I didn’t know what to expect for the first leg of this “Unexpected Journey,” but I came away feeling more conflicted than I thought I would. I think Peter Jackson is a fine director and the Lord of the Rings movies are truly great. However, this new trip back to Middle Earth is surprisingly bland.
The Hobbit is the very definition of the Hero’s Journey. An unexpected individual who knows far too little about the world he lives in is called to a grand adventure that takes him outside of his comfort zone. At first, he is reluctant to accept this responsibility and refuses the adventure placed upon him. But soon, our hero answers the call to adventure and the journey truly begins. He crosses over from the known to the unknown and embarks down a road of trials that will define who our hero is, and what he will become.
Unfortunately for The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins’ journey has only just begun. By the end of the first film, Bilbo and his fellowship of dwarves are looking off in the distance at the daunting task that lies before them. Bilbo has completed half of his hero’s journey and everything feels incomplete. With a movie that is almost three hours long, you’d think this journey could have been completed, you’d be so very wrong.
An overly extended opening to the dwarves arriving at Bilbo’s home and eating all his food, makes starting this journey not really begin until about thirty or forty minutes into the runtime. The long and strange sequence of Radagast the Brown doesn’t really fit in with the rest of the narrative, even if it does become important later on. The trip down memory lane with Thorin and his fall from grace is a nice detour that takes center stage, as the Pale Orc becomes the main antagonist of the film. This simplistic and one-note villain is never very menacing, nor very compelling. It feels like a stopgap villain used to pad out the movie and give us Smaug, front and center, in the sequel. I know this seems like an overly pessimistic thing to say, and he probably has a good arc in the book, but for the movie, this path feels unnecessary.
The monster design is a bit bland and uninspired at this point. Back when the Lord of the Rings movies were in theaters, the orc and goblin designs were fantastic and the makeup gave them a frightening realism. Now, with an overreliance on CG monsters, the design is showing some age. The trolls, orcs, and goblins are all well rendered and high-detailed, but just boring. Nothing seems new or exciting anymore.
And that’s my biggest complaint with The Hobbit. Nothing seems new or exciting anymore. Every scene that harkens back to a moment from the Lord of the Rings movies is a nudge of the elbow from the filmmakers saying, “Hey, remember that thing from that movie we made years ago that you all loved? Here’s that thing again, right?”
But, when The Hobbit excels, it excels greatly. Beautiful vistas and scenery set the stage and bring viewers back to Middle Earth. The costumes and makeup (especially the beards) are fantastic and add a layer of realism to the fantastical world. Peter Jackson’s eye for wide tracking shots is not lost in The Hobbit and some of the more intimate scenes are wonderfully realized and well-composed. The music echoes back to the Lord of the Rings movies, while marking its own identity with melodies like “Misty Mountains.”
I saw the High Frame Rate (HFR) 3D version of the film. Before I get into the qualms I have with the technology, I must say that when it works, it works beautifully and creates an experience unmatched by anything out there. The 3D is unobtrusive and even creates a great sense of depth to the experience. I can’t imagine seeing this movie any other way other than HFR 3D. The film crafts an illusion of looking through a window into another world, except when the illusion breaks.
At first, it is tough to adjust to this new way of watching films. Everything seems sped up and unnatural for the first twenty minutes of the movie. It’s like those old episodes of Wishbone where they go back to the medieval era and everything looks like an overly fake and simplified Renaissance fair. When the illusion breaks, it feels like amateur filmmaking and everything has a soap-opera look to it. You get used to it, but when the camera stops moving, moves too quickly, or goes for a close-up, the effect breaks and becomes obnoxious and unsettling as you try to adjust back into the atmosphere.
It’s really cool technology when used properly, but that rarely happens. Well-framed scenes that take up the entire screen, and include foreground and background elements, are the scenes that stand out and use this technology effectively. But if filmmakers are going to continue to use this new technology that I’ll gladly admit is really cool, they need to re-learn how to compose a scene. Too many times the effect breaks and everything looks and feels fake. When it works, it looks unlike anything else out there, but like all technology there is a distinct learning curve before fully realizing its potential.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey leaves me cold towards the continuing adventure, but excited for the future of this technology. When all of the pieces fit together, they create something special and unique. It just doesn’t happen enough. It is far too long and far too many times the experience breaks. I want to love Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth, but I don’t anymore.