Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey 3D (Higher Frame Rate)
An unexpected disappointment"All great stories deserve a little embellishment." So says Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) in the most telling line in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Peter Jackson's return to the world of JRR Tolkien. It's a line that clearly outlines Jackson and his co-writers' intentions, yet it comes off as a veiled apology, as if the film-making team knew that what they have created is going to be problematic for die-hard Middle Earth fans. Sadly, Jackson's new film doesn't come close to silencing the skeptics like his Lord of the Rings films did, and is actually more ill-conceived than expected.
Things that do work well for the most part in The Hobbit are sequences that come directly from the source novel. Iconic scenes, such as the arrival of the dwarves at Bag End or the encounter with the trolls are handled pretty well, despite being padded out to unnecessary lengths with lame gags and pointless alteration of the original events in the book. Juggling such a massive primary cast is obviously a challenge, and as such the film's best moments involve only one or two characters, with Bilbo's (Martin Freeman) meeting of Gollum (Andy Serkis) and the finding of the ring being a particular stand-out sequence, the only one that seemed like it could have used more time.
However, all of the good work that Jackson & Co do with the direct source material is swamped by the content they felt they had to develop themselves. The great achievement of the LOTR films is how they managed to distill the huge source novels to their most important story beats, only hinting at most of the wider story in a way that brought incredible richness to the world in which they take place. With The Hobbit though, Jackson only has a 300 page novel to start with, and the decision to make three lengthy films, I assume to parallel the first trilogy, is precisely why this first film doesn't work.
The Hobbit should be allowed to stand alone as its own film, but it is structured in such a way, almost identically to the first LOTR entry The Fellowship of the Ring, that it's all but impossible not to compare them. As a side-effect, the much lighter tone will be jarring for a lot of established franchise fans, the very people the film seems to be primarily aimed at. The chase sequence in the goblin tunnels for example is little more than an updated version of the Moria scenes from LOTR. It's exciting enough, but much of the action feels in service of the film-making technology on display rather than the story, and as such none of the stakes of the earlier films are built here.
Where the LOTR films had to keep moving at such a pace to fit everything in, The Hobbit dwells on unnecessary moments which had only the briefest of mentions in the novel to reach its 2 hour 49 minute runtime. Most damaging are the call backs linking the previous trilogy, setting up what is likely to be an almost completely new story bridge between the two trilogies in the third film due in 2014. There is absolutely no reason for Frodo (Elijah Wood), Saruman (Christopher Lee), and Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) to appear in this story, yet here they are, taking us away from a perfectly good narrative about a quest to fight a dragon. It reeks of cynical franchise care, and arguably disrespectful to the carefully crafted world that Tolkien created.
There's a good movie somewhere in The Hobbit, and had Jackson shown more restraint we might have seen it. The film could easily lose at least 45 minutes, but it feels as if director feels so beholden to his previous work that he needs to deliver an epic on the scale of LOTR. But that's not what this book is, and we're left with an uneasy balance - the lighter tone to distinguish this as a separate story but a strict adherence to the LOTR structure - but ultimately doesn't fulfill either side.