Before the Lord of the Rings, J.R. Tolkien wrote another book, The Hobbit. After the success of the Lord of the Rings Trilogy in the early 2000’s, it was inevitable that this novel would get adopted too. Peter Jackson is back behind the camera for part one of the new trilogy, which lays the ground work for the quest of 12 dwarves, a wizard and a hobbit. This film stars Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen and Richard Armitage along with cameos from LOTR stars such as Hugo Weaving, Christopher Lee, Cate Blanchett and Andy Serkis. Watch the trailer after the jump and then read my review.
The Lord of the Rings trilogy was a special group of films. The third one, Return of the King, even won the Oscar for Best Picture. The following for this series rivals those of Harry Potter, Twilight and Star Wars. So naturally the expectations for this movie were through the roof. And I have to report that it does not meet those expectations. Part of the flaws come from the source material and part comes from the director, but either way, the next two films in the series have a lot to improve on.
First the story. The original Hobbit book was only 300 pages long, which could easily be made into a single movie. The Harry Potter books were all longer than that and only one was made a double feature. But (I’m assuming) the higher powers at Warner Brothers missed having the Harry Potter and Batman cash cows, so they decided to make it three films. That was a big mistake, or at least it greatly hinders the first one. In essence, this is the longest first act ever, with the entire three hours spent setting up many story lines without resolving any conflicts. I should have expected this knowing there was three movies, but even the minor conflicts with characters that aren’t in the book are still left open to be solved in later films. Jackson used many of the notes and appendices that Tolkien left unpublished. This includes a character, a Orc leader Azog, who was not in the book and whose story adds an unneeded 30 minutes to a three-hour movie. I understand that the fans of the series (including Jackson) wanted to see these notes brought to life, but to someone without the background knowledge, I was left slightly confused and surprised that it ended without any conflicts resolved. The story was stretched thin here and it hurt the film as a whole.
What made the LOTR films so special was the visuals and Jackson was famous for employing armies of extras and makeup artists for the Orcs, Hobbits and many other creatures. For some reason, Jackson chose to significantly cut back on that and instead use CGI for the Orcs and Trolls and the results are mixed. Andy Serkis returns as Gollum for one scene, the best scene in the movie and he looks just as good as ever (besides the 48fps which I will discuss later). On the opposite scale, Azog is one of the ugliest animated creatures of any film. He looks so out of place and boring, not intimidating like it was intended. Considering how important he is supposed to be to the story, Jackson should have made him look better. The smaller Orcs and Trolls looked better, but the physics in the fighting still didn’t have the same affect that the human ones did in the old movies. I know the budget on this film was limited after MGM declared bankruptcy, but since they are making three movies, I think they should have put more effort in. I hope the shots of Smaug the Dragon in the next film are better because if they look like this animation, that movie will be terrible. That is how important the CGI is to this world and Jackson needs to tighten the animation before the others are released.
The acting of this film is probably the best part, especially the main three cast members. Martin Freeman from Sherlock is a star as Bilbo Baggins, the title character. He is the one who is supposed to experience change and grow as a character, and he does. He is funny and sincere, just like his portrayal of Watson on Sherlock. Freeman’s best scene is the one with Gollum, where he plays the riddle game. It is both dark and funny as he attempts to escape from the monster and it’s ring. Ian McKellen returns as Gandalf and has more to do in this film than he does in Fellowship of the Ring, providing humour and kicking ass as always. Considering he didn’t want to return at first, McKellen plays the role with just as much confidence as he did in the original trilogy, It was nice to see him back in the role. Lastly, Richard Armitage plays Thorin Oakenshield, the leader of the dwarves and a character given more depth because of the appendices. This is Armitage’s first large main stream role and he does a really good job, actually acting out the emotions this character has and making the personal scores he wants to settle more real. All of them have really cheesy dialogue, which isn’t the actors faults, and they try to force the emotion on a little too much for a straight up action film. But these three guys do a good enough job for a film and I look forward to what they do next.
The other 11 dwarves are all funny, but they are all the same. I could not name any of them and they don’t really have important scenes that separate them. They all do a good enough job, as good as expected I guess. The original text limits what they do and there isn’t much Jackson could do about that.
Lastly, I want to address the 48 frames per second issue. It is a bad idea that should not be used on film. Everything just looked off, especially the characters when they are running in large landscape shots (which happens a lot). The idea is to make the film look more real, but it looks like classic PBS television, to bright and fake looking. Another thing that stood out in this regard was that it actually sped every characters movements up. Instead of just improving the details, they actually walk and fall faster. James Cameron has talked about using this tech on the Avatar squeals but Middle Earth in the Hobbit is just as bright and colourful as Pandora, so I don’t think it would work in that world either. I like seeing filmmakers experiment with technology, but if I have to pay $18 for a movie that looks off, I won’t be alone in expressing my anger.
Now this review sounds really negative, but I will end it with a positive note. Lord of the Rings fans will love this movie. It has everything they want, more Hobbits, more Gandalf and more Middle Earth. Jackson has a monumental fans dream, mixing unpublished notes with a popular novel. I read the Hobbit book when I was 12 and loved it. The story of dwarves going to defeat a dragon to get some gold is really cool. Unfortunately An Unexpected Journey, does not get to the fun parts. It spends three hours building up for what is to come, without any resolve of any kind. As a stand alone movie, it simply doesn’t work. This book was not designed for three movies and Jackson stretched it way to thin for this movie. Hopefully the other two improve on the story and I know they will resolve the conflicts. This is the weakest of the four LOTR films, but the trilogy has potential for so much more as it moves onto the dragon and other big scenes.