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The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey review: Return to Middle-earth (but choose your showing wisely)

The first thing to know about this film is that there are essentially two versions of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey floating around. They feature all the same content, but they are very different, and the level of love this film receives will be dominated by which version you see. Simply put: one is good, the other is not.

The difference comes in the way the film is shot. If you have been following this movie, then you’ve probably already heard the outcry that came following the debut of the footage at ComicCon. The film was shot at 48 frames per second, which is double the frame rate that films have been using for decades. According to Jackson, it brings a new level of clarity to the images. The fans that saw it loved the content of the footage, but seemed to universally deride the new fps.

Of course, this was mostly dismissed. The fans that go to ComicCon are hyper-aware of all the nuance and details, and they are also more critical for it. That criticism is generally justified, but the enflamed passions of hardcore fans can make a minor issue into a major one, and an annoyance can become a catastrophe. So while the frame rate was certainly cause for a concern, it didn’t necessarily mean it would be that big of a deal.

It is.

Many of the 3D showings of An Unexpected Journey uses this new frame rate, and if you see it this way, the two visual effects combine for an experience that you will have to overcome rather than embrace. It’s not a good look in any way, but whether or not you see it in 3D (and not all 3D showings are in 48 fps), the faster frame rate is an issue. The first problem is the intense clarity. It adds a strange look to everything that actually makes everything seem a bit fake – even when the shot is of something very obviously real, like landscapes. Ironically it also makes the production and sets look cheap when they are both anything but. That is further exemplified by the unnatural speed at which the camera moves around, which is beyond the possibility of actual movement. It zooms and pans too quickly, which gives a jarring and uneven visual presentation that is more akin to a bad edit in a TV movie than a multi-million dollar film.

And then there is the speed of the action. The increased frame rate makes the action – even muted actions like characters walking quickly – seem wrong. It’s almost as if the film moves 5-10 percent faster than it should. When the movement shifts to an actual fight, characters move in a way that is off putting because the action isn’t smooth or even. It just doesn’t make for easy viewing.

This visual style makes the entire film less than what it should be. It also cheapens the grand sense that the Lord of the Rings trilogy cultivated. You can make a valid argument that the films should be as different as the books were from one another, but that shift is easily accomplished tonally, and the visual change is for the worse, no matter what property it is used for.

Now, with that all being said, if you skip the faster frame rate showings, then you are going to be treated to a much different experience.

Although The Hobbit is obviously connected to The Lord of the Rings on a very fundamental level, the two properties are also very different. When Tolkien wrote The Hobbit, he was coming from a very different place than when he wrote the follow-up trilogy. The book originally began as a series of anecdotes written for his son during World War I, and then percolated into a children’s story that would be published in 1937. As such, despite the serious currents throughout, the tone was much lighter and meant for a younger audience. By the time he began work on The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien’s intended audience was completely different and the content reflected that.

The Lord of the Rings trilogy was a complex myth for a modern age, complete with world-shaping battles, detailed histories, and mature themes. The films reflected that. By comparison, The Hobbit novel was a kids’ yarn. That works in the greater context when you are reading the book and graduate from the simpler tale to the trilogy, but it presents a challenge for the film as a prequel.

It was a good initial decision from Jackson to take a step back when The Hobbit was first greenlit. The original idea was to have Guillermo del Toro take over the director duties, which would have naturally created a shift in tone. But then MGM collapsed and the film was left in limbo. Del Toro waited as long as he could, but he is simply too in demand to be permanently on hold for a project that he was not nearly as invested in as Jackson, so he moved on, leaving a gap – and a fear.

Del Toro seemed like a perfect pick with his background in sci-fi and fantasy, plus he was deeply involved in the pre-production, so replacing him would have meant entrusting someone new with a beloved franchise that was already deep into production. Jackson was the only logical choice.

While the films are tied together as part of a set, tonally they need to feel very different, and so far they do. There is a greater sense of fun, more akin to the first half of Fellowship of the Ring before the weight of the quest began to show itself. The Hobbit is an adventure with plenty of dangers and a nearly impossible quest, but the individual characters aren’t as emotionally scarred by the outing. Despite the trials, they have fun. 

The scale is also a bit smaller, for the better. While the trilogy was meant to come across as an epic story that decided the fate of the entire world of Middle-earth, The Hobbit has a much more central focus, which lowers the stakes and allows the quest to succeed or fail without the same sense of consequence. 

Therefore the prequel trilogy won’t reach the same level of depth as the previous trilogy, and it won’t have the lasting cultural impact either. There is very little chance of surpassing the original, but they don’t need to in order to be successes. 

Those that aren’t familiar with the book but know the film trilogy may be surprised to see how effortlessly Martin Freeman (Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Sherlock) takes over the role of Bilbo. The older Bilbo (played by Ian Holmes) was the beneficiary of years of experience and trials that shaped his character, while Freeman’s Bilbo has the same core values, linking both actors’ portrayals, but his Bilbo has a youthful inexperience that is refreshing, welcome, and stands on its own among the other hobbits we’ve met.

When a band of 12 dwarves unexpectedly drop by Bag End to answer the call of Thorin Oakenshield (played by Richard Armitage) and Gandalf (once again played by Ian McKellan), Bilbo is faced with a choice: to stay in the comfort of his home, or to risk the dangers and discomforts – and adventures – of the quest proposed. The journey will take him to The Lonely Mountain, once the home of the mightiest dwarf kingdom before the dragon Smaug came and forced out the dwarven inhabitants.

Thorin is the de facto replacement for the trilogy’s Aragorn, and is very much cut from the same cloth. The rightful heir to the lost kingdom, Thorin is the driving force of the story, while Gandalf is the brains and Bilbo is the heart. The other dwarves are flavor, and while some receive more attention than others, only a few are ever really considered important to the narrative. The film does a good job of trying to give each member at least one scene that makes every character memorable though, and it succeeds more often than not.

The party’s journey takes them through Middle-earth to several previously seen haunts and locations, and their paths cross with many familiar faces – as well as a few new characters that are important to the future of the world Jackson has created.

There are several moments of action and wonder, but throughout it all, the somewhat melancholy nature of the trilogy, which gave it a haunting beauty at times, is deliberately missing. This film is meant to be far more fun than dramatic, and Jackson manages to create a unique tone that fits within the universe he created so masterfully. This new trilogy can’t compete with the previous one because of that, but it doesn’t need to in order to be enjoyable. 

The film moves along at a decent pace, and there is a traditional arc that ends with a resolution and a climactic final act despite the “to be continued” nature of the first film in a trilogy. Its ending raises questions though. The decision to make The Hobbit into two movies was understandable. The world is rich and intriguing, and the original trilogy garnered so much good will that the more the better. The decision to stretch it to three films is tougher to justify.

The book is not that big or dense, and it lacks the deep mythology of the trilogy, which Tolkien worked to develop for nearly 20 years. The universe is so well detailed at this point that there is plenty of additional content that could be drawn upon, but the first film accounts for a major portion of the book and makes you wonder how the remainder will play out over two more films and at least four more hours (and probably closer to five). We’ll find out next year.

Conclusion

Peter Jackson knew exactly what he needed to do with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. The film is a separate story that exists in the same universe as the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and while it feels at home in Middle-earth, the feel of it is far lighter throughout. As the name suggests, it is an adventure rather than a war, and the tone reflects that. Freeman has the charisma and charm to make an excellent Bilbo, and Armitage’s Thorin is the traditional hero that a story like this needs. The others all serve their purpose too, but most are only slightly memorable. Over three movies though, this is certain to change.

The frame rate is a debacle, but it is one that can be avoided altogether if you choose to skip the 48 fps showings in favor of the traditional 24 fps. And you should. It really is the difference between a good film and a bad one.

The film is different than The Lord of the Rings, but that is how it should be. It builds on the fun scenes in the Fellowship, and creates a new story that doesn’t feel as necessary, but is just as worthy. We just need to see how the other films in this trilogy fit before we can truly judge the return to Middle-earth, and the way ahead is treacherous, but it’s off to a good start.

(This article has been updated)