Movie Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (in IMAX 3D at 48 fps)

Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage
Directed By: Peter Jackson
Written By: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson & Guillermo del Toro from the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien
New Line, 2012
PG-13; 169 min
3.5 stars (out of 5)


There being so many possible ways to view this film, I felt it necessary to note in the post title exactly what form I was treated to. Which is to say, this review speaks specifically to this format of the film and may not be true of all versions.

That may seem like an odd thing to say, since the content of the film is expected to be the same over all possible viewing formats. But certainly each is different and presents a somewhat unique audience experience. (The fact that I saw this movie at midnight on opening night, too, could contribute to my feelings toward the movie, though in what way I'm not entirely sure.)

I'll start with the fact that the story itself is . . . average. To be clear, I have loved Tolkien's book since I was a child, far more than his Lord of the Rings, which I was never able to get through no matter how often I tried to read it. But The Hobbit is both a simple story and a masterpiece of detail; like a Hobbit, the book has a lot packed into a very small body. Here that has been pulled out like taffy, but not nearly as sweet. I'd liken it to that old torture favorite the rack, but it's not as bad as all that, either. It's just . . . not great.

I expected, of course, the Bilbo-and-Frodo frame story, but the return of Ian Holm and Elijah Wood gave nothing to the narrative; in fact, something was lacking there. I wondered whether the actors wanted to be involved at all, or if they'd merely been pressed into it and were (particularly in Wood's case) simply eager to be done.

Then, too, the inclusion of Sylvester McCoy as Radagast . . . I understand his character is meant to be lighthearted but I was left feeling like I'd fallen into a Disney movie whenever he was on screen. He seemed to come from somewhere else entirely, a whole other film, so that instead of adding to the movie I was trying to watch he more seemed to be interrupting it.

Now I certainly understand the writers' drive to pull everything together and so their seeming need to tell all about the Necromancer and such—in fact, I'm curious to see more of it in the other films. So I can't say all the extensions are without merit. But some of it, like the need to add this pale orc boogeyman as an additional enemy for Thorin (Armitage, doing his best to be the next best thing to Viggo Mortenson's Aragorn) . . . As a writer I do "get it" and all the reasons for it, but as a viewer and lover of the book, I'm more like: blergh.

I've also come to the conclusion that Martin Freeman chooses (or is chosen for) exactly one kind of role in his career. From Arthur Dent to John Watson to Bilbo (sorry, but I've only seen a few episodes of the UK The Office, so that may be different), there are two questions that any character Freeman plays must be able—possibly required—to ask at least once: "What are we doing?" and/or "Are you sure this is a good idea?" (Permissible variations are: "Where are we going?" and/or "Is this safe?") In short, Freeman does timid go-along quite well. He suits Bilbo, or maybe Bilbo suits him, just fine. But it's nothing amazing.

Also not amazing: the HFR (48 fps as opposed to the standard 24). Now here is where the various viewing formats mix in. I've seen plenty of IMAX movies, and I've seen 3D movies, and I've seen IMAX 3D movies. So I'm guessing the problems I had with my viewing of The Hobbit stem from the HFR. But I'm really only working from process of elimination. I'd have to go watch it in some other format to know for sure. (And maybe HFR works great but not in 3D or not in IMAX—what I'm saying is, I'll allow that there could be some workable combination.)

BUT. As far as IMAX 3D HFR? No thanks. Besides giving me a headache and making me nauseous toward the end of the film, everything that should have been impressive . . . wasn't. Instead, the HFR made it all look like an old made-for-TV movie. Everything seemed close and small and very set-like. Excepting the wide outdoor scenes, everything else appeared remarkably false. What I'm trying to say is, it brought attention to the fact I was watching a movie and made things less real as opposed to more. It was distracting.

So what can I say? I score The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey as slightly better than average. And maybe if I hadn't had such hopes and expectations for it, I would have counted it better. But that last trilogy is a tough act to follow. I get that, too. But on the other side, if I didn't already love the book, I might have given the movie a lower score. So I think the biases balance out in the end and my rating is fair. I can hope for better from the next installment.

Or maybe I shouldn't hope too hard.

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