Today’s the day — over a decade after the premiere of Peter Jackson‘s The Fellowship of the Ring, the director returns to Middle-Earth with the first of three planned films adapting J.R.R. Tolkien‘s first novel The Hobbit. The films won’t adapt only that book, however, as Jackson and co-writers Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Guillermo del Toro have also incorporated elements from appendecies and supplements to The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien eventually devised a dense amount of parallel story to buttress the episodic adventure of The Hobbit, and The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey incorporates some of that material.

The film is also Jackson’s first film set in Middle-Earth to be shot on a digital camera and in 3D, and the first studio feature film ever to be shot and projected at a high frame rate of 48 fps, compared to the standard 24fps.

Suffice to say, despite the presence of familiar Lord of the Rings faces such as Ian McKellen, Ian Holm, Cate Blanchett, Elijah Wood, Christopher Lee, and Hugo Weaving, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is very much a different look at Middle-Earth. Germain has weighed in on the film itself, and I’ve put down some thoughts on the high frame rate presentation. Now, tell us what you thought of the film, below. Spoilers follow in the text after the break, and are encouraged in the comments to facilitate full discussion of the film.

For me, The Hobbit is messy but occasionally very impressive. It’s like Jackson & Co. had just skipped straight to the extended edition of this film. The novel is a difficult adaptation; despite the high ratio of monster encounters and great action, the book is highly episodic, and not possessed of the same intense narrative drive as Lord of the Rings. Once we’ve witnessed the quest to destroy an artifact that could spell the end of civilization, a much smaller quest for gold and a homeland isn’t quite as compelling.

This film does feature a solid character arc for Bilbo as he struggles to find a place amongst a drwarven company intent on displacing the dragon Smaug who occupies their ancestral home. But in the end, the story ends just as it begins to build real momentum, and I exited feeling like I’d seen one extended first act. With this being first in a three-film split that shouldn’t be surprising, and by the time all three movies are released, the unified project will hopefully feel more whole than this one film does.

The Hobbit does feature some wonderful performances, from McKellan’s return as Gandalf and a brief reprise of Gollum from Andy Serkis, to the debuts of Martin Freeman as young hobbit Bilbo Baggins and Richard Armitage as the proud, occasionally blinkered dwarf prince Thorin Oakenshield.

But there isn’t time to properly characterize the thirteen-member dwarf company, and we hit the end credits without knowing much about several of the dwarves. And while it’s nice to see Blanchett, Weaving, and Lee in a Rivendell council scene together, their appearance felt more like fan service than an integral part of the film. The same goes for the Shire-set prologue featuring Ian Holm’s Bilbo and Frodo (Elijah Wood), and which acts as an oddly-placed lead-in to Fellowship. I can understand Jackson’s desire to shoot that bit, but it has no place in the theatrical version of the film.

The Hobbit does have wondrous moments. The encounter between Bilbo and Gollum is simply magnificent, playing almost as an isolated theatrical exercise in the middle of the film. The dwarf company’s long battle with an underground goblin lair is among the most impressive battle scenes I’ve watched. And while I’m not convinced that the stone giant battle that precedes the goblin lair escape is placed well, it is visually quite impressive.

But the film’s attempts at humor rarely play as naturally and effectively for laughs as beats in The Lord of the Rings films. And while the effects are often brilliantly rendered — I can keep going on about how impressed I am by the Goblin King — it’s weird to see things that didn’t work in Fellowship, such as a very wide shot of the company running across an environment, also fail to work here. (See: Radagast acting literally as the rabbit in a dog race with wargs.) And while some of the all-CG characters are spectacular, the white orc Azog… isn’t quite. He’s hardly a poor creation, but he’s crafted to a lower standard than other characters in the film.

After multiple viewings (my first was plagued with sound troubles, so we were granted a make-up show) some of my first-time objections have mellowed a bit. I’m more accepting of the Rivendell diversion, for example. But The Hobbit still manages to feel both overstuffed and rather thin — a strange complex.

Enough from me — what were your thoughts on The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey? Was the pace ragged, or do the diversions from the path of the original novel arrive as welcome detours into corners of Middle-Earth you’re keen to explore?

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About the Author

Russ Fischer lives in Los Angeles. For film reviews, the 1-10 scale breakdown goes like this: anything over a 5 is positive. (twitter.com/russfischer) or (russ.slashfilm at gmail.com)

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