The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Note: This movie is being shown in select theaters at High Frame Rate 3D which at 48 frames per second supposedly offers a much sharper image. Since (A) I happened to see the film in 24 FPS, the cinema standard for over a century, (B) the vast majority of theaters are showing it in 24 fps anyway, and (C) such discussions have no bearing on whether it’s a good film, this is the only time I feel required to mention it.

PhotobucketJ. R. R. Tolkien’s classic of children’s literature gets a luxurious treatment in Peter Jackson’s reverent retelling of the 1937 fantasy.  Overall it’s a stunning execution of the magical text of Tolkien’s words come to life. It’s an extraordinary rendering full of exciting set pieces, gorgeous tableaus and a fervently involving purpose. If there’s a criticism I can lobby toward this beautifully realized achievement is that perhaps it’s too much of a good thing. I mean J. R. R. Tolkien’s source novel was a relatively brief 310 page children’s book. This is only part 1 of a proposed 3 part series and it’s still almost 3 hours.

Our fable takes forever to get started. The chronicle starts out with Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit, telling a tale in voiceover to his son Frodo. It’s a ponderous intro that recounts the dragon Smaug’s takeover of Erebor – “the Lonely Mountain”.  This is the dwarves’ ancestral homeland, where they once lived, and sets up the purpose of the subsequent journey. Our proper saga rightfully begins when Bilbo reflects on the day he was first visited by the wizard Gandalf 60 years ago. Gandalf invites a collection of dwarves to Bilbo’s home in anticipation of an adventure to re-claim the dwarves’ homeland and treasure from the dragon. This introduction to the various dwarves including Thorin, their leader, takes up an iodinate amount of time that seems to serve no other purpose than to pad an already slight plot and ultimately create 3 movies to charge admission to instead of one.

Once we get past the worrisome opening, the tale takes root. Peter Jackson does a nice job of elaborating on details to flesh out the script. In one explanatory scene, Gandalf meets with a 3 person council to gain approval for their quest. All three interrogate Gandalf. The discussion gives commentary that not everyone approves of their quest. It’s an interesting footnote. While the company travels, they are constantly pursued by grotesque henchmen called Orcs that are riding Wargs, their wolf-like beasts. Peter Jackson highlights this constant threat as an underlying effective source of dread. There is a magnification of the character Thorin who is the main dwarf that wants to take back his grandfather’s kingdom. He becomes a co-protagonist of sorts. Bilbo’s introduction to Gollum is, as expected, mesmerizing and their interaction is a highpoint of the later half.

Peter Jackson also does a great job at rendering visionary passages from the book into a physical manifestation before our eyes. In one thrilling episode, a storm in the mountains turns out to be not an actual storm, but giant mountain creatures hurdling rocks at each other. As the giants fight, the company becomes separated and the sight of the two factions resting on the crevices of these large stone monsters, accents one of the most exhilarating sequences of The Hobbit. This is a perfect example how modern technology can be artistically employed to dramatize complex sequences from books. It’s like a roller coaster ride.

The movie does a nice job of fleshing out the fundamentals of J. R. R. Tolkien’s world and giving a context for The Lord of the Rings that follows. There is real drama in this motley group of 13 dwarves, one wizard and a very anxious hobbit. Much of the story is more than just a mere quest to get back the dwarves’ treasure, it’s also the introspective trek of one hobbit. His personal journey of self discovery is a sensitive arc that captured me throughout the film. Right from the beginning when Gandalf chooses him, Bilbo claims he’s not the hobbit Gandalf’s looking for. His ultimate willingness to leave the comfort of his home and face his fears of the unknown, make him a most likeable and sympathetic individual. We see a complacent homebody slowly showing the genesis of someone embracing courage within themselves. His changing status in the eyes of Thorin is an emotionally affecting storyline as well. Granted the plot stumbles initially with two unnecessary prologues that drag on the simple narrative. However once the expedition gets underway, it moves at a brisk pace and is consistently entertaining. This is an expedition worth taking.

29 Responses to “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey”

  1. I feel so stupid: I had no clue The Hobbit was a children’s novel until just the other day. Yes, I’ve read it, and recently.

    Anyway. I’m not going to see this in theaters. On DVD? Definitely. I’ve never been a die-hard fan of The Lord of the Rings, but I guess I kind of need to see this.


  2. As ever – an eloquent review Mark – although – I think I spotted your first error!!

    “here is a magnification of the character Thorin who is the main ELF that wants to take back his grandfather’s kingdom”

    Anyway! Glad we also found the same fault – namely, the ponderous introduction to the dwarves. I’m also a big fan of the novel, I read it first before I read LOTR and could repeat verbatim the very memorable cartoon adaptation – so MANY things actually got on my nerves…. (Thorin transformed from grumpy old dwarf with a predeliction for being extremely greedy to “Aragorn”-like King without a throne bent on reclaiming noble birthright…) BUT….I forgave it once I accepted Jackson is essentially creating his own adaptation.

    Talk soon!


    • Thank you for catching my “first” error. It’s funny because I referred to him as a dwarf in just the previous paragraph.

      I recall the 1977 animated television special by Rankin/Bass very fondly as well. It’s a model of brevity as it’s only 77 minutes which actually seems much more appropriate.

      I had problems with the film’s punishing length the second I HEARD it was going to be 3 films. When I learned part 1 was almost 3 hours, it really bugged me before I even saw a single frame.

      I guess I sort of overcame my issues because Peter Jackson has such an obviously love for this material and that came through. I would’ve preferred a 3 hour stand alone movie, but I enjoyed this quite a bit.


      • Whatever else can said for this production — you might try over-produced, overblown, overlong — it does make you appreciate the naive charms of the Rankin-Bass approach to animation and story telling. To say nothing of the pleasure you get out of watching a story that actually comes to an end.

        I would think any fan of the Tolkien books would be more than a little annoyed at the massive transformation this simple tale had to be put through — in style especially but content too — in order to make it serve as an intro to the special-effects-driven film version of Lord of the Rings.


    • @terrence You’d think so, but critical reception as well as box office were both quite favorable. Not close to what they were for The Lord of the Rings,mind you, but favorable nonetheless.


  3. Great movie. I thought it would be boring but it wasn’t. Yes. I could definitely tell where they stretched it out. But the main parts of the movie were enjoyable. Bilbo was very likable and the visuals were awesome. 4 stars


  4. Nice review Mark. As usual, it’s long and filled to the brim with exposition, but when it’s fun and thrilling, it makes you forget about all of the boring stuff and just enjoy yourself.


  5. Markus Robinson Says:

    Wow! Brilliantly written review (as usual) BUT when you say that it takes a little while to get going, that may be the biggest understatement of the year! The movie doesn’t get going until almost two hours in. Yeah, the set design is awesome, but the blatant meandering back stories and asides that don’t seem to progress this already elasticized adaptation, is like a slap in the face for people paying to see this film and expecting action. As I alluded too before, the final hour is pretty action packed (pretty much what I came to see) and definitely merits a 4 star rating, but the initial 2 hours drags us down into exposition hell. On a lesser note, I don’t agree that the 48fps aspect has no bearing on the film, even though 24 is also an option. I know you really don’t want spend to much time on this, but there will be a massive amount of people who see (or are subjected to) this in 48 and it will absolutely ruin a majority of the film for them. Oh, and if I didn’t mention it before, brilliantly written review:-)


    • I see The Hobbit as a film about a journey of self discovery so I wasn’t expecting action. I’ll admit the first 45 minutes drags, but after that I was entranced.

      I simply wanted to spend the majority of my review critiquing the film, not the film experience. How many frames per second has no bearing on the story itself. Roughly 400 theaters out of 4000 are showing this in 48 FPS. That only accounts for 10% of the audience.

      You have some valid points though. I appreciate your insight.


  6. LOL. Coming off a little defensive over not seeing the film in 48fps there, buddy 😀

    Youre right though, it should be a separate discussion…

    Glad to see you really liked it. I was very entertained, I thought it was great. I didnt even have any issues with the opening, so you can imagine, I was left quite a big fan of it!


    • I’ve read whole articles that didn’t even critique the movie at all, but just went on and on about frame rates. I only mentioned it because it seems to be a hot topic. At this point, I prefer my movies at 24 FPS in 2D.

      Glad to hear you enjoyed it. It seems audiences, by and large, have responded quite positively to the film.


  7. I quite enjoyed it although I didn’t think it reached the same heights as the Fellowship did. I agree that HFR shouldn’t impact the review of the movie, but I personally saw it in that format and quite liked it and see it as having some potential in future movies.


    • The Fellowship is much more epic in scope, but comparisons are inevitable I suppose. With the same author and director, I guess it’s hard not to. It’ll be interesting to see what happens with the debate over 48 FPS. It seems to be a sticking point for a lot of people.


  8. Beautifully written as always, Mark! Agree wholeheartedly with your assessment, particularly your observations about the opening. Also loved that phrase about the film having a fervent purpose. Well said


    • I think as lot of people forget this is a story about Bilbo and his personal transformation. That’s the “purpose” so all this concern by critics over which dwarf is which and why isn’t this more like The Lord of the Rings, seems misplaced. And thank you!


  9. The prologue is definitely a bit long-winded and heavy-handed in terms of establishing this film as a prequel to Fellowship. However I enjoyed the inclusion of Ian Holm and Elijah Wood in the beginning as old Bilbo and Frodo. It was nice to see familiar faces. I saw the film in 48 fps and the opening is actually where it works the best. After that though, the visuals start to look tacky and cheap. Aside from the HFR annoyance, I thought it was a fun, action-packed adventure film that kept me on the edge of my seat. It ends in a good spot, but I could have kept watching for a couple more hours since I was anxious to see what happened next.


    • Peter Jackson definitely connected The Hobbit to The Lord of the Rings in several places. I’m still not sure if that was necessary, but you’re right it was nice to see familiar faces.

      It’s intersecting that 48 FPS is supposed to be an improvement – increased clarity. Yet the majority seem to agree with you – that they look tacky and cheap.

      Ultimately I didn’t want it to end either, which is why I am so pleased with the film overall.


  10. Great review! I was going to see it in theaters back when it was supposed to be 2 films, but now that they split it in 3 I think I will wait for the dvd – there is just not enough substance to create 9h of material here. I really hate those few parts movies based on one book, that’s such money grabbing thing to do.


    • At first I thought “money grabbing” too, but after watching the film, I think it’s more of a director’s indulgence than a cash grab. With its gorgeous vistas and sweeping shots, this will play better in the theater than on TV.


  11. agreed agreed agreed. Man, this film DID take forever to get rolling and that annoyed me. It was too repetitive in terms of what we’d already seen in LOTR. However, Jackson did do a great job once the story got moving.

    right on review!


  12. Yay, you liked it! Same here and its good to hear 😀


  13. To answer your Facebook question of some time back: yes I had issues with THE HOBBIT – namely that it begins with what feels like 30 minutes of dwarves and Gandalf running roughshod over poor Bilbo in his own home before they finally set out. Then there’s a good deal of walking and occasional fighting which felt, to me at least (without having read any of the books, mind) like an “excuse” to illustrate that Bilbo is amazing despite his Hobbit size/nature (which I didn’t actually feel at any point). My favorite scene actually felt too long by the end (or maybe I just wasn’t crazy about how it went) and that was the one with Gollum playing “a game of riddles” in a cave… All that said it lacked some of the grandiosity of the LOTR trilogy which Jackson previously directed. I didn’t love those movies but I admired them. This felt to me like it might’ve been a rush job or a cash grab or something… Enjoyable enough but light on substance. That being said, it also felt like (since I knew it was Part 1) there were about 85 literal would-be cliffhangers and they went with a metaphorical one at the 160 minute mark that felt a bit like the air being let out of the tire at the finish line. To answer another question of yours, Mark, I have to give it 2.5 of 4 stars (3 of 5 on your scale) – a B- in letter grade form – it’s above average but I wouldn’t actively recommend it. Lord of the Rings fans might like it more (though I know of many critics who admired those films and didn’t so much like this film). I do remember seeing previews for this throughout much of the year yet not feeling so much of the hype/buzz surrounding it before finally enduring it myself…unlike the trilogy as well


    • I totally agree with you about the beginning. Bilbo acting exasperated as the dwarves are making themselves comfortable in his home went on far to long.

      The “amazing” thing about Bilbo is that he’s not extraordinary, but as an ordinary guy, he still finds the courage to leave his comfortable home and embark on this unfamiliar journey.

      The Hobbit was never meant to replicate the “grandiosity of the LOTR trilogy”. It’s a simple children’s book Tolkien wrote many years before LOTR. Check out the 1977 animated TV special created by Rankin/Bass. It adheres much closer to the lighthearted spirit of the original book.

      Critical reviews have been mixed. True it probably helps to be a fan of LOTR. However the masses have responded quite favorably to the film (CinemaScore audiences gave it an A)


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