Peter Jackson’s gamble has paid off handsomely with the first of the new trilogy based on the J.R.R. Tolkien classic book that started it all. “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” is an unqualified success both in unique form and classic substance.
Jackson smartly reacquaints us with the Tolkien universe by delivering a bit of backstory centering on the fall of the dwarf kingdom and the scattering of the dwarf race. Years later, Bilbo Baggins is recruited by the wizard Gandalf to assist a ragtag group of thirteen dwarves led by a legendary warrior named Thorin. While there is a bit of exposition after an initial action sequence, the story is at its core a journey/road picture that takes Bilbo from his comfortable Shire to dangerous and exciting lands.
Bilbo is played by Martin Freeman, who by now has made himself well known to both American and international audiences playing the sidekick Dr. Watson in the new incarnation of Sherlock Holmes in the BBC reimagining “Sherlock.” We will have to wait until the next film see Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock in “Sherlock”), although his character, that of the scary Necromancer, is hinted at here. Ian McKellen is in fine form returning to the iconic role of Gandalf. And Hugo Weaving and and Cate Blanchett again appear as elves. Andy Serkis is back in motion capture mode as only he can deliver.
48 frames…. Yes, I saw “The Hobbit” in 48 FPS. It was also in 3-D. And it looked like video. I’m not sure if it was the frame rate or the 3-D but the first half hour of the film looked like a soap opera to me. Even though the 3-D added depth, it made some of the characters look almost like cardboard cutouts. No attempt is made to make this look like film or to digitally mimic what we have come to think of as the “cinematic look.” This is a truly different visual scope, one that will take some time to gain acceptance.
Jackson not only took a risk with this relatively new high-speed format but he also dares to show us his computer animated characters on a brightly lit landscape. The effect is just plain odd. On some of the wide angle landscape shots that were brightly lit, the animated characters did not look real and instead looked sort of video game like. It was almost like watching “Who Framed Roger Rabbit.” Okay, it wasn’t that bad, but it wasn’t good. And I doubt that this was the result he intended.
Still, after the first half hour or so my eyes adjusted and I began to really get into the story. The narrative whizzes by and did not seem too long or padded. And, of course, the scene in which Bilbo first encounters Gollum is haunting in just the right way. There is a great amount of tension here on many different levels. Sure, we know that Bilbo will survive this journey, but we get a terrific sense of danger that extends throughout the film. And what is to follow in the next two films promises to maintain that razor’s edge.
One of this year’s best films, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” is sure to cement Peter Jackson as one of the format’s great innovators and legendary story-tellers.