Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey


While watching The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, I was reminded of a Simpsons episode, the one where Homer and friends form a band called the Be Sharps. They perform their last concert on the roof of Moe’s Tavern, a nod to the Beatles rooftop concert in London. As they perform, George Harrison stops by and says, disdainfully, “It’s been done.”

That’s what I felt with Peter Jackson’s revival of the characters of J.R.R. Tolkien–it’s been done, and it’s been done better, and it’s been done better by Peter Jackson. I love the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and have watched all of the films multiple times, but this film lacks the spark that they did, not to mention the originality.

The problem is that The Hobbit, which was written before the Lord of the Rings, was in a completely different literary tone. It was a children’s story about a quest for gold and a big dragon. But Jackson has made the story in the same, darker tones of the Lord of the Rings, with Middle Earth politics layered on. He’s also stretching out a book of about three hundred pages into three long films. The thought that there are six hours to go is mind-boggling.

But of course The Hobbit is a beautiful film–the New Zealand settings are magnificent. But watching the characters traverse the mountainous landscape, Howard Shore’s soaring score behind them, leaves me feeling a little empty, and is too close a recollection of how George Lucas ruined Star Wars by making three more films.

Martin Freeman is Bilbo Baggins, who will one day look like Ian Holm. He is writing down his story for his nephew, Frodo (Elijah Wood, back again). One day he was minding his own business when the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen, wily as ever) stops by and asks Bilbo if he would like to go an an adventure. As Hobbits are wont to do, he declines, and is shocked when a dozen dwarves show up unannounced. They are going back to their mountain home, where they were kicked out by the dragon Smaug. The grandson of the king, Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage, basically playing Aragorn from LOTR) wants his kingdom back.

Along the way they encounter trolls and orcs, and end up captured by a large king who has a goiter the size of a bathtub. Bilbo gets separated and encounters Gollum, and he will find the ring that is all the fuss in the next trilogy (this scene, in which he and Gollum play riddles, is very well done and the highlight of the picture).

Perhaps if this had been made first it would have been better received by me; as it is it’s just a whirlwind of activity without any substance. Out of some sense of misplaced duty I’ll see the next two, but I won’t particularly look forward to them, as I was bored during this one, bored enough to be recalling Simpson’s episodes.

My grade for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey: C.


About Jackrabbit Slim

Location: Vegas, Baby! I’m much older than the other whippersnappers here, a baby boomer. I tend to be more snobbish about film, disdaining a lot of the multiplex fare for “cinema.” My favorite films: Woody Allen’s oeuvre (up until about 1990), The Godfather, The Graduate, A Hard Day’s Night, Pulp Fiction. Politics: Well, George McGovern was my political hero. I’m also a prickly atheist. Occupation: Poised to be an English teacher in Las Vegas. For many years I was an editor at Penthouse Magazine. My role on this blog seems to be writing lots of reviews and being the resident Oscar maven.

10 responses »

  1. I agree that the “riddle” scene is the best in the film and it seems many other reviewers do as well, but it’s often relegated to the parenthetical (as above) or as a caveat when explaining how bad the rest of it is. I think one of the reasons it stands out is that it rarely cuts back (if ever) to any other (in)action that is going on elsewhere in Middle Earth. It doesn’t need sweeping vistas or hyper-edits but just lets the actors live in the lines of the scene. It’s a tribute to how Tolkien wrote it, and kudos for Jackson to mostly just letting that part be

  2. I did not.

    “If you can only see The Hobbit once in theaters, go for the 24fps format. If you can see it twice, see it in 24fps then see something else entirely.”

  3. That was a good line, Rob.
    I did see it in 3D/48fps. On the balance I thought it looked great, but there were many moments that appeared (quality-wise) like they were in a bad PBS documentary or old BBC TV show. Then there were a few times where the action or character movements seemed sped-up like an old timey film.

    3D seems suited for HFR (or vice versa) as it has unmatched clarity especially in, well, I don’t know the term, but when something extremely far away is in focus. Deep focus? Anyway… I don’t understand why it looks so poor in some spots. Isn’t HD TV supposed to be 60fps? So how is it that at 1080p/60fps something on TV looks more cinematic than 48fps? I always thought it was the refresh rate that made things look more or less fake.

  4. I don’t understand why it looks so poor in some spots.

    I don’t either. I would speculate, though, that Jackson shot 48fps and wasn’t entirely pleased with the results. So he applied some kind of artifical motion “enhancement” to further smooth things over. This would explain why it looks like an HDTV at a Best Buy display.

    Alternatively, I might speculate that the CGI technology just isn’t up to par yet to be able to pull of 48fps. This theory is cast into doubt, however, by the fact that some of the movie that didn’t have apparent CGI work looked just as bad as the CGI stuff.

  5. I liked it and the whole image quality complaint escapes me. It looked f-ing fantastic when I saw it. Best 3D I’ve seen so far. Seamless, practically. Maybe it’s that I like BBC productions?

    Film was overlong, though. Too much unnecessary story crammed into it. Could have been half the length. Everything involving Radagast and the Orc leader could have been deleted, they could have left the Shire after 10-15 instead of 45 minutes.

    But I was never bored and was very impressed with how they’ve handled the dwarves (excluding Thorin, who *spoiler* as far as I remember never started liking Bilbo. Hollywood story structures/clichés screwing with the story *end spoiler*).

    So I thought it was an enjoyable adventure story, despite the overindulged filmmaker.

    I’d give it a B

  6. 48fps does improve the 3D, that much is true. But other current aspects of filmmaking are downgraded due to the new tech.

    Almost every scene looked to be shot on a soundstage, even ones I knew were actually outdoors, and the four hours of scenes inside Bilbo’s home all looked like a TV show. The problem is that current lighting and set design standards don’t work at 48fps. They’ll need to be modified to work better with the new tech so they appear as seamless as they do in regular films.

    Same goes for the makeup. The dwarves all looked like actors wearing crusty prosthetics and hair. Obviously we know they are, but Gimli looked far more “realistic” than these guys do. So again, the makeup will need to change to suit the new format.

    My question is why? Movies already look spectacular when made my people who know what they’re doing, so do we need the image to look more like real life? They’re movies. And what if the changes made to lighting, sets, makeup, etc start looking bad in regular 24fps?

    The improved 3D is not nearly enough of a reason to use 48fps IMO because I’m not a fan of 3D in the first place. And like Joe said, some of the action (particularly foreground action) appears sped up and out of place.

    THE HOBBIT alone is a C+, but in 48fps it’s an easy D.

  7. This was interminable, and the tone, I had no idea the book was aimed at children, but it’s so childish, as you said, I was expecting the darker tone of the first trilogy and not the aspects of, well, rabbit sled dogs and buffoonery and cartoonish sound effects.
    I get I’m not the demographic for this, and that being said, the battle scenes, especially the one with the big troll were awesome, but the scene with the three trolls turned to stone? Why would Gandalf even LET the dwarves be spitted? Isn’t he, you know, a wizard? Can’t he simulate the sun on his stick? …wonder why there was never a porn called ‘Gandalf’s Stick’.
    And man, does it drag, so much so that it feels Jackson ‘creeps up’ on each scene, spending an inordinate amount of time with forward tracking shots over establishing terrain until we get to the ‘meat’ of the scene. Why not shoot from the point of view of Gollum when Bilbo is sneaking up on him, doing away with the need to establish that Gollum is wading in his boat, that we’re in a cave, that Bilbo is hiding-and why wasn’t the box riddle a vagina?
    And Freeman seems to just be doing his best impression of ‘Ian Holm as a younger Hobbit’.
    Oh, and it’s strange how,in a lot of the ‘action’ scenes, like where the characters are confined to a space, Jackson defaults to ‘Cameron Avatar Camera’, where it appears the camera is being held, outstretched, at arm’s length on a Fig Rig or something, and the operator is ducking and weaving like a boxer, as though it’s supposed to make us feel like we’re ‘there’ or something, and I’ve only noticed it since the advent of these directors making, essentially ‘animated films’, because, I assume (and you can see it in the Behind the Scenes of Avatar, there are no physical limitations for cameras anymore in motion capture situations.
    Flaming acorns? Really? And again with the fu*^ing eagles? Why are they not just used in the first place? but again, I guess I’m not the demographic.
    It does have a pretty spectacularly excellent bad troll and some battle scenes that are aces.

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