The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Release Date: December 14, 2012
Director: Peter Jackson
Writers: Fran Walsh & Philippa Boyens & Peter Jackson & Guillermo del Toro (screenplay); J.R.R. Tolkien (novel The Hobbit)
Stars: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen and Richard Armitage
MPAA Rating: PG-13
With The Lord of the Rings trilogy, director Peter Jackson was very shrewd in his editing. Jackson did a great job streamlining J.R.R. Tolkien’s books when adapting them to the screen and, with the exception of The Return of the King, which dragged at the end due to an excess of epilogues, the three films were very well-paced and thoroughly entertaining. Unfortunately, Jackson seems to have lost those editing instincts in his adaptation of The Hobbit.
The Hobbit is a prequel to The Lord of the Rings. Unlike that series, it is just one book. The story is somewhere around 300 pages in total. Yet somehow, Jackson decided to stretch the story into another trilogy. An Unexpected Journey is the first of those three films and although it is only covering the first third of a 300 page novel, it inexplicably clocks in at 169 minutes.
As a result, the film drags in spots, particularly in the beginning. The film takes far too long to get going, giving us an opening filled with a never-ending string of exposition and flashbacks to give the audience what feels like mostly superfluous information. A lot of the important bits of backstory could have – and should have – been provided in a more concise way.
Once the characters get their journey underway and the action picks up, it’s a very entertaining film with a lot of lavish set pieces and epic battles. Also, to his credit, Jackson does a good job finding a natural break to end this first part, giving it a satisfying climax.
The film centers around Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), a hobbit from the Shire that, as the movie’s title suggests, is talked into embarking on an “unexpected journey” by the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen). The two join a band of dwarves looking to reclaim their mountain homeland.
One nice thing about breaking up the story into three parts is that Jackson gets to focus on Bilbo’s emotional journey in this first film. He’s never left the Shire. He knows very little about the outside world. And the dwarves he is traveling with are unsure about his place in the group and his commitment to their cause. Getting the proper time to explore that dynamic and Bilbo’s emotional state throughout does give the film a very satisfying emotional throughline.
The other benefit of the extended running time is that Jackson has plenty of time to devote to what is debatably the most iconic scene in the entire series – Bilbo’s encounter with Gollum (Andy Serkis). It’s an important sequence because it sets up the events of the Lord of the Ring trilogy. But it’s also just a really great scene that is at times tense at times funny and at times tragic. There is a very abbreviated version of it shown in The Fellowship of the Rings, but actually getting to see the moment in its entirety on the big screen was easily the best part of An Unexpected Journey.
Gollum looks spectacular too. He is a completely CGI-rendered character, which can be tricky to pull off. Andy Serkis, who has carved out a niche playing memorable CGI characters, has always been able to breathe life into the character, but at times in the previous three films the CGI would remind you you were watching an animated character. This time around though, he looks perfect. The detail in his eyes and in his skin is really impressive, which helps sell the character and makes the scene that much better.
Speaking of aesthetics, much has been made about Peter Jackson’s decision to screen An Unexpected Journey at 48 frames per second, which is twice the traditional frame rate. It is certainly a distracting choice and one that I have qualms with, but ultimately I don’t think it’s as big a deal as people have made it out to be.
The most glaring difference with the increased frame rate is the lack of motion blur. As characters run through the woods or charge into battle, everything in the shot remains perfectly clear instead of blurring. While this sounds like a good thing, it’s actually rather distracting. It makes tracking shots seem less fluid by calling too much attention to them. Any camera movement ends up looking like the unnatural pan and scans you get in widescreen films that have been readjusted to screen on traditional televisions.
Also, with the increased aspect ratio, there are times when your eye is drawn to a set piece that looks fake. Your eye is able to catch so much more than it normally would, which can really hurt a film anytime they are trying to cheat with a visual effect or simply have a small mistake they would prefer you didn’t notice.
Still, while it’s distracting and probably made Peter Jackson’s job more difficult than it should have been, it’s really just a minor hindrance. And if more films start using this frame rate, I can only imagine filmmakers will get better at seamlessly implementing it.
Frame rate aside, overall An Unexpected Journey is an entertaining film. It’s overly long and poorly paced in the beginning, but once it picks up steam, it’s just as entertaining as the previous trilogy.
Written by Joel Murphy. If you enjoy his reviews, he also writes a weekly pop culture column called Murphy’s Law, which you can find here. You can contact Joel at firstname.lastname@example.org.