The biggest risk New Line took with making the Lord of the Rings films was being committed to three movies. If the first film didn’t work and no one liked it, what could be done? Well, that’s a question they may be asking themselves with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, as the first film doesn’t work. Luckily for them they have the cushion of being a part of an already successful franchise, but for audiences it’s hard to imagine anyone exiting this film getting excited at the prospect of more.

The Players:

The Plot:

As recounted by an older Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm), there once was a city owned by dwarfs that was taken over by the dragon Smaug. The city’s rightful heir Thorin Oakenshield (Armitage) gathers a group together to take back the city, and that includes Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellan) who recruits Bilbo Baggins (Freeman) as the team’s burglar. Though reticent as a hobbit, Bilbo eventually becomes the fourteenth member of their team. In this movie they nearly make it to the Dragon’s lair.

On 48FPS:

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was shot at a higher frame rate, which is hoping to be the next big thing. Is it? From this film the answer is: Noooooooo. Sometimes the image looks normal, but then when people move it doesn’t look right, and then sometimes the higher frame rate makes it look like it has that soap opera super-clean-but-definitely-video look. There were moments where it looked great, but the problem is that it’s never consistent, which pulls the viewer out of the movie because it never achieves a coherent feel. The 48 frames per second looked best during the CGI work, but on a whole it doesn’t work. Audiences have been paying to watch filmmakers figure out digital photography and 3D and now 48fps, and here, it’s definitely a baby step, but there’s nothing about what’s on screen that suggests this is the way of the future. Perhaps it’s cranky to insist this is a bad decision as cinema has to learn new tricks to evolve. But is 48fps like the first steps of sound or color? The problem is that with those advances there was a palpable, understandable reason for the why. Here, it’s hard to see on the surface why anyone would want this, and there’s no obvious benefit for moviegoers.

The Good:

  • Getting the Band Back Together: There are moments here where the spectacle and the adventure gets you engaged in the material, where you feel like, “yes, this is why I love these movies, and why I love LOTR.” If this to be treated like other prequels or late to the game sequels, this is much better than – say – any of the Star Wars prequels, and it’s a bit better than Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. And that’s faint praise, but still.
  • Martin Freeman: Though he definitely does some familiar twitches, if this new trilogy works, it’s going to be because he is a pretty great actor. Unfortunately, with Ian Holm appearing at the start and the nature of this narrative, it takes a while to settle in on his read of the character, and in this film he’s still becoming a hero. But he could be great, and there is promise here.

The Bad:

  • Ugh: Look, there was a decision to make these movies, and it wasn’t totally based on anyone’s passion. It was a business decision that J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit could be adapted to the big screen because it was unmined source material and because the original Lord of the Rings films made millions of dollars. And instead of following the lighthearted 300 page book into one movie, it’s now being stretched out over three, and where the LOTR films could get away with being a little ragged and sloppy because there was so much material to cover (LOTR came from a thousand page source that was much more dense than The Hobbit), it’s hard to feel sympathy for the failings of this film. That there are three films, the fact that this is nearly three hours long feels driven more by expectations that narrative necessity. Director Peter Jackson brings the same tone and feel, and that’s good, but this doesn’t have the same passion or excitement. It’s the fast food version.
  • Remember these guys?: There is so much dead air in this film, which is mostly brought on by trying to tie this material closer to what already is out there. It takes forever to get going  and that’s because the film has to stop to show us old Bilbo and Frodo. Then there’s a sequence where the Dwarf team go to Rivendale to get an answer to a clue. Elrond (Hugo Weaving) shows up, and that’s fine, but then so does Saruman (Christopher Lee) and Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), and though it’s nice to see them, they all share a scene with Gandalf that couldn’t be less interesting.
  • Tom Bombadil: When adapting the Lord of the Rings films, Jackson had to make a lot of cuts that hurt fans who didn’t understand that sometimes the bigger picture requires sacrificing favorite characters in favor of telling a compelling narrative. Which seems to be something that Jackson and company forgot. On top of including characters from the first film simply to goose the audience that, yes, Peter Jackson could get Elijah Wood back to play Frodo for a couple of minutes, there’s the appearance of wizard Radaghast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy), who doesn’t advance the story here in any way. In some ways this goes beyond fan service, and gets into narrative padding, which leads to…
  • Pacing: One of the big set pieces in this film should be when Bilbo goes face to face with three trolls, which is one of the biggest moments in the original book, and previous adaptations. Bilbo must find a way to distract the trolls so they don’t realize the sun’s about to come up, which will turn them into stone. And this sequence should be great. But Jackson doesn’t build it in a way that makes it breathtaking, the work here feels more perfunctory. When Bilbo finally defeats the Trolls it doesn’t feel like he’s worked that hard for it, and is given an assist by Gandalf in the process. It’s like Jackson forgot that we should be worried. The first hour – outside of the prologue – is mostly spent in Bilbo’s house, and it goes on and on and on, but then the moment where the narrative goes outside of the house doesn’t feel like the moment it should (you can see what Jackson was trying to do, and it almost works).  But then the quest involves going through a forest for about thirty minutes, which feels like the same location used repeatedly.  This movie feels much smaller than LOTR, but not intentionally.
  • How are we going to get out of this one?: When the Dwarfs go up against The Goblin King, there’s no great scale, and Jackson falls back on using Deus Ex Machina more than seems fair. Rarely does anyone do something clever to get out of problems, events happen that allow characters to escape death in ways that aren’t engaging because they didn’t really do anything right.
  • So many Dwarfs: Other than the leader Thorin, the most distinctive things about the other dwarf characters is some of their looks. There’s a youngish one who stands out, a fat one, and a slightly good looking one. But I can’t tell you anything about these characters. And when you talk about the nine chosen for the fellowship, you can say a lot about the characters of Gimli, or Leoglas, or Boromir just from the first film. And here, other than Thorin and Bilbo, there’s not a lot of characters to latch on to or care about. If they were going to make this a three hour movie, and it’s about a team of adventurers, why not spend this first film getting us invested in the group? And if they weren’t that well fleshed out in the original text, then that’s fine, but then why is this a three hour movie?

Overall:

The Lord of the Rings films were by no means perfect, but there was an animated spirit behind them that took you along for the ride. You had a great adventure, huge stakes, and memorable characters. By trying to fit The Hobbit into that mold, it unfortunately shows the limitations of the source material, and why this probably shouldn’t have been done. This doesn’t have a life or death central concern, it is done in a much lower and goofy key than the other trilogy, and here there’s not a lot of characters to latch on to. That said, this isn’t a “bad” movie, this isn’t unwatchable, it is engaging in spots, and there’s a lot to like in the mix, but this lacks almost everything that made the original trilogy so great to begin with. And though this isn’t as thudding as The Phantom Menace was, it does suggest that the journey through the next two films will be done more out of obligation than passion.

Rating: 5.5/10

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey opens everywhere December 14.

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