The wait is over. After years of production hell, fantasy lovers all across the world are finally able to return to Middle Earth with the first film of another planned trilogy, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. But was it worth the wait?
DISCLAIMER: This is a review of the IMAX 3D presentation of the film.
I entered the theater wary of two things: the 48 frames per second presentation, and the duration of the film. Though it has received a fair amount of criticism, I now consider myself among the proponents of 48 FPS. The clarity of the image was glorious and mesmerizing to me. Don’t let all this talk of “television soap opera” visuals scare you away or unjustly influence your first viewing. An Unexpected Journey, if nothing else, is an incredible technical marvel that exudes beauty and awe in every single frame. While the magic of Middle Earth in all its glory may not be as full of wonder the second time around, this is still a world I want to be in.
The length, however, is an issue. Judging solely from this first installment, the decision to split the project from two movies to three was a harmful one. The fact of the matter is that this is an adaptation of a roughly 300-page children’s novel, and there just isn’t enough material to sustain what I assume will in the end be at least nine hours of film. The first half of the movie meanders through the plot with an excess of exposition and recycling of material. The filmmakers justify their decision by incorporating elements of the extended Lord of the Rings lore, such as the inclusion of the antagonist Azog, the Orc chieftain. The result, is a bloated plot with numerous sequences that belong in the deleted scenes section of the home release. There is certainly some fat that could have been trimmed, from a storytelling stance.
My one complaint about the visuals is the over-reliance on CGI. For the most part it looks marvelous, but computer-generated characters can never match the presence of an actual actor. Azog lacks the intimidation and menace of, for example, the Uruk-hai. The decision to render all of the orcs and goblins digitally takes away from what made them scary in the first place. The voice-acting in these cases is stellar though, which goes a long way toward compensating for the unfortunate removal of live-action. Andy Serkis is once again unbelievable as the voice of the iconic Gollum, in what will likely be the last time we see this incarnation of the character. The film is anchored by solid performances from the three leads: Martin Freeman as the bumbling yet razor-sharp witted Bilbo, Ian McKellan returning as Gandalf the Grey, and Richard Armitage as the leader of the company of dwarves, Thorin Oakenshield.
Part of what made The Lord of the Rings trilogy so special was the sense of dread underlying all of the material. There was so much at stake in the journey of the fellowship. An Unexpected Journey lacks that sense of urgency. It takes an hour for the plot to start moving, and once it does we repeatedly watch our band of heroes lead a merry chase for the remainder of the movie. Whether it’s over the plains surrounding Rivendell or through the realm of the Goblin King, their adventure is missing that importance and desperation we felt watching Frodo and Sam on their quest to destroy the ring of power. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a perilous trek full of awe-inspiring moments, in fact some of the best we’ve ever seen from the franchise. It just can’t compare to what was.
An Unexpected Journey lays the framework for what will follow, and that is ultimately its biggest flaw. Though overlong, there is still a ton of enjoyment to be found, and certainly more brilliance to come. The world of Middle Earth may have lost some of its freshness, but make no mistake: this is an adventure worth taking.