Movie Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

IMDB, The Hobbit - An Unexpected Journey“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” on IMDB

Fantasy, 169 Minutes, 2012

It seemed at times like it would never actually happen.  Between studio financial issues, directorial changes, scheduling conflicts and a myriad of technical issues “The Hobbit” was a very long time coming.  Was it worth the wait?

Well, mostly!

The movie has a hard row to hoe.  The book is childlike with generally childlike emotional stances and characters.  Simple motivations lead to simple challenges and simple (often downright silly) resolutions.  In short it’s about as unlike “The Lord of the Rings” as anything can be.  It’s also pretty damn short.

It’s clear, however, that somebody wanted a “real” follow-up to “The Lord of the Rings”.  Something just as grand in scope (and profit-potential as there’s no other earthly reason to stretch this story out to three films).  This gives “The Hobbit” an unfortunate split personality.  Some characters (like most of the dwarves) tend toward the ridiculously cartoonish while others (like Thorin and all the returning characters from “The Lord of the Rings”) are deadly serious.  Slapstick humor is followed by racial angst; light-hearted wordplay by profound thoughts.

Vast and often confounding liberties are taken with the source material.  In some cases this seems only to serve an extended run-time as when we see  characters like Azog (long dead in the book) or Radagast (mentioned only in passing in the book) given significant roles.  Other cases attempt to better link the events to “The Lord of the Rings”.  This is epitomized by two overly long, incredibly self-indulgent scenes featuring characters that never appeared in the book such as Frodo or Saruman.  Where every scene of “The Lord of the Rings” served the story “The Hobbit”, in contrast, seems to wander a bit aimlessly at times.

The special effects are above reproach.  This is truly the first film where I honestly had trouble distinguishing the practical effects from the digital – they were just that good.  The Great Goblin, in particular, was a total delight.  While not every effect was necessary (Jackson is still a bit heavy-handed with digital augmentation, one of my very few complaints about “The Lord of the Rings”) they’re all amazingly well-done and completely seamless.

My family and I saw the high-frame rate 3D version (in Cinemark parlance “XD High Frame Rate RealD 3D”).  I’m still processing how I feel about it.  One on hand the movie had a “TV” feel which I, presumably as a result of training, tend to consider “cheaper” looking.  On the other hand I’ve never been so comfortable with fast-motion scenes in 3D.  The nauseating motion blur that tends to accompany giant screen presentations simply didn’t exist with this.  It’s also worth noting that my lovely bride (who happens to be blind in one eye and normally hates 3D) found it significantly more comfortable to watch than the normal frame rate.

Bluntly this simply does not rise to the level of “The Lord of the Rings”.  Padding the story is perhaps the largest mistake but one that still could be mitigated over the next two installments.  The schizophrenic nature of the narrative will be harder to correct but my assumption is that they will slowly migrate away from the tone of the book and closer to that of the films.  Considering everything however this is still simply not to be missed.  Warts and all, you likely won’t find a better fantasy film this year.

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