Film review: ‘The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey’

Bilbo Baggins, played by Martin Freeman, prepares for a long—emphasis on long—journey in the first of three Hobbit movies.

The Details

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Three stars
Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage
Directed by Peter Jackson
Rated PG-13
Beyond the Weekly
Official Movie Site
IMDb: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Rotten Tomatoes: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

There was a time when the prospect of Peter Jackson making a movie version of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit would have been cause for celebration—say, right after the final installment of Jackson’s wonderful Lord of the Rings trilogy swept the Oscars in 2004. But through all the delays and false starts (including Guillermo del Toro’s coming on board and then leaving as director), Jackson’s project ballooned into an epic chore, more about technological innovation and blockbuster marketing than quality storytelling. Somehow the adaptation of Tolkien’s slim novel (less than 300 pages in most printings) grew into a three-film series, with the first installment, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, clocking in just under three hours.

Jackson hasn’t lost his skills as a filmmaker, and so Journey is still often entertaining, especially for those fans who loved The Lord of the Rings and have been waiting years to see more of Tolkien’s Middle-earth onscreen. The Hobbit was published 17 years before The Lord of the Rings trilogy, but Jackson has turned it into an explicit prequel, opening with a framing sequence featuring the older version of hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) and his nephew, Rings protagonist Frodo (Elijah Wood). From there, Jackson flashes back to the original story, with a younger Bilbo (Martin Freeman) receiving a surprise visit from wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen, as magisterial as ever) and getting corralled into a mission to help a group of dwarves reclaim their ancestral homeland from an evil dragon.

The story of The Hobbit is fairly simple (Tolkien wrote the book primarily for children), but in order to justify three films and to continue the grandiose feel of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Jackson has greatly expanded the narrative, throwing in numerous digressions and subplots based around brief mentions in the books and/or later supplemental material (see sidebar), or newly invented. The result is a story that feels padded and unfocused, with the characters ending up at the conclusion of Journey not much further than where they started.

At the same time, Jackson crafts some wonderful sequences, including an exciting set piece that involves mountains literally coming to life and fighting each other, as well as the central confrontation between Bilbo and deformed, corrupted hobbit Gollum, in which the two trade riddles and Bilbo absconds with the magic ring that will become central to The Lord of the Rings. Once again played via motion-capture by Andy Serkis, Gollum looks more expressive and lifelike here than ever before, and the simple showdown between the two characters is more suspenseful and exciting than any of the big action sequences.

That’s not to say that the action doesn’t frequently look great, even at the off-putting higher frame rate (48 frames per second, as opposed to 24) Jackson used to shoot the movie. The hyper-real visuals often make the movie look more like an HD broadcast of a football game than a sweeping fantasy epic, but they do bring a remarkable clarity to certain special effects. Like everything in this overcooked movie, they’re both impressively competent and alarmingly excessive.


Josh Bell

Josh Bell is the film editor for Las Vegas Weekly, where he's been writing movie and TV reviews since 2002. ...

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