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Movie Review: The Hobbit – An Unexpected Journey

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Few can deny the significance The Lord of the Rings trilogy has had on film as a whole. It’s a lost art in terms of the way movies are made – model sets, props, makeup, costumes, and as many real actors as possible. The trilogy is an incredible achievement, sporting a level of craftsmanship and quality that very few films can match. Regrettably, the first chapter of a new prequel trilogy, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, contains little of what made the Lord of the Rings so magnificent.

Hobbit PosterI went back and watched The Fellowship of the Ring before I saw The Hobbit, and to this day I’m still blown away by the excellent photography and art direction. The real outdoor scenes, the beautiful lighting, the gorgeous crafted models – all of this is what makes the film so memorable. These choices earned the trilogy multiple awards and recognition from critics worldwide, something The Hobbit is unlikely to achieve.

It’s baffling to me that the same director, Peter Jackson, and cinematographer, Andrew Lesnie, are responsible for both An Unexpected Journey and The Fellowship of the Ring. All those actors who played orcs and goblins are now merely CGI creatures, and those wonderful model locations have been replaced with green screen and CGI effects. Everything looks dramatically different, and that isn’t necessarily a good thing.

Since many cast members of Lord of the Rings reprise their roles in The Hobbit, some care should have been taken to make sure the films look and feel similar. You really have to search for the few moments of greatness An Unexpected Journey has in order to find much resemblance to the rest of the series.

To put it bluntly, The Hobbit just has too much damn CGI. There’s one scene where the ring falls out of Gollum’s pocket and bounces off the stone floor of a cave; they actually used computer imagery to create the ring. Come on, Peter Jackson, you couldn’t film a real ring falling to the floor?

To make matters worse, none of the multitude of computer-generated creatures looks particularly great. As much as it pains me to say it, sometimes the overwhelming computer effects make the photography look downright bad. The Hobbit often resembles Narnia more than it does The Lord of the Rings – a poor stylistic choice.

The series has lost its sense of presence; that feeling of reality brought on by having actors and model sets is gone. Sadly, this also means that the emotional impact The Lord of the Rings has on audiences is nowhere to be found in An Unexpected Journey. The touching moments – the moments designed to bring about love for the characters – all fall completely flat.

I didn’t care much about Thorin Oakenshield’s quest, and I didn’t feel bad that Bilbo was homesick. This is by no means the fault of the actors – the cast is great. The problem here is that the script is working against their performances.

Because the story is so uneven, it never really feels like Bilbo and the band of dwarves even go on an adventure. Nothing our heroes experience fits together into any coherent story, and the entire film seems like it takes place in only a couple of days. An Unexpected Journey takes several unexpected side-steps from the main plot to introduce unnecessary characters or tell an untold tale of Middle-earth. Doing so is nothing but detriment to the narrative as a whole, which lacks any meaningful moments to speak of.

This is all the unfortunate result of spreading a story too thin. The Hobbit could easily have been told in one two-hour film; stretching the adventure into a trilogy is nothing short of madness. The epic tale I loved as a kid has never felt so weak.

Having read The Hobbit more than once, I’m well aware that this is supposed to be a children’s fantasy story. I don’t have any problem with the shift in tone nor the emphasis on humor employed by Jackson during some of the battles. All of these changes would be fine if the CGI didn’t make me feel like I was watching a Saturday morning cartoon.

I admit to being a Lord of the Rings fanboy, but I still can’t bring myself to enjoy this adaptation of The Hobbit. Everything I loved about Jackson’s trilogy is gone. An Unexpected Journey is The Phantom Menace of The Lord of the Rings – it’s an unnecessary prequel that fails to capture the magic of the original.

I remember reading about Peter Jackson waiting for it to rain before he would film the Helm’s Deep battle scenes in The Two Towers. It’s admirable that he took the time necessary to make the movie look as perfect as possible, and the result of his patience shows in the final product.

I’m not sure the same level of care went into making The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, a movie that turns out to be one of the biggest disappointments of the year. I hold out hope that the next two parts of this new trilogy can shine bright but, considering this first chapter isn’t very good, that may be an unrealistic expectation.

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About Chad Michael Van Alstin

Chad is an award-winning libertarian opinion columnist. He's done with that now. Having earned himself a B.A. in Mass Communication, Chad now spends most of his time as a wage laborer, killing the pain by consuming as many video games and movies as possible. Follow him on Twitter: @ChadVanAlstin
  • Øystein Årsnes

    I only saw it just now, and while I liked that it had a different and lighter approach to the universe than the LOTR films before it, I completely agree that the chosen cgi’s were not working in the movie’s favor.

    There are several reasons for this, and it is not that I don’t like cgi, it’s the way it was deployed in this movie that bugs me. The main reason is that that they all appear almost completely detached from reality. I mean it is a fantasy story so things not adherent to reality is bound to happen at some point, but the thing is, even with that premises accounted for, I still don’t believe any of it when I see it. When cgi is used to depict settings and motion that are not supposed to be magical, then it should also try to appear as down-played and normal as possible, which it doesn’t. Don’t know it that makes sense…

    The cgi’s in this movie, as in many others, are way too neat and explicitly choreographed. It’s like the director tossed his brain out and let the geeks take over for the better part of it. Gravity does not seem to weight in. Actors can fall hundreds of feet, down apparently bottomless abysses and not break as much as a bone. Everything fall into place, at the exact right moment, in one ridiculous chain of events after another. They are all so perfectly timed and over the top that the scenes are more reminiscent of perfectly played-through levels of a computer platform game, than anything plausible in what is supposed to be a semi-real world. By all means, it all looks great, it just don’t look believable.

    I never thought that the Hobbit deserved as much reverence and thoughtful commitment as the LOTR in the first place, so I wasn’t shocked or disappointed by the excessive use of cgi. I only wished they’d been smarter and more mature about it, that they’ve made it more seamless. Of course the excellent performance of the cast managed to reign in what was left of this run-away wreck of computer wizardry and made it a quite enjoyable watch despite, but still, I doubt I’ll be seeing it again.

  • Robert Sixto

    @Ed I have read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings and I strongly disagree with your post. I feel the spirit of the story was lost in lieu of excessive cgi violence and story modification. Granted, there has to be some modification because film is it’s own medium, it was far overdone. I agree that the acting was fine but it was subverted by overused cgi. The Hobbit was a children’s book after all, with themes of forgiveness and comradery. I do not believe many people left the theater with that message.

  • ed

    Okay, WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU PEOPLE TALKING ABOUT?! First of all, the hobbit is filled with brilliant acting, the fact that they use CGI loads simply adds to the awesomeness. People say this movie is too long, YET THEY DIDNT SAY THAT ABOUT DJANGO UNCHAINED! I SMELL BRIBERY/MIND CONTROL GOING ON HERE! And the soundtrack, oh that beautiful soundtrack, has lulled me into a sense of utter serenity every time i see the film. Everyone who has given this movie a bad review clearly hasn’t read the book, or taken the time to appreciate all of these things.

    • Shahin

      Actually all the people who criticise the movie are also the ones who actually read the books. Only those who didn’t read it thought that it was good. The article is 100% right, the CGI was just the result of pure laziness and having too much budget. That scene with the mountain giants? That was Peter Jackson literally saying “we’ve got too much money!”. The CGI ruined the movie as did the slapstick humor and poor actor choice for Radagast (and his retarded CGI bunnies). Seriously, this was Narnia, not Middle-Earth.

  • Ansgar

    Thanks for the review. I watched the movie once and had the exact same complaints along with a few other. I on the other hand am not a fan-boy of the trilogy. I thought Peter Jackson did a good job of turning strong characters into whiny weak everyday people. In this movie he took strong and noble dwarves and turned them into dr. sues characters right down to their ridiculous hairstyles. I don’t mind the brighter tone to the hobbit but does it have to be so silly and obnoxiously childish?

  • Michael

    I did think he film itself was good with the plot and the acting, but like you mention i did think there was too much cgi. The goblin king looked too fake and cartoony and scenes which could of easily been filmed normally was changed to cgi which annoyed me alot.
    Saying that i still did enjoy it and would rate it a 7-8/10

  • Kimberly

    I could not have said this better myself. It took us two sittings to get through the movie. It was CGI overkill. I felt like I was watching a cheap made for TV flick. I also wondered – “Peter, where did we go wrong here?” The tone was also off for me. I couldn’t fall in love with any of the characters the way I did with LOTR. Something was definitely amiss – beyond the overly colorful backdrops, beyond the computer created characters and beyond the overly done storytelling. There was a huge disconnect and in fact, the only times I felt like I was watching the prequel to one of the (in my opinion) greatest franchises in fil
    history was when the music played reminding me of LOTR – when they all made it back and reunited. I do hope the next movies find more of the spirit and less of the simulated.

  • Ifeelthesam

    This is EXACTLY how I feel and felt the first time watching the movie. I couldn’t sit through the whole thing, I felt like I was watching a video game. It was terribly made and I don’t understand how all that CGI doesn’t bother people. It doesn’t feel realistic at all. They should have just made it into a cartoon. Hahah

  • Ryan

    I don’t know if we saw the same movie or not, but all of the orcs, goblins and ‘battles’ were cgi. I feel like watching The Lord of the Rings was like watching a documentary of some other time. It was just that good and it all looked (for 95% of the movie) real. The Hobbit, which was a more ‘fun’ read, was portrayed exactly like that. The Lord of the Rings, in my opinion, had a better tone for a prize-winning movie.

  • Liza

    @Drew & the author of this review:

    The extra information was taken from many of Tolkien’s extra books called the Appendices, detailing histories, other characters, et cetera.

    And the CGI may have been used a lot because they may have had a low budet. Also, even the Orcs weren’t CGI. The only character who really was, just a little bit, was Gollum.

    Again, these are some facts as well as my opinion, and you’re entitled to different ones, so take it as you wish. Just wanted to let you know, though.

  • smarterthenyou001

    people may of enjoyed it , its self indulgent Tolkien based fun… but he isnt wrong the cgi was WAY OVERUSED, in my experience if you can do something without cgi then you should do it !

    fair enough dragons and wargs can be cgi as there is no other way of acheiving this and the wargs looked pretty good , my main issue was Azog… and the cgi orc’s which could of totally been avoided.

    and also its use of imagery was in my eyes abit childish… the lighting and camera angles where pretty basic aswell, there is such a thing as using CGI tastefully… which the fellowship and two towers did amazingly well, the return of the king was slightly cgi heavy tho

  • Jane

    I love the books, and the LOTR movie trilogy. The Hobbit shouldn’t even be associated with those works of ART. This movie was butchered and ruined, and spread so thin, for corporate greed. You can thank Hollywood for that.

  • Luc

    this reviews are so bad, they all miss the point of the movie and clearly didnt read the book.

  • Drew

    Excellent review, *exactly* how I feel. I’m also a Lord of the Rings/Tolkien fangirl, but I feel like if they were going to add in all of these side-stories, it should have been titled “The Hobbit & the Lost Tales”, or wherever the source of all this additional information is. I went in there expecting The Hobbit, and I left feeling baffled, confused, and disappointed.

  • bob

    why compare one film to another, every critic seems to hate this film, yet every person i talk to thats seen it say otherwise.