At almost three hours, Peter Jackson’s fourth foray into the world of J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” is initially worrisome and typically self-indulgent. An extremely jarring 48 fps look -- which looks like an odd "Masterpiece Theater" in HD -- is unsettling, and the opening is slow-going and tepidly genteel, taking its time with two prologues, one that includes an aged Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) and Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood). And while “The Lord Of The Rings” films always sported a jovial and light-hearted tone, 'The Hobbit' (set some 60 years before the events of ‘LOTR’) ratchets up the goofiness to a near unfortunate level (yes, the source material is more of a kids' book, but even this is a little much).
But while the first act meanders to put the story in place, and is perhaps sillier than ‘LOTR’ movie fans are used to (lots of songs and merriment without much of a rudder), once ‘An Unexpected Journey’ gets cooking, it takes off into a familiar but deeply entertaining rhythm full of all the wonder, action, spectacle and visual dazzle Jackson provided in his original trilogy. Tonally, aside from the more childish opening, ‘The Hobbit’ falls in line with the previous triad as well; films that mix loyalty, friendship, honor and duty with a blend of humor, soulfulness and heart.
48 frames per second is essentially harsh-looking and disconcerting...until it isn’t. It’s incredible how discordant and off-putting the increased frame rate appears to the human eye initially, but as Jackson himself has asserted, audiences will tend to forget (and or tolerate) once they’re absorbed into the story (though admittedly it takes a good hour, and the experience will be both subjective and divisive). And becoming engaged in 'The Hobbit' once the adventure truly starts isn’t difficult. In fact, by the third act when the action is at its thunderous peak, the 3D/48 fps visuals are wholeheartedly spectacular. Indeed, a few moments of panoramic action vistas are as stunning and gorgeous as anything seen in “Avatar,” “Hugo” or “Life Of Pi.”
But again, the two-tiered opening means that 'The Hobbit' is slow going at first. One prologue focuses on Smaug -- a ferocious dragon who plunders the gold and riches of the Dwarf Kingdom of Erebor -- and the other centers on the aforementioned Frodo preface where Bilbo sets out to record his ‘The Hobbit’ adventure in novel form (both of which aren’t very dissimilar from “The Fellowship Of The Rings” opening). From there the film flashes back 60 years to when Gandalf The Grey (Sir Ian McKellen) unexpectedly comes to visit a young and over-fussy hobbit named Bilbo Baggins (played by Martin Freeman who fits into Jackson’s world like a snug glove).
Much to his chagrin, Bilbo eventually finds himself hosting a dinner for a troupe of 13 bad-mannered and graceless Dwarves led by the legendary warrior, Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage). Unlike the ‘LOTR’ adventure, 'The Hobbit' isn't centered on saving Middle Earth from falling into despair and darkness, and thus saving the world. Instead, it’s a story of pride, honor and heritage. Essentially a tribe without a home, the Dwarves’ quest is to reclaim the riches of Erebor and from Smaug and restore their clans' honor. In need of a burglar on their mission, Gandalf picks the unlikely Bilbo to take the role, but the Hobbit is typically disinterested in disrupting his safe and leisurely existence in The Shire. Soon, however, the spark that Gandalf saw in him years ago is awakened, and off he goes with this new fellowship in search of the Lonely Mountain where the great Smaug resides.
The journey is typically perilous. In these treacherously wild lands the troupe finds them teeming with Goblins, Orcs, deadly Wargs, including a mysterious figure known as the Necromancer. And of course there is Gollum, the hideous and tormented creature played with motion-capture excellence by Andy Serkis. With the technology having moved almost 10 years forward, Gollum is even more spectacular and life-like with every crevice and contour of his sinister face appearing tactile.
If that sounds familiar in narrative, that’s because it is. 'The Hobbit' sticks to the formula, but as much as the picture follows the conventional narrative, its thrills and set pieces are so satisfying and epic, sometimes it’s easily forgotten and forgivable. And while the quirky wizard Radagast The Brown (Sylvester McCoy) is a silly character, comparisons to the asinine Jar Jar Binks character from the “Star Wars” prequels are far overstated.
Returning to the fold from the original series along the adventure are brief appearances in Rivendell by Saruman (Christopher Lee), Lord Elrond (Hugo Weaving) and the Elf Queen Lady Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), but those expecting more characters from the original film (Legolas, at the very least is set to appear at some point), will have to wait. While most of the Dwarves blend together, aside from the largely humorless and bitter Oakenshield (playing an angrier version of Aragorn), four of them do stand out: the eldest and wise Balin (Ken Scott), the charming Bofur (James Nesbitt) and the two handsome fighters Kili and Fili (Dean O'Gorman and Aidan Turner).
Fans of Guillermo del Toro shouldn’t look for too hard for evidence of the director’s distinctive visual stamp. While del Toro is credited as one of the four writers on the project, aside from an elaborate Goblin king and a few gothic flourishes here and there, the milieu and world of 'The Hobbit' certainly fits in the parameters of the universe we’ve seen before. And George Lucas should pay particular attention. His "Star Wars" musical cues veered away from iconic themes in the prequels to its detriment. Howard Shore hews closely to his Oscar-winning 'LOTR' score without rehashing itself too often, and it wholeheartedly works.
It’s difficult to imagine a time when Peter Jackson only really had the inventive but small-scale “Heavenly Creatures” under his belt and had to convince New Line Cinema that he was the right man for the job. It was a gamble then, but Jackson has since risen to be on par with Steven Spielberg and James Cameron for action-adventure spectacle, and ‘The Hobbit’ continues his reign at the genre’s forefront, not only from a visual and storytelling aspect, but also from a technological one.
Perhaps a sequence involving the gigantic eagles from 'Lord Of The Rings' might best sum up the experience of 'The Hobbit'; their appearance is predictably convenient (perhaps maddeningly so), but the sequence is so visually breathtaking that its grandeur takes over. In general, the action vistas from the second and third act are phenomenal. Those who thought Spielberg upped his game with the action set pieces of “The Adventures Of Tintin” will be impressed; those 3D animated sequences do not hold a candle here.
48 fps will certainly be a deal breaker for some, and those who may want to have a “clean” and less distracting experience will want to check out the picture in a regular 24fps/3D environment before taking the plunge into this brave new HD world. In the end, length doesn’t matter too much, because when 'The Hobbit' begins to snowball, its momentum rushes delightfully through its 2-hour-and-50-minute running time.
While it will be too formulaic and familiar to some (and certainly non-fans won’t be won over), 'The Hobbit' is another grand achievement from director Peter Jackson. While this distended picture threatens to buckle under the weight of its own self-importantance, Peter Jackson clearly believes he’s earned the right to preamble and make nearly three-hour-long tentpoles each time out of the gate. And the last two acts of 'The Hobbit' are simply a non-stop action-adventure rollercoaster that is just as engaging and winning as anything in the director’s previous trilogy. As epic, grandiose, and emotionally appealing as the previous pictures, 'The Hobbit' doesn’t move far from the mold, but it’s a thrilling ride that’s one of the most enjoyable, exciting and engaging tentpoles of the year. [B+]