The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Grade: B)
“All good stories deserve embellishment,” says the wise and wizened Gandalf (Ian McKellen). Speaking to Bilbo (Martin Freeman) in Peter Jackson’s latest foray into Middle-earth, here the line doesn’t speak to the nature of story-telling, or even adaptation, but rather technology. For what will ultimately be remembered about The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey isn’t the adequate screenplay or acting, but the high frame rate. (Perhaps, also, the unnecessarily long run time.) The first film shot at 48 frames per second, The Hobbit doesn’t resonate with emotional depth, so much as it feels like a technical fait accompli that leaves narrative (and feeling) secondary.
We open with aged Bilbo (Ian Holm returns to the role) on the eve of his “eleventy-first” birthday party, writing a letter to Frodo (Elijah Woods). Preparing his young relative for his soon-to-come disappearance, he relates the history of the dwarves’ loss of Lonely Mountain and the world beyond The Shire. Essentially an appendix to The Lord of the Rings, the tale of young Bilbo 60 years earlier (and, thus, The Hobbit proper) begins after this long interlude—a move which makes clear just how Jackson will be squeezing three films out of the bed-time childrens’ book. After a meeting with Gandalf, Bilbo’s home is overrun with dwarves, as they plan a secret mission to reclaim what’s rightfully theirs from the dragon Smaug. Embarking on the journey, led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), the crew meets with trolls, elves, orcs, goblins, and other impressively rendered special effects scenarios. (Including one monster which is clearly Guillermo del Toro’s touch.)
The screenplay is true to the text (at times), lifting verbatim from J.R.R. Tolkien’s work, but The Hobbit is at its strongest in the incorporation of music and pre-pubescent humour. Bringing to life the book’s literal lyricism—and giving Les Misérables a run for its money—the dwarves sing their songs as they do in the source text, emphasizing their bon vivant nature and quasi-Celtic roots. Being less high fantasy than Lord of the Rings, the silly moments—Bilbo getting sneezed on by a troll—come as a welcome reprieve from the self-serious tone the film predominantly adopts.
Yet, ultimately, the frame rate detracts from any ambiance, flattening the atmosphere to that which resembles daytime television. Seemingly over lit, sequences look not merely (and ironically) cheap, but lack any tactility. Though it does brighten the 3D, a fact which will surely make its use palatable in blockbusters to come, as a moving mode of expression, it fails. In the end, the journey is basically what one would expect.