The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey Review
By Joe Lozito
Back in the "Hobbit"
Peter Jackson asks a lot from his audience. First of all, he asks for healthy ear drums; his movies are loud. He also requires a strong constitution since he seems incapable of editing a film down below the three-hour mark. With "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey", he asks for the acceptance of a new film format: 48 frames per second, where there have traditionally been 24 since the dawn of the movie. Finally, he should ask for forgiveness as he flagrantly attempts to turn a playful children's fantasy novel into a three-film cash cow.
Yes, "An Unexpected Journey" is the first in a (sigh) trilogy based on J.R.R. Tolkien's beloved (and short!) story about one courageous hobbit and a company of dwarfs (the plural is up for debate) out to reclaim their home from a evil dragon.
It takes the film a while to get going. Though you may forgive Mr. Jackson his indulgences depending on your love for the material. Remember how the protracted ending of "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
" was really the ending of a twelve-hour cinematic odyssey? Well, "Unexpected Journey" is really the beginning of what will likely be a nine-hour epic when all is said and done (remember when trilogies had to be earned rather than being a given?). So, yes, it takes a while for the "Journey" to get going.
Tolkien purists may not be thrilled with Mr. Jackson's embellishments of the material. In order to pad the book to fill three films, we get surprise appearances by old favorites like Frodo, Saruman and Galadriel (the lone female character in the film, so give him a break) as well as new faces like Radagast the Brown and a bothersome extended dinner sequence early in the film that dips past parody.
But all the scenes "Hobbit" enthusiasts have been waiting to see are also here (at least, those in the first half of the novel): the trolls, the stone giants, the wargs, the Goblin King and, of course, a certain scrawny, lisping creature with a penchant for gold rings. Yes, the final act of this first film brings the famous "Riddles in the Dark" chapter - the first meeting of Gollum and Bilbo Baggins - to glorious life. And for some fans, this sequence alone may be worth the price of admission. Seeing (or not seeing) Andy Serkis re-inhabit his iconic character (60 years younger, and boy he looks spry!) immediately brings chills, and Martin Freeman's pitch-perfect performance as Bilbo is the film's ace in the hole. In this case, literally.
In the end, of course, "Unexpected Journey" isn't a complete film; it ends with a literal cliffhanger and a clear indication that Mr. Jackson has a lot of ground to cover before he's done.
A note about the new film format. At 48 frames per second, "Unexpected Journey" has a crisp almost hyper-real sheen to it; everything looks almost too sharp. It's like watching footage from an HD camcorder (which it essentially is). This new format, on top of the 3D, takes some getting used to and may not be everyone's cup of tea. Look for "HFR" (High Frame Rate) in the movie listings if you want to see the film this way.
There were times when I missed the gravitas of filmstock; the grainy quality that makes a film look, well, like a film. But there were other times (particularly the climactic escape from the goblin caves) when I just watched in awe, with the feeling that I couldn't wait to see the sequence again and again - you know, the thrill you get from watching a great adventure, the kind of thing that makes you feel like a kid again and reminds you why you go to movies on the first place.
Yes, Peter Jackson asks a lot. But he also delivers.