Middle Earth is far from middling
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is in a really tough spot. The film is the follow up to what is pretty much the most epic trilogy in film history. Plus, being based on a children's book and having a smaller story than its predecessor makes it, well, a lot smaller. It's really the story before the story, and as such should really be told before the story. Instead it's coming after, and that makes it's challenges even greater.
Not only does it have to live up to the immesnley high expectations established by the previous films, which netted Peter Jackson an Oscar, but it also has to feel like its something different. After all, anyone who has read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings knows that the two books may take place in the same world, but they are light years apart in terms of tone and content.
The Hobbit needed to be everything to everyone in order to be a great film, but doing that is impossible so a really good film will have to suffice.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
As you've probably heard, Peter Jackson has stretched the story of what is a decently short children's book into three epic films. The plot of the original book is the story of an adventure Hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) goes on in which he just happens to find the ring that causes all the trouble in The Lord of the Rings. It's a much smaller tale with massive implications in the world of Middle Earth, but the plot of the book and film really have a very basic fantasy story line: the quest to kill a dragon. You can read The Hobbit easily in a day (and really should have already done it) so I won't go too into detail on the plot, but the film stays pretty faithful to the story of the book, but it's really less than the first third of the story. [spoilers] By the end of the movie they haven't even made it to Dale. [/spoilers]
Jackson took the opportunity afforded him by three films to make this first film into a lot more than the book, pulling in characters everyone will easily recognize from the previous trilogy even if they weren't even mentioned in the book. There's a lot of background story going on here that a children's book just doesn't dive into, but any fan of Tolkien will love to death. Of course this means a whopping two hour and 40 minute running time, but if you enjoy being in Middle Earth that shouldn't be an issue. There's definitely times when Jackson could have easily cropped the film down -- like when we randomly flash forward to Frodo for no apparent reason than to reestablish that this is indeed a movie that is connected to the previous movies -- but Jackson's Middle Earth is so complete and wonderfully detailed that spending too much time in it might be impossible.
The Hobbit is definitely a bit more fun than The Lord of the Rings. This, of course, is partly because of the subject matter, but it feels like everyone involved was a bit more laid back this time around. The film plays visual gags and slapstick far more often and while there's plenty of sweeping panoramas and truly epic moments everything is a bit more down to earth. Jackson does a very good job of balancing the lighter feeling of the film with the in-depth world that was already created. There's definitely hints at the serious nature of everything going on, but the childlike wonder of adventure and action is what really shines.
A big part of that is the dwarves. Led by Thorin (Richard Armitage), they're pretty much the classic gang of misfit warriors presented in every film (there's even a fat one and two goofy twins). If that little detail doesn't convince you that the film is a bit more lighthearted than a mention of a musical number where the dwarves sing and put away dishes should push you over. While the lighter tone is something to be appreciated it does at times conflict with the already established world from the previous films. This is an issue the books had as well, and for the most part Jackson avoids the film feeling at odds. However, every once in a while you're sucked out of the story because the film is being oddly childish.
The action this time around is superb, especially an escape sequence through an orc infested cave. This escape was definitely in the book, but it's nowhere near as thrilling as it is in the film. It's one of the most stunning action sequences I've seen in a while, and is especially impressive since it packs both humor and wonder together while somehow keeping track of a plethora of dwarves and a wizard kicking butt. It's not the only action sequence either, and all of them stand out strong.
Unlike the previous films The Hobbit doesn't have any giant wars or epic showdowns (yet) in terms of action. But it shines elsewhere thanks to some fantastic dialog and adherence to the wittier parts of the book. The classic scene of the three arguing ogres is both funny and charming, but it's Bilbo's riddle showdown with Gollum (Andy Serkis) that really steals the show. Somehow Serkis combines humor, evil and insanity into a ten minute performance that would have won him an Oscar if he hadn't been digitally animated. The showdown between him and Bilbo is a lesson in pacing a scene that could have fallen horribly flat, but instead outshines almost every other aspect of the film. This is as it should be considering what the end result of their game of riddles is, but it's fantastic that Jackson, Serkis and Freeman so clearly cared about it.
Now for what you've all been waiting for (I put it here so you'd read the rest). High Frame Rate (HFR) is absolutely stunning visually, but until you get used to watching it it will take you out of the movie and annoy the heck out of you. After seeing the movie in 48 fps I don't think I could watch it any other way, but it took me about an hour to stop seeing things sped up, especially during action sequences. Once I stopped: wow. Just wow. If you think you've seen a sweeping vista, you haven't. If you think you've been amazed by an elaborate action set piece, you're wrong. If you don't think this is the future of film then you're mistaken. Everything looks absolutely stunning, except for the sets, which now often look like plastic. What does that mean? It means set makers need to step their game up because when the movie isn't on a set it's too gorgeous to not become the norm.
For fans of Tolkein and the previous films this is more of what you want, but on a much smaller scale with a handful of humor tossed in. It definitely doesn't feel as grand or epic as the previous films, but that's a good thing. This is a different story told in a different manner, and clearly separates itself from its predecessors. What it does (establish the basis for the upcoming story) it does well, even if it could have done it just as easily with thirty minutes less footage. The extra content that makes what could have been one film into three isn't really needed, but it's hard to be angry about getting to spend more time in this world.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey may have had a lot of obstacles in its way, but it succeeds in being an entertaining and thoroughly watchable movie. It may not be the story the book told in content and tone, but it's the story it had to be... plus 30 minutes.
Hubert Vigilla: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a great two-hour adventure movie that's unfortunately almost three hours long. There's so much flab in film, and it's easy to spot. If Lord of the Rings was young Jake LaMotta, The Hobbit is old Jake LaMotta. There are middling monologues that repeat the film's themes of home and belonging, there are redundant scenes that should have been nixed, and there's even a small council at Rivendell that feels like a mid-week staff meeting. Throughout that scene, Gandalf sits, Saruman sits and drones, Elrond stands, and Galadriel paces very slowly. It made me appreciate the expedience of Lord of the Rings.
When the film gets going, it's a rip-roaring adventure that's all swashbuckling and hack and slash, which is probably what the film would have felt like if The Hobbit remained a two-movie tale. But even these moments get undermined by bad comic relief, especially from the zany hippie-dippy druid Radagast the Brown. There are also a lot of winks to previous Lord of the Rings films meant as some sort of visual callback, but it feels shoehorned in and robs the film of its own sense of freshness, much like the references in the Star Wars prequels to the original Star Wars trilogy. This first Hobbit movie isn't all bad -- the best scene and one of the few that is lean and compelling throughout is the "Riddles in the Dark" segment -- but it's just a needlessly bloated movie. Maybe in the next two films, Jackson can focus on the adventure rather than trying to hit an epic-length runtime. 60 - Decent