.
Even at three hours Jackson and his screenwriters are never able to tame the unruly mass of dwarfs in the party. There are 12 dwarfs, of whom about four are memorable. Richard Armitrage is great as the hunky, hot-headed Thorin, leader of the group seeking to seize the mountain back from Smaug. Ken Stott brings subtle reserves of sadness as Balin, an older dwarf who advises Thorin. And James Nesbitt is wonderful as Bofur, a dwarf with a biting sense of humor. The rest of the company sort of fades into the background; I could tell you their names, but not which one was which (and even these three I had to look up). That’s a problem in the source material, where having an unwieldy number of dwarfs is part of the whimsy of the story; on screen it never quite gets beyond feeling ‘crowded.’
Martin Freeman is wonderful as Bilbo, especially in the first half of the film when he’s essentially the comic relief (which is almost redundant in a group of belching, antics-driven dwarfs). The second half of the film tests Freeman more, and it’s when he gets interesting. The movie shoehorns in an arc for him - a defense against being criticized for not being a movie (and frankly it’s not a movie, it’s an episode) - and I think Freeman really sells Bilbo’s slow transformation from reluctant companion to brave hero. The movie turns Bilbo into something of an action hero, but that’s the nature of the modern world.
The returning cast - Sir Ian McKellen, Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett, Christopher Lee - are wonderful in their moments. McKellen especially has a lot to do here, more than in Fellowship, and he seems to relish playing the emotional, funny and sly Gandalf the Grey. There’s a playfulness to his Gandalf that reflects the best moments of the movie.
The problem is that the best moments of the movie aren’t as good as you’d hope for them to be - especially when weighed against the shocking bloat throughout. This isn’t King Kong, but it has the same pacing and padding issues. Even in its greatest moments, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is the 4th best film in the series. It ends on a very high note, one that promises we’re over the initial hump, that the heavy expositionary lifting has been done, and that from here on out it’s going to be fun. But then you remember there’s six more hours, and realize you’re not even quite sure how Jackson made what happened in this movie last three hours.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is fine. That’s much better than I feared, but maybe not quite as good as it needed to be to truly allay concerns about the next two films.