The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey review

Review NP Horton 10 Dec 2012 - 06:06

Does Peter Jackson's return to Middle Earth, in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, deliver on its promise? Here's our review...

Forgive us for starting this review by talking technical details, but it’s necessary. For the main talking point after watching The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in its intended 48fps, isn’t unfortunately about the skill of the adaptation, the epic sweep of the much loved story, or Peter Jackson’s successful return to Middle Earth. Instead, it's about how much like a cheap TV soap opera much of it looks like.

The suspension of disbelief is what cinema is built upon. Whether it is simply accepting one person can pretend to be another, or something as grandiose as believing a man can fly, films are nothing without it. And this suspension of disbelief is one step closer to being ripped away by High Frame Rate (HFR). It essentially makes most of the film look completely unrealistic and fake, which in a grand fantasy film is not something you want. While it works superbly in the large scale set-pieces and with CGI, removing the boundaries between what is model work and what is computer generated, whenever it cuts back to the actors you are instantly back in the studio with them, complete with terrible lighting and obvious prosthetics, and away from Middle Earth. It’s the first thing you notice from the very first scene, with a jerky motion blur apparent in many of the actors movements. You'll barely be able to get used to it over the three hours of the film, and as much as we like seeing every pore of Martin Freeman’s face, this is a film best watched with the more traditional filmic substance of 24fps.

Which is a real shame, as The Hobbit: An Unxpected Journey is a triumph in almost every other regard. If you are a Lord Of The Rings fan, you'll be in heaven. Capturing the spirit and tone of the children’s source novel perfectly, The Hobbit is a much lighter affair than its portentous forbearer, but at the same time is obviously of the same world, albeit a world which is not yet under the dark threat of Sauron.

Telling the story of Thorin Oakenshield’s quest to drive the dragon Smaug from his ancient home of Erebor (aka The Lonely Mountain), it is a tale of accepting adventure, and becoming the person or hobbit that’s inside of you. The film is at once familiar and excitingly new, embodied in the character of Bilbo Baggins played by both Ian Holm and Martin Freeman. While Holm is the same Bilbo we know and love, Freeman brings a welcome adventurous sensibility to him, a hobbit who’s not afraid to go out and get things done, and the obvious model for Frodo. He’s been made to be a bit of action hero in parts, but Freeman handles everything thrown at him with aplomb, and giving the audience the perfect introduction to the familiar yet different film world.

The dwarves too are expanded upon. Not just called upon to be the comedy relief of Gimli, they get a back-story and a depth. While it’s hard to keep track of who’s who in the twelve of them, they each get their own little moment to shine, and prove to be a far more riotous bunch of travelling companions than the Fellowship. There’s much more of a sense of fun about them too, even with Richard Armitage’s Thorin glowering every chance he can get. They’re not the only new faces either, as Sylvester McCoy appears as Radagast the Brown, a slightly odd wizard who discovers the return of the Necromancer. It’s a manic, excitable, enjoyable turn that sums up the tone of the movie – lighter, more carefree, but with a sense of menace just around the corner.

Returning characters are also given their dues, but luckily not in a Star Wars prequel shoe-horned in kind of way. It helps that the film is based on a strong pre-existing book, and so the characters have set roles to play and don’t feel extraneous to the plot, but there was always that slight worry.

Gandalf the Grey is back in action, and it’s a treat to have him return. Sir Ian McKellen is clearly enjoying every moment, and if Bilbo is the heart of the movie, then Gandalf is the soul. As well as a great face-off against the Goblin King (which is easily the best sequence viewed in HFR, marrying together actors, CGI, and models in a seamless and spellbinding way) he also gets to flex his dramatic chops in a sequence with the White Council, one of the scenes taken from the Appendices. Meeting with Elrond, Galadriel and Saruman, they foreshadow all the terrible things that are about to befall Middle Earth. It’s brilliant to hear Christopher Lee again, and his Saruman has lost none of his dark power, even if he is ‘good’ this time round. However, the most excited buzz went round the screening room when Gollum came on-screen, as tragic, evil and pathetic as ever, and in possession of the one ring.

Some may take issue with the film’s length and slow start, but this reviewer loved it. If you’re a fan of the extended editions of LOTR, then you’ll appreciate the time it takes. Stretching the slim book to a trilogy is obviously going to leave the films with some pacing issues, and we go about 30 pages in three hours. While it does take its time to get going with the quest, it never outstays its welcome. We could have easily sat there and watched more, and the last 45 minutes are a blast, with an ending that makes you want it to be next December immediately.

What is more of a concern is the obvious CGI fest this film is compared to the Lord Of The Rings trilogy – the are a lot monsters which don’t exist outside of a computer, and as one of the main strengths of the previous films was its monster make-up and tactile nature, this is to its detriment. Especially as outside of Gollum, some of the CG work is not brilliant. Which is shame, as The Hobbit often conveys a sense of wonder and marvel that is absent from the grown-up sequels, and which is often truly captivating.

It’s a very good movie, but not a great one. It lacks the stand-out jaw dropping moments from the original films, and feels like it’s saving all the best moments for the later movies. Nonetheless, it’s a film which we're already looking forward to seeing again, and soon. Just not in 48fps. On this evidence, 48fps is a horrible way to shoot and exhibit a film. We can but hope it turns out to be a passing fad.

In short, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a movie which can transport you to another place entirely, provided you don’t see it in HFR.

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LOTR, 3 books, 3 movies. That I understand. The Hobbit, one thin book, still 3 movies? Wouldn't a 3 hour movie not been sufficient? I like Peter Jackson's work, but stretching it out into 3 movies is ... well. stretching it.

You must have really hated the 48fps as you seem to have forgotten your usual tedious winge about the 3D.

Peter Jackson and co are including Tolkien's appendices - much of which is contemporaneous with events in 'The Hobbit' novel - plus the added extrapolation you get in adapting a novel from page to screen all means it is deserving of more than a single film... whether it's deserving of three however remains to be seen until July 2014, but I'm of the opinion that it's not the three films that are the problem, it's the length of each film; for '...An Unexpected Journey' to last 169 minute all told is just excessive, it could very easily be tightened to 150 minutes at absolute most without losing ANYTHING of importance, in fact, it would improve the overall film markedly, giving it a much brisker pace that would be befitting of the novel's lighter tone.

Glad to be seeing this in 2D and not risking my first viewing by seeing it in HFR. However the 'cheap soap opera' description strikes me as a bit lazy. This is just because soaps and news etc often were broadcast at 50i and so that's the association people make. But the actual content can't look cheap - check out the budget!

Due to the increased clarity, parts of it look obviously fake (despite the budget), and studio bound - hence my comparison. I would also guess they haven't quite learned how to light HFS correctly yet, again adding to cheap sheen which proves distracting in certain scenes.

I don't think I've ever whinged about 3D on here, but as you so charmingly ask its done very well, easily the best use of the technology yet.

I find your lack of faith in HFR disturbing...

My main concern with this film is that, because the book is stretched out over a trilogy, nothing is actually going to happen in this film! That scene with the dwarves in Bilbo's house is bound to last a good hour.

I don't really care about the stretching of the story - the more of Tolkien's world I can see on screen, the better IMO - however from what I have heard, this showing in 48fps makes it look like the footage of someone on set with a cheap digital camcorder - so I think I will stick to the 2D version in 24fps.

Whilst I would love to think that the Jackson and the makers had so many creative ideas, they had to make 3 movies to include them, I think its obvious to all that the reason for the 3 movies is money, pure and simple.

I don't remember when financial gain overtook creativity in Hollywood, but it was a sad day.

Phew - after the Telegraph gave it two stars I was worried.

I think it is really interesting to see where different reviewers are coming from with the HFR issue. It seems to be the one thing that is seperating them all.
On the one hand the Guardian seems to agree with you, that it just makes it all look cheap and fake. But then looking that the Empire review they have made it clear that it can fall into 2 camps. The cheap and nasty or the extra detail and clarity, combined with the 3D seems to remove anything between you and the film, making you feel more immersed in the action.
I am looking forward to seeing it in the HFR. I think I might wait until my second viewing for it, but I am really intrigued.
It is good to know that most reviewers though agree that the story and Jackson's ability to bring Middle Earth alive again are not in any doubt and the film itself is sublime. Excellent news.

There seems to be a universal slagging off for HRF so its either got to be refined or it'll die a death due to its unpopularity... I'd quite happily see 3D go the same way.

fight! fight! fight!

You mention that An Unexpected Journey covers about 90 pages of the book, but it is actually more like 120 pages (up to, but not including, Queer Lodgings). With so many critics whinging about book length vs. run-time, i thought you might not want to add to the "How can they turn 1 book into 3 movies?!" pointless hysteria (especially from those who have yet to see it) by getting that point wrong in your review. Enjoyed the review though.

with my pointy wizards pedantic hat on, i would point out that technically lotr is 6 books - 2 books per volume, 3 volumes. i believe tolkien didn't see it as a trilogy and didn't like the way it was presented - saying that i too doubt the hobbit stretching (sounds like something an orc would enjoy doing), i thought 2 films was pushing it a bit tbh.

So many people have complained about the fact that one book got stretched into three films that I now feel compelled to chip in my pedantic two cents' worth. As a big fan of Tolkien's work, I agree with Jackson's argument that large parts of the story in the book were told in just one or two sentences, especially regarding what Gandalf got up to during his absences from the dwarves' quest. He would come back in the nick of time to save the company, and then vaguely mention "sorting out some trouble with the Necromancer in Dol Guldur". With "the Necromancer" being connected to Sauron in The Lord of the Rings, this is an example of an episode Tolkien made short work of in The Hobbit, only to add extra depth in The Lord of the Rings and other Tales of Middle Earth. The plot in The Hobbit, being Tolkien's first published book, was to be honest a lot sketchier than in The Lord of the Rings, and my guess (even before seeing the film) is that the gaps the film fills in will add to the credibility of the plot and the characters.

One thing I perhaps didn't make clear enough was my enjoyment of HFR in the big set piece moments - swooping over landscapes and through goblin infested mountains it's incredible. Sadly though it's in the more intimate moments that it falls down, and took me away from the storytelling. Some people may love it however, after all this review is just one opinion.

Fair enough. You've made me glad I booked for 2D, but might check out the HFR version if I can!

Peter Jackson mentioned in an interview the possibility of a film maker using 48fps (or 60fps) selectively - a film could have some sequences shot using this tech and other parts in the traditional frame-rate. This is essentially what happens with IMAX, where films such as Dark Knight Rises are shot in more than one aspect ratio to suit the respective scene.

It sounds to me like he was tacitly acknowledging what you are suggesting here - that his movie benefited from HFR is some places but was harmed by it in others

As I have said a million times (and getting tired of it), The Hobbit is written in a totally different narrative style than LOTR is. It is more geared towards children. If it was written the same way LOTR was, it'd be 700 pages long. Plus, there's stuff from the appendices in here. Geez, people...get OVER IT!! The man knows what he's doing!

HFR looks like those 120hz tvs that make everything look like garbage. I've been saying that ever since I heard it was being shot that way. I, for one, will be going to see it in 24fps. There's a reason movies are still made that way...coz they look better....much better! Can't wait!!

I don't think it's fair that you drive away people from the HFR experience just because YOU didn't like it or "hated it", based on your text. I saw the movie in both 24fps and HFR and I didn't hated it, on the contrary I think it was an interesting experience and very enjoyable when you get used to it, which for me it only took me 10 minutes to get used to the 48fps. It's definitely not going to change the movie industry and we'll not see a lot of movies on this format but people have to go, see the movie and make a decision for themselves on whether they liked it or not.

It's not about faith....it looks cheap. Always has; always will. Go see for yourself! HFR makes things look like videotape...like a soap or a sitcom...which works for some stuff...but not for an epic movie!!
There's a reason that movies were shot on film and not video!

It will die. If you ask anyone from before the digital age what looked better....film or video...the answer would be a unanimous "FILM". Same applies today. HFR looks like videotape.

Clearly you never sat through King Kong aka The Never Ending Story

I can't thank you enough for posting this. Out of all the places where he could slip up, turning it into 3 films was the last of my worries.

Perhaps King Kong was a bit long, but this conversation isn't about King Kong, it's about The Hobbit. All of the LOTR films were brilliant and I have no reason to believe The Hobbit films wont be brilliant as well. As I've said, the man knows what he's doing.

Poor old Zaphod, getting tired of saying things over and over. Do pay him the attention he so evidently thinks he's entitled to.

Thanks for the comment. Nice to know you feel like contributing something useful to the discussion.

I don't bloody care whether HFR is rubbish or not. I imagine it will be a brilliant film anyway. I clicked on this for a review of the film, not the format.

High-Frame Rate offers no extra clarity in picture quality. This is a misconception. Frame Rate has nothing to do with this. What it offers are extra frames so movement seems more fluid. Extra clarity of movement - yes! Extra clarity of picture quality - nope! Perhaps some people aren't sure how to explain what they're seeing, so they misinterpret fluid movement for picture quality.

If you take the time to read one of my comments made earlier (see below I think) then you'll see I address your issue - this review is quite rightly just one opinion and not the last word, as much as I'd like it to be. However, I think it is fair to say HFR is for better or worse the dominating discussion after watching the film, rather than the excellent storytelling within.

I have fond memories of when an all-star Jackanory did The Hobbit over 2 weeks. 10 episodes in total...wouldn't put it past Jackson to beat them!

Unfortunately, as this is the first film to be shown theatrically in 48 fps it is bound to be an integral part of any review of this film. As for not caring? Surely not, surely you want to be able to enjoy the experience of watching the film?

What he said.

Agreed. These recycled comments about the book's length vs. the film's, from people who haven't even seen it yet, are getting tiresome. It is lazy thinking. If the movie is good, what does the book's length matter?

Sounds like it'll be worth viewing ......when it hits Bluray...

Spoken by a true cynic.

Yes, any extra clarity would come from being shot in 4k, though i'm not sure how that works with actual projection.

"There's a reason that movies were shot on film and not video!"
Why should 24fps be some holy grail? IIRC that was only chosen in the first place because it was as fast as the old technology could physically handle the film, any faster and it would rip the film reel apart.

This isn't 3D with it's light loss problem, the only difference is a smoother, look and feel which surely only add to the quality not take it away, the comment about soap opera feel is exactly the type of thing a film snob would say IMHO.

Why? Because it looks better. I judge with my eyes, not the age of the technology.

High frame rate for documentaries and sports looks amazing, but movies not so much. For some reason it seems to take away some of the artistic qualities that make it a "movie". It almost makes it more magical. Anyway that's the best I can explain it.

I bet 95% of people watching the film won't even notice the difference, the same as digital vs celluloid.

I can remember in the 70's watching Space 1999 and feeling everything looked fake and dry, and finding out years later it was shot on 65mm film. Too much clarity is never an easy adjustment but I am intrigued at 48fps despite the almost universal raspberries being blown. Also love Jackson's story telling and wish it was longer. Can't wait.

JUST what I was hoping to hear. I LOVE the extended versions of LOTR & am well familiar with the wealth of material other than the Hobbit that PJ & crew are likely drawing upon to flesh out the three movies. Cant wait to see it on Fri in 24fps!

EXACTLY! From what I have read and heard PJ & Fran say, the 3rd movie will focus a lot on the Battle of Dol Guldur where Galadriel goes all Elven witch power Queen and tears down the walls, as she, Gandalf a host of Elves attack Sauron's HQ in Mirkwood & drive him back to Mordor

That reason is that video hadn't been invented. There is nothing magical about 24 fps. It is arbitrary. I tend to think all of the comparisons to TV soaps correctly identify the source of the reaction to 24fps. Nobody is actually saying why they have this reaction, or why a higher framerate for theatrical presentation should be worse when in just about any other use case, it is better. They are associating the usual content of higher frame rate sources-- like television soaps-- with the appearance of HFR footage. People who grow up seeing everything on HFR video will wonder what the fuss was ever about, and may even wonder how people put up with terrible motion blur for so long.

As I've said sometimes you just can't explain why something looks better. It just does. Watch and judge for yourself; you'll probably agree. Even sets look more realistic when shot on film at 24fps. I grant you, high frame rate does have some advantages. I'm sure the helicopter shots in this movie would look fantastic in HFR...sitcoms and sports seem to benefit from it, but overall I find it makes things look slightly cheaper and less artistic. VideoTape has been around since 1951, so there's been 61 years of opportunities to shoot stuff on it, and compare the 2 formats. That's plenty of time for people to decide what they like the look of better. Of course, at the end of the day, if people like their movies to look that way, then all the power to them.

That's simply no excuse for stretching out a 310-page book to an ungodly three films and probably nigh on nine hours of overall screen time! If Gandalf's frequent absences in the novel were a little sloppy in the telling, Peter Jackson and co could have rectified that in the screenplay - possibly making him a permanent fixture or making his absences less frequent - and Tolkien's appendices may be interesting tales, but they are clearly separate and apart from the core story of Bilbo and the dwarves' quest, and that's what the film should concentrate exclusively on. Perhaps someone other than Jackson should have directed this film, Guillermo del Toro would have been a fantastic choice if not for the constant delays, but regardless, the entire 'Hobbit' story - the novel in other words - could have been told in one, single, solitary 200-minute film that would have knocked our socks off instead of boring them off... can't wait for the re-cut and considerably shorter fan-edit in about two years!

Yeah, I agree with this, just about every review I've read has mentioned just how LONG the film is, and unnecessarily so, all this talk about JRR Tolkien's much-lauded appendices is a total red herring, he never meant for them to be incorporated into 'The Hobbit' story or he would have either put them in himself or attached them as appendices to later printings of the book, neither of which he did.

As the above post rightly mentions, the core story of Bilbo and the Dwarves is not part of the overall story, IT IS THE STORY, and is what the film (singular not plural) should be about, nothing more and nothing less. The prologue in the film concerning Smaug's taking of Erebor certainly could have been kept for the extended edition, as could many other scenes, but the actual theatrical cut could have been a brisk 200 minutes (the same length as the theatrical cut of 'The Return of the King'); beginning in the Shire and ending with the Battle of Five Armies as in the book... what a film that would have been, but I guess we'll never know!

You can have too much of a good thing, and sometimes less is more... here endeth the lesson.

Ignore what I wrote in the above post, after due and careful consideration, I simply can no longer accept the logic that a 300-page book needs three films to tell it's story, not even close, and all the talk about JRR Tolkien's appendices is a red herring, they are not the core story and Tolkien himself never intended them to be so. The story is about Bilbo and the dwarves' quest, a quest that ends with the Battle of Five Armies, one that is relatively short, and one that could very easily have been portrayed effectively in a single, albeit rather long, film...

Does he mean high frame rate like in "The Outer Limits" in 90s were fast motion looked a bit wierd looking, is it like watching a 100hrz TV ?

Dont go and see it then. Problem solved.
Having just completed a 12 hour viewing of the extended LOTR blurays, I can't wait for another 12 hours in Peter Jacksons company.

"JRR Tolkien's much-lauded appendices is a total red herring, he never meant for them to be incorporated into 'The Hobbit'" So you objected to all the material from the appendices that was incorporated into the trilogy too? Because there was quite a bit there. Personally, I'm with the person below -- the more the merrier. I've done more than one extended edition marathon, and the longer I get to stay in Middle Earth, the happier I'll be.

"What increased clarity"? HFR is exactly the same digital technology that we have been watching for decades the only difference being a smoother, less juddery picture.

I'll second that, when you think of the LotR plot there is virtually nothing to it, Frodo gets given the ring, goes to Mt Doom and destroys it, Peter Jackson made 3 very very good 4 hour movies out of that so I am perfectly happy he will do a good job, I am certainly looking forward to seeing it on Thursday morning. (oh and I do like King Kong, probably slightly too long but still a very good film IMHO)

Will The Hobbit soundtrack be released in 48RPM?

The LOTR trilogy worked as stories, as films, and as a trilogy, whereas most reviews I've read of '...An Unexpected Journey' have almost all mentioned that it's too damn long, feels overly bloated, and every time they move to the appendices material, the film loses focus, momentum, and stands apart from the novel material all too clearly.

I'm willing to concede that two films might have been the best way to adapt 'The Hobbit' to film - sticking faithfully to the novel with some small elements of the appendices incorporated to smooth the overall narrative - with '...An Unexpected Journey' lasting no more than 140 minutes at most and '...There and Back Again' around 170 minutes at most (what with Smaug and the Battle of Five Armies and what have you), but certainly not three overlong and bloated indulgences that basically throws the kitchen sink in when just the odd cup or plate would have done just fine.

And I'll not be going to see any of 'The Hobbit' films... but not because I don't want to, I just don't want to sit through three overly-padded-out films when two tight ones would more than have sufficed, if not one single pretty darn long one.

Uh huh, so a 624-page book like 'The Return of the King' can be successfully adapted into a three-and-a-half hour film but a 310-page book like 'The Hobbit' can't be adapted properly in to one SINGLE film of the same length... REALLY?

Living in NZ I have seen the film and can't agree more with the HFR issue. It came that close to ruining it for me. The fake stuff, of which there is naturally plenty, is made to look more fake rather than the intended opposite result and it is such an obviously horrid way of showing a film it should never be considered again. The film itself was good, and once it gets going it barely lets up such that it really doesn't seem like 3 hours.

Personally, I just want to see John with pointy ears. I will be half expecting to see Sherlock pop up at some point and say 'Honestly, John. You see but you do not observe.'

Thank you. That was sort of my point (I'm just too stupid to get it across.)

*Fight! Fight! Fight! (Sorry. I have a syndrome, I swear I do.)

Cheap looks cheap- 48fps made a $250m+ movie look like a cheap BBC kid's program. That's not just my opinion, that's my wife, many of my friends and a massive amount of grumbling I heard on the way out of my packed screening. It looks balls. That is not progress and honestly if my children end up watching everything like this then I pity them.

Trust me that is absolute crap - everyone I know who has seen it from the most experienced of movie nerds to friends who watch Michael Bay movies and think they are high art, EVERYONE I know has said the same thing - it looks utter, total cock in 48fps. It reduecs everything to the quality of BBC's Maid Marian from the 90s. THAT bad.

This makes more sense as the action scenes were the only acceptably OK moments, and in fact the big finale of the film did look pretty impressive, if it was used in that way for just big action set pieces I might be more on board but to be honest 3D in general just bores me. I don't feel any more immersed as its a fake sense of immersion where everything feels like its forced into 2D planes of perspective. The look of film itself doesn't need fixing IMHO, its by far the least of my concerns when I watch a film over acting, story, lighting etc.

I couldn't agree with you more!!! Why people would want their movies to look like a crappy live soap opera is beyond me!

it's got 65% on Rotten Tomatoes and even worse of Metacritic. I'm tired of people that say that you can't judge the movie based on it's technical aspects because that's what the director chose to use for the movie.

To be honest I didn't really notice the 48fps business.

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