I loved the The Lord of the Rings books and loved the films even more. So when I heard the director of that trilogy, Peter Jackson, was making The Hobbit (prequel to LOTR), I thought it was fantastic news. And then it was announced that one movie would become two, similar to the last Harry Potter novel/movie. Even more fantastic! Then came word that two movies would be three. Fantas -- huh?! The book is the shortest in the series so how can they get a trio of films out of it? This concern was overridden by the thought of Jackson showing George Lucas how a prequel trilogy can be done right. The first Hobbit episode opens today and I would love to say it’s done right but, I can’t.
Is The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey as bad as The Phantom Menace or Attack of the Clones? No. Is it as good as The Two Towers or The Return of the King? No. It's somewhere in the middle, and I don't just mean Middle-Earth.
To be fair to the film, the source material is the weakest of author JRR Tolkien’s classics, but the screenwriters improve upon its weak points. Tolkien must have been a musician wannabe because his books, particularly The Hobbit, devote page after page to full song lyrics. The film wisely relegates this to the background while story occupies foreground as it should. John Cusack had it right in High Fidelity when he said (paraphrased), “I just want to hear something I can ignore.”
Another improvement is adding ladies. The women’s roles in the Lord of the Rings tomes were greatly expanded in the films and the films greatly benefited from this. The Hobbit, however, has no significant female characters that I recall. It’s just a big sausage fest (technically a breakfast sausage fest since 90% of the cast are dwarves). Thanks to characters from other works of Middle-Earth, as well as a cameo from Lord of the Rings alumnus Cate Blanchett, Unexpected Journey is somewhat gender balanced.
Martin Freeman as young Bilbo (Ian Holm again portrays old Bilbo) is by far the best part of the movie. His natural reactions and deft comic timing make him the top actor so far to inhabit a Hobbit.
So why didn’t I like the film? Mainly the presentation. How do you make a $150 million dollar movie look like a cheap soap opera? Shoot it in 48 fps 3D. It didn’t make me sick like moviegoers in New Zealand (“Take an unexpected journey to the hospital, mate!”), but I definitely didn’t enjoy it. The hyper-real HD aesthetic destroys the moody atmosphere of the original trilogy, leaving us with a fantasy world minus the fantasy. It didn’t help that the audio was over-modulated making dialog unintelligible (though that may have been the theater’s fault).
I look forward to future Hobbit prequels but I hope Jackson, unlike Lucas, listens to the backlash that’s sure to follow this one and converts them to 24 fps 2D. Otherwise it’ll be up to another director to show Lucas and Jackson how to do a prequel trilogy right.
Steven D'Arcangelo is a transplanted Bostonian living in LA with his lovely transplanted wife Carrie. When not reviewing films, he writes screenplays. When not writing screenplays, he does graphic design and illustration. When not doing graphic design and illustration, he denies being a workaholic. When not denying he's a... Well, you get the idea.