It’s a world with barely any women, no romance, and where small men with big hairy feet thrive. No, it’s not Comic-Con — it’s “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.”
Expectations abound for Peter Jackson’s prequel based on the beloved book by J.R.R. Tolkien, which Jackson reportedly had wanted to make into a movie for years. And why not now? The CGI technology is far superior to when he made the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, giving him an opportunity to make the movie more realistic than ever before. And if you happen to catch the version of the film shot at the semi-revolutionary but controversial 48 frames per second, it seems almost too real.
But first, let’s talk about what’s right with this movie. In a word, and more than anything else, it’s Gollum, played again by Andy Serkis. When Martin Freeman’s Bilbo Baggins meets Gollum for the first time, it may very well be the best sequence out of the four Peter Jackson films that inhabit (inhobbit?) Tolkien’s universe.
Mind you, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” takes place some 60 years before “The Lord of the Rings,” so Gollum looks great for a 550-year-old Hobbit freakazoid. Really, though, compared to the Gollum in “The Lord of the Rings,” this Gollum is a thing of technical beauty and genius, the most gorgeous, horrific, sallow, gaunt, hideous monster you’ll likely see this side of Mordor. The advancements in motion capture really allow Serkis’ performance to translate to CGI far better than it could the first time around, and helps make the give-and-take between Gollum and Bilbo, both funny and frightening, even though you either know (having read the book) or can guess the outcome.
That brings us another thing that is so right about “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.” It’s funny. Hilarious? No. But funny. Give it up for Jackson, who decided Freeman would make the perfect Bilbo just six weeks before shooting was scheduled to begin. I guess you can also thank Jackson’s iPad, because it was while he used it one sleepless night to watch Freeman play Dr. Watson on the BBC TV series “Sherlock” that Jackson found his Bilbo.
Freeman’s impish charm, deft acting and laser-like comedic timing are precisely the right tools needed for him to carry this new franchise. Mind you, when I say “carry,” that doesn’t mean he has to do all the heavy lifting. There are plenty of other seasoned veterans and arresting characters to engage your imagination.
It’s almost redundant to say Ian McKellen is fantastic in his return as Gandalf the Grey, considering McKellen’s name is practically synonymous with “fantastic.” Its Gandalf’s call to adventure that sets the wheels in motion as Bilbo Baggins, at first reluctantly, accepts an invitation to that unexpected journey of a lifetime. Gandalf doesn’t really give Bilbo much choice, as he sends 13 dwarves to Bilbo’s house in The Shire.
The dwarves are led by Thorin Oakenshield, played by Richard Armitage who, in real life, stands at about 6’4″. Armitage is solid in the role but not exactly spectacular as the dwarf whose quest to take back his kingdom from the gold-loving dragon Smaug is the very thing that sets everything in motion.
Along the way, Bilbo, Gandalf and the dwarves will visit Rivendell and see “Lord of the Rings” favorites Elrond (Hugo Weaving), Cate Blanchett’s Galadriel (the only woman in the movie), and Christopher Lee’s Saruman. Of course, they’ll also have to fend off Azog the revenge-seeking orc and lots of goblins.
Now for what’s wrong with “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.” Thankfully, not much, except for the pacing for the first hour — an hour that’s simultaneously exhilarating and frustrating in its attention to detail in both story and aesthetic. Jackson and company just try to do a little too much of everything, including 3D. Understandably, those who want to see every little detail of the book come to life (and then some) will get exactly what they want, but if you’d rather not sit in a movie theater for three hours, then it’s not necessary.
As for shooting at 48 FPS — I know Jackson thinks people are complaining about the unconventional frame speed because they’re resistant to change but for me, it has nothing to do with that. It really takes only a few minutes to get used to it, but Jackson’s argument that it smoothes out the stereoscopic nature of 3D isn’t viable. It doesn’t smooth out the image — it makes it worse, by making it look too real, as I said at the start of this review. Again, once you get used to it, the look is interesting but it’s nothing I ever need to see again. The best special effect is a great story, and when you have that, 3D at the standard 24 FPS is just fine.
“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” isn’t as good as any of the “Lord of the Rings” films but it’s still an excellent show, and with two more “Hobbit” films to come, there’s plenty of room for improvement.
Four out of five stars.