Full disclosure: I’m not a Lord of the Rings fan. It’s not that I think they’re bad movies or anything—I completely acknowledge the skill put behind their creation—they’re just not my thing. Although a critic should be as neutral as possible going into a film, you can chalk my opinion of those up to personal taste. My reaction to The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is largely the same: I admire it more than I actually enjoy it, but one thing is clear. This is not on the same level of Lord of the Rings. Revisiting Middle Earth here is like going to Disney World when you’re an adult. It’s still enjoyable, but you’re probably better off reminiscing over your beloved memories than taking a return trip.
It’s sixty years prior to the Lord of the Rings trilogy and the titular hobbit, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), is a young man. He lives a comfortable life in his familiar home and doesn’t think much about the outside world, that is until Gandalf (Ian McKellen) makes an appearance, asking him if he wants to go on an adventure. Initially, he refuses, but as Dwarves begin piling in his house, he finds he has no choice and sets off to Lonely Mountain to help the Dwarves reclaim a stolen treasure from a dragon named Smaug.
If The Lord of the Rings is the popular kid in high school that was respected and loved by everyone around him, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is its wanna-be little brother. It aspires to reach the heights of its predecessors, doing its very best to mimic them, but never fully captures their true spirit. Comparatively, it’s a lot less epic and way goofier, though it hides under the guise of an epic. Every other minute, played out jokes, like smoke billowing out of someone’s ears, rear their ugly head. Characters actually go from telling cheap jokes to telling sad, dramatic stories all within the same sentences, occasionally even breaking in the middle of one of those stories to toss out another lazy gag. Even when they’re facing death, they’re joking around. I don’t want to say The Hobbit doesn’t know what it wants to be because it does. It just wants to be all things at once and never finds a solid footing because of it.
Those jokes even make their way into segues between scenes. Rather than finding a proper way to make that transition, the film uses random comedic interjections, very few of which are funny, though to be totally fair, it would be difficult to tie together what sometimes seem like unconnected sequences that are irrelevant to the greater story at hand, like when Bilbo and his gang of Dwarves find themselves in the middle of a battle between two stone giants. No context is put behind this moment. It exists only as a lazy way to add peril to what would otherwise have been a boring trek.
Frankly, that’s been the problem for the entire series as a whole. Its visual and creative ingenuity sometimes feel like they exist in the picture just to show off rather than to progress the already bloated stories (The Hobbit runs nearly three hours long). Luckily for this movie, the visuals are so mind blowing that such narrative inconsistencies are easier to forgive. At least in terms of art direction, cinematography and CGI, The Hobbit is utter eye candy, some of the prettiest you’ve probably ever seen, to the point where the computer animated characters would be indistinguishable from the actors onscreen if not for the fact that we know they don’t exist.
The big issue on movie fans’ minds, however, has to do with the much talked about 48 frames per second the film is being shown in. Some have claimed to get migraines watching it, others nausea. Although I suppose such reactions are dependent on the person watching it, it wasn’t a big deal for me or the others at my screening. It takes some time to get used to, roughly 30-45 minutes, but it shouldn’t detract much, if at all, from your enjoyment of the film. Only when the film gets really hectic does it become a bother; our eyes and brains aren’t used to the frame rate, so it’s occasionally difficult to keep up with the action onscreen. When it’s calm, though, it’s one of the clearest, crispest, most realistic things I’ve ever seen, to the point where it felt like I was peering through a spotless window into an alternate reality.
Critical reactions of the film have varied, mainly due to the wildly different viewpoints on the frame rate, and I suspect fan reaction will be the same. Those hoping for epic battles and sweeping adventure akin to its bigger and more successful brethren will be disappointed. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is no Lord of the Rings, but with any luck, its shortcomings will be rectified in the upcoming sequels. If nothing else, it does an admirable job of setting up the story and fluidly reintroducing familiar characters we’ve all come to know and love and it ends on a cliffhanger that promises better things to come. This may not be what many will hope and expect, but that certainly doesn’t make it a bad movie; just an underwhelming one that is nevertheless worth seeing.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey receives 3/5