Movie Review: The Phantom Hobbit

Peter Jackson returns to Middle-Earth, but ends up trapped in the Uncanny Valley with the The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the first entry in his Lord of the Rings prequel trilogy.


Sixty years before the events in the original Lord Of The Rings trilogy, the hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) is living a quiet, secure life in Bag End until he is visited by the wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) and a company of 13 dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage). Against his wishes, Biblo is recruited as the party’s “burglar” in their quest to return to their mountain home of Erebor, which was invaded and claimed by the dragon Smaug. As the party travels through Middle-Earth, Bilbo proves valuable in helping the dwarves in encounters against trolls, orcs, goblins and elves. Bilbo is on his own, however, when he encounters Gollum (Andy Serkis), a deformed creature with a “precious” ring that will one day change the fate of the world.

Peter Jackson‘s Lord of the Rings films became the fantasy film genre’s equivalents of the original Star Wars trilogy when they were released, enjoying massive worldwide box office success and overwhelmingly positive reviews. The final film in the trilogy, Return of the King, remains the only fantasy film to ever win the Oscar for Best Picture. Naturally, speculation immediately began on when the prequel (sort of) to LotR would be released. When Guillermo Del Toro bowed out of directing, Peter Jackson took up the helm, returning to the palette that created some of the most epic films of all time. With such massive expectations, anything other than a perfect hit would be disappointing, and sadly, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is no perfect hit.

Taking a near-perfect hit.

By all logic, it should have been a simple, effortless win. Jackson retained the same writing team as LotR of Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, with the script also having input from Del Toro. Many of the same people behind the camera reprised their roles, as did many actors in front of the camera, including some who weren’t even mentioned in J. R. R. Tolkein‘s original work. Howard Shore contributes another excellent score. Yet, the magic and wonder is not there. How could a thing like this happen?

The first mistake was made before the film was even released. Originally, BIlbo’s story was to be split up into two films, but Jackson decided later to make it three. Despite any protestations from Jackson’s camp, it seemed like a total cash grab since The Hobbit lacks the grandiose breadth and length of LotR and is more of a children’s adventure story than epic high fantasy. The book could easily be done in less than 3 hours without sacrificing any loyalty to the source material. However, Jackson has taken copious amounts of material from other sources, such as the appendices in the LotR books and Tolkein’s own writing notes to liberally pad out the running time.

And padding is all that it could be called. Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy) barely gets mentioned in the book, but here he has approximately 10 minutes of screen time. The film’s momentum is destroyed half-way through by an extended council meeting with Gandalf, the elf nobles Elrond (Hugo Weaving) and Galadriel (Cate Blanchette) and the wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee). Simple events are stretched to beyond their breaking point, with some scenes becoming dangerously close to tiresome before they are abruptly ended. The film seems to take forever to get off the ground, mostly due to a long, mostly unnecessary prologue narrated by an elderly Bilbo (Ian Holm) as he writes about his adventures.

Bilbo reads the latest round of script revisions.

The second mistake was filming in 48 frames per second (fps) instead of the usual 24, making it the first theatrical film to be filmed and showed (in select theaters) at 48 fps. The decision caused massive controversy at the film’s preview screening, and with good reason. Jackson claims that the 48 fps, when combined with the requisite 3D, would make the audience feel a part of the action and give the film a sense of tactile realism. Unfortunately, it only makes everything look entirely false. Characters seem to move too quickly and too fluidly, and the screen is often filled with more detail than can be reasonably processed at once.

Most glaringly, the 48 fps makes the film feel cheap and small instead of grand and epic. At times it resembles a public television miniseries, other times a moderately high-end video game from 2006. The increased frame rate makes all the special effects trickery apparent and obvious, sometimes even to the point of inviting comparison to a SyFy original movie. Weapons look unquestionably plastic, as do the digital stand-ins for the characters during the action sequences. By trying to make the film look more true to life, it actually becomes the first live-action film to fall completely into the Uncanny Valley, annexing property from Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. Most distressing, though, is the fact that awe-inspiring vistas like Rivendell and Erebor seem like little more than matte paintings.

Above: totally not a matte painting.

The biggest mistake, though, is the erratic tone and uneven pace. The film swings madly back and forth between juvenile, scatological humor and grim, violent darkness. Radagast investigates the shadowy, spectre-haunted abode of a being called the Necromancer while looking like half of his face is covered in bird droppings thanks to the nest of birds living under his hat. Later, he speeds away on a chariot led by rabbits while being chased by murderous orcs, the advanced frame rate making it seem less like a heroic distraction and more like a forgotten Benny Hill sketch. Thanks to the additional source material added to the film, it also lacks the smooth, quick flow of the book, stopping far too often to engage in superfluous side plots.

The trolls re-enact the famous campfire scene from Blazing Saddles.

For all its faults, though, The Hobbit does get a few things right. While the cast is not as perfectly formed as the LotR films, there are a number of outstanding performances, most notably Martin Freeman as Bilbo. Jackson apparently structured the entire shoot around Freeman’s schedule, because he was the only one he wanted cast as Bilbo. His faith was well placed. Freeman’s Bilbo comes across as a kind of everyman character, a simple man thrust into decidedly complex situations. Freeman handles Biblo’s evolution from homebound busybody to hero-in-training well in carefully measured, organic steps. Richard Armitage is just as dynamic as Thorin, having an almost polar opposite road of development than Bilbo. Thorin begins the film as bitter and cynical but comes to soften as he sees Bilbo risk his life to save his company. If played directly as written, Thorin might be nothing more than an unsympathetic jackass, but Armitage gives him tremendous depth and even a unique brand of warmth.

Thorin stands his ground against a prog rock album cover.

The returning cast is all in fine form, as well, especially Ian McKellen, who clearly enjoys being able to play Gandalf again. His eyes twinkle with mischief even while they speak of a quiet but unmistakable power. McKellen gets to play up Gandalf’s sarcastic, but loving humor much more here, and it helps buoy the film even when its flaws seem to drag it down. He has a great rapport with Freeman, and they play off each other very well. Cate Blanchett makes the most of her cameo, her effortless grace and charisma always a welcome presence. Andy Serkis is still great as Gollum, but his split personality is often played for laughs instead of pathos, which comes off as jarring knowing what we do of Gollum from the other films. However, the scene with Gollum and Bilbo is probably the film’s biggest highlight, even if we all know how it’s going to turn out.

Gollum is well-known for his cutthroat contract negotiations.

The film is entertaining enough on its own, but it’s completely undone by its technical “innovation” and Jackson’s seemingly mad desire to pack as much information into the films as possible, whether it’s a good idea or not. While it’s nice to have Jackson at the helm to give the film a distinct connection to the LotR trilogy, it also seems like nobody thought to give Jackson an editor with a titanium spine. Like another prequel trilogy that many found completely disappointing, Jackson seems to operate under the assumption that more is better, and biggest is best. What could have been a breezy, thrilling stand-alone film is instead a long, sometimes tedious, excursion. Granted, this is only the first film, and there’s a good possibility that the next two films will have the energy and verve that this one lacks. As a fan of the original LotR, I have faith that Jackson can deliver the goods in the end. We just may have to wait a while. A good, long while.

But I’ll take waiting a good, long while over the animated Rankin-Bass monstrosity any day. It’s hard to root for a hero voiced by Orson Bean, after all.

Rating: 6 out of 10 / B-

JOHNNY M, a frequent FBOTU contributor, is alive and well and living in Mirkwood. <a href="; title="imageimage

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