‘The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey’ movie review: Peter Jackson’s return to Tolkien

Note: in Prague, The Hobbit is screening in a number of different versions – English, Czech dubbed, 3D, HFR (High Frame Rate – 48 fps), and Dolby Atmos surround sound. The only English-language versions available are the standard 2D presentation (at most Prague cinemas) and the Atmos mix (only at Premiere Cinemas Park Hostivař, and only in a handful of cinemas across Europe); the HFR screenings (Czech-dubbed) are taking place at Park Hostivař and Cinema City Slovanský dům.

I caught the 2D presentation at Park Hostivař’s Atmos-equipped cinema and walked away pretty impressed; I’m no audiophile, but the effect is discernible when, for instance, the camera pans around a room and the audio pans with it. It’s more subtle than 3D or other visual effects, but the difference between this and a 5.1 or 7.1 mix is clear – especially when comparing the different versions back-to-back. 

Which is exactly what I did: during an intermission, I caught around 15 minutes of the HFR 3D Czech dub, and walked away even more impressed. While the effect has been largely criticized in advanced reviews (unrealistic “fast” motion, fake-looking sets) there is an undeniable uptick in visual clarity that resolves most of the issues with traditional 3D, with a noticeably brighter and sharper presentation and greatly reduced motion blur. 

But while 3D is a gimmick, tricking the eyes into seeing something that isn’t there, HFR is a much more natural update to the look of a film: what you’re seeing is “real” (and I’d love to see a non-3D HFR presentation). The change in filming and projection from 24 to 48 frames per second seems simple, but the result is a jarring difference to what we’re used to, which (I think) is where a lot of the negative feedback is coming from. Should it catch on, viewers in 50 years might look back at contemporary 24 fps the same way we do the 14-20 fps of early silent films. 

This much is clear: while the technology clearly needs to be worked with (in The Hobbit, on-screen and camera movements and digital effects seem to conflict with the high frame rate), this is a much better bet than 3D gimmickry to (potentially) revolutionize the future of cinema. And I need to see the HFR Hobbit in full, Czech dub or not. 

Debuting worldwide this weekend, An Unexpected Journey has opened to unexpectedly mixed advance reviews. The film’s somewhat uneventful nature and leisurely pace have been singled out; this is, after all, only one-third of a complete story (J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit or There and Back Again) that clocks in at just under three hours in length; in comparison, it’s the same length as one of the Lord of the Rings films, but the material is one-third as long (or considerably less – going by word count, The Hobbit is a little more than half the length of Fellowship of the Ring.)

To put it another way: the average adult reads about 250 – 300 words per minute, while the current edition of the roughly 95,000 word The Hobbit is 320 pages in length. If you can read a page a minute (the upper end of that range), you’ll read through the novel 30% faster than it takes for this film, which gets up to about page 120, to unfold. That may be a first for this level of literature. 

But that’s not entirely bad, is it? Fans of the previous films will relish the chance to spend some more time in Peter Jackson’s vision of Middle Earth, which looks and feels much like it did a decade ago. Tolkien fans may be especially delighted with the film, which follows the novel nearly word-for-word and excises nothing

And unlike the final chapters of the Harry Potter or Twilight films (which also turned a single novel into multiple movies), I was surprised to find a genuine sense of completeness here – sure, the story is only a third of the way through, but in terms of theme and character The Hobbit feels whole. There’s a genuine sense of plot resolution and character arc here; only the story is left open-ended.

Not that it’s all easy going. The Hobbit begins with not one, but two unnecessary prologues: the first details the background of Erebor, the Dwarf kingdom that was overtaken by the dragon Smaug; the second re-introduces a (de-aged) Ian Holm and Elijah Wood as the hobbits Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, with Bilbo detailing his exploits in a letter and preparing for a celebration. The Erebor history could have been inserted as an in-story flashback, and we never see Frodo or Holm’s Bilbo in this movie again, making their presence here – as a single film – questionable.

Things start to move with the introduction of young Bilbo (Martin Freeman – perfectly cast) and the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen), who has organized a dwarf congregation at Bilbo’s house led by Thorin (Richard Armitage), who plans to retake Erebor. But the dwarf introduction and plot setup sequence goes on, and on, and on – it’s nearly an hour into the film before we actually leave Bilbo’s home and get on with the titular Unexpected Journey. Not an unpleasant hour, but an hour nonetheless.

Once the journey begins, however, The Hobbit is a wonderful return to Middle Earth, with a lot of familiar creatures (orcs, trolls, and goblins) and characters (Hugo Weaving’s Elrod, Cate Blanchett’s Galadriel, Christopher Lee’s Sauron, and Andy Serkis’ motion-capture Gollum, who steals the show one last time) and some memorable new ones, including the wizard Radagast (Slyvester McCoy) and the orc leader Azog (Manu Bennett); the 12 dwarves in Thorin’s company, meanwhile, are mostly interchangeable.

Is The Hobbit bloated and interminable? Nah; since the original Lord of the Rings trilogy premiered a decade ago, a game changer has emerged on the fantasy landscape: HBO’s Game of Thrones, which has adapted George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice at a season-long/single-book pace to immense success. A huge part of the appeal in this genre is down to setting and character (and taking enough time to fully develop both), and that’s something An Unexpected Journey gets absolutely right. 

Not being the biggest fan of the original films, I was dreading the Hobbit experience after scanning the advance reviews. Surprisingly, I enjoyed The Hobbit just as much as – if not more than – the previous LOTR films, and appreciated the leisurely, easygoing pace. In a year where a number of high-profile franchises have seen some acclaimed works – The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, and Skyfall, to name a few – I have to put The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey at the top of the list. 


Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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