“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” review: Back to Middle-earth at 48 frames per second

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

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Let’s face it: after “The Godfather: Part II” and “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” the list of successful prequel movies is pretty short.

Still, it’s no surprise to see “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” arriving in theaters this weekend, offering up the first installment of a new, big-budget trilogy that will serve as a prequel to Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings” films. Jackson’s first series of movies based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s seminal fantasy novel has grossed almost $3 billion worldwide, so it was a bit of a no-brainer to give the same treatment to the story that started it all, The Hobbit.

Originally published back in 1937, The Hobbit chronicles the adventure of Bilbo Baggins, a diminutive “hobbit” caught up in a quest to kill a monstrous dragon that has laid claim to the ancestral home of a group of dwarves. Bilbo and the dwarves are accompanied by a mysterious wizard, Gandalf, who serves as guide, guardian, and ambassador at different points. Over the course of their journey, the group encounters all manner of enemies and allies, including giant spiders, vicious goblins, and noble eagles – as well as the dragon, Smaug – and Bilbo is forced to reconcile the appeal of an adventurer’s lifestyle with his love for a quiet home and a warm hearth.

By and large, the movie stays true to this theme, too – though it occasionally veers off to expand on threads in Tolkien’s story with new twists in characters’ relationships, a few new characters, and some brief narrative side-trips.

It’s worth noting early on that Tolkien penned The Hobbit as a children’s story – a fact that’s often forgotten due to the darker, more intense tone of both The Lord of the Rings novel and Jackson’s big-screen adaptations. “The Hobbit” filmmaker clearly hasn’t forgotten that fact, though, as it’s clear from the start that “An Unexpected Journey” skews considerably younger than the previous trilogy.

Where “The Lord of the Rings” films were frighteningly earnest with life-and-death stakes for both the characters and the world they inhabit, “The Hobbit” feels more like a grand, occasionally slapstick adventure with a group of bumbling fools trying to pass themselves off as warriors. With “An Unexpected Journey,” Jackson is clearly aiming for a lighter, more humorous tone, and Bilbo’s adventure comes across as more of a lighthearted romp than the deadly serious narrative of Frodo’s journey in “The Lord of the Rings.” While this is also right in line with the tone of The Hobbit as it was written, it’s the sort of difference that could confuse casual audiences expecting an extension of “The Lord of the Rings” and could frustrate fans whose recollection of the original story has been influenced by the modern adaptations.

On the visual side, Jackson’s decision to film “An Unexpected Journey” at 48 frames-per-second instead of the standard 24 in order to improve 3-D visuals has been loudly criticized by purists, but the change isn’t even close to the apocalyptic, career-ending, movie-ruining gaffe that early buzz indicated. While it takes a few minutes to adjust to the extra level of sharpness in the lush visuals of the film’s opening sequence (a sequence probably intended to distract you from that acclimation period), much of the film benefits from the high-def upgrade, which makes everything pop just a little bit more.

Still, that extra “pop” does cause a bit of a distraction during certain sequences – specifically, in scenes that take a bird’s-eye view of the group running through detail-heavy, CG set pieces. Much like the scene in “The Fellowship of the Ring” when Frodo and his companions are pursued through the Mines of Moria by a horde of goblins, Bilbo and the dwarves find themselves sprinting through similar environments on several occasions during “The Hobbit,” but the sequences have a noticeably different feel this time around with the hyper-detailed blend of 48fps filming and 3-D presentation. At times, the scenes feel a bit like the cinematic sequences from high-end video games, which often lose a sense of perspective by making every detail in the shot – no matter how far away – crystal clear. The end result is the occasional scene that doesn’t feel entirely real, but isn’t quite digital, either.

Overall, there seems to be a much heavier reliance on CG visuals in “The Hobbit” than in the “The Lord of the Rings” movies, with many of the film’s villains relying heavily on digital and motion-capture effects instead of on-screen actors in prosthetics and makeup. It’s an unfortunate decision, as the practical effects used in “The Lord of the Rings” provided an extra level of realism in those films that would’ve been even more valuable in the ultra-crisp, 48fps environment of the “Hobbit.”

Despite the reliance on digital effects for so many of the creatures of “The Hobbit,” the actors who do get time in front of the camera provide fantastic performances on par with “The Lord of the Rings” cast. Reprising his role as Gandalf, Ian McKellen proves yet again why he is the definitive version of the character, and Martin Freeman successfully captures all of the timidness of Bilbo Baggins with the necessary hint of the inner strength the adventure brings out in him. Outside of Richard Armitage’s noble and grim-faced Thorin Oakenshield, few of the dwarves receive much solo time in the spotlight (which stays right in line with the novel), though Aidan Turner makes the best of his opportunities as the young dwarf Kili.

Composer Howard Shore also deserves praise for his impressive interpretations of the lyrics that Tolkien scattered throughout The Hobbit – especially his haunting spin on the dwarves’ fireside ode to their long-lost kingdom, “Misty Mountains.” Tolkien was known for peppering both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings with song lyrics and poems, and much like the 1977 animated feature based on The Hobbit, “An Unexpected Journey” doesn’t disappoint in giving audiences the music of Middle-earth.

Despite all of its flaws (and there are quite a few of them), “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” manages to be a very enjoyable film that remains loyal to the tone of the books without becoming a literal, scene-by-scene narrative. There’s no shortage of scenes that feel padded out to span the three-film arc Jackson has planned, but as the big-screen adaptation of a children’s story that had some dark undertones, “An Unexpected Journey” is a success.

The story of The Hobbit has always been its own creature, written for an audience 20 years younger than The Lord of the Rings readers, and envisioned as a far more innocent, playful tale. With this adaptation, Jackson seems keenly aware of the differences between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and instead of trying to make one more like the other, he embraces what makes each story unique. “An Unexpected Journey” may not be the greatest adventure on Middle-earth, but it does make for a great theater experience.

“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” arrives in theaters Friday, December 14.

That 70s Show Fez

Fez Fever!

Think You Know Fez? Take This Quiz!

Catch That '70s Show Mondays and Tuesdays from 6-11P ET/PT.

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Fez played the role of the outsider on That ’70s Show, but was quickly welcomed into the Circle. How deeply have you accepted Fez into your life? Click below to start the quiz and find out!



Gigi Wrote a Book for You

Read Gigi’s Outrageous Children’s Book ‘Call Your Grandmother’

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This week on Gigi Does It, Gigi Rotblum (David Krumholtz) pens a heartwarming children’s book about the perils of not calling your dear grandma. And now you can read the full story below!

Gigi Does It Book Cover

Gigi Book Page 1

Gigi Book Page 2

Gigi Book Page 3 REV

Rocky Horror Picture Show

Frank N' Facts

10 Things You May Not Know About The Rocky Horror Picture Show

Do the Time Warp with Comedy Bang! Bang!

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Aliens! Dancing! Meatloaf! When The Rocky Horror Picture Show hit the big screen all the way back in 1975, no one knew exactly what to make of it. 40 years later, Comedy Bang! Bang! is celebrating the beloved cult movie with an all-out costumed extravaganza. To get you ready for the party, we thought it was high time to jump to the left, take a step to the right, and learn a little bit more about the movie that put the “Time” in Time Warp.

10. Meatloaf Never Rode The Motorcycle


While his character, Eddie, may have been a hog riding badass, in reality a stunt double did all the future Celebrity Apprentice contestant’s bike riding stunts. That is, except for close-ups, when Meatloaf was pushed around in a wheelchair.

9. Rocky Didn’t Have a Belly Button

20th Century Fox

20th Century Fox

The makeup department actually fashioned a plug to cover up Peter Hinwood’s belly button, as his character was grown in a tub, and thus wouldn’t need one.

8. It Was Tim Curry’s First Movie

20th Century Fox

20th Century Fox

Curry actually originated the role of the cross-dressing mad scientist Dr. Frank N. Furter on the stages of London and Los Angeles, before reprising it in his film debut.

7. Mick Jagger Wanted In On The Fun

Rolling Stones Records
Rolling Stones Records

Jagger was supposedly a fan of the stage production, and made enquiries into playing none other than Dr. Frank N. Furter.

6. The Movie Made Susan Sarandon Sick

20th Century Fox

20th Century Fox

The drafty country house that doubled as Dr. Frank N. Furter’s castle famously had no heat or bathrooms. Susan Sarandon complained, but no one took her seriously until she caught pneumonia while filming a dance number in a freezing pool. Always a pro, she finished the scene.

5. The Crew Used Real Skeletons

20th Century Fox

20th Century Fox

The gothic clock was no mere prop. In fact, the woman who first commissioned it to be made had one request — to be entombed within it. That’s her real skeleton revealed hiding inside.

4. David Bowie’s Makeup Artist Created the Film’s Looks

20th Century Fox
20th Century Fox

Pierre La Roche, who worked on the Ziggy Stardust tour and the Aladdin Sane album cover, designed the iconic makeup for the film. Still, rumor has it he took so long to apply it, nearly four hours, that Tim Curry just ended up doing his own.

3. Magenta and Columbia Started As One Character

20th Century Fox

20th Century Fox

Before production, Magenta and Columbia were split into two separate characters, to create a part for singer Marianne Faithfull to play. She ended up turning the role down, but the characters remained separated.

2. The Corpse Was a Deadly Surprise

20th Century Fox

20th Century Fox

The corpse revealed hiding inside Frank N. Furter’s dinner table was kept a secret from the actors, so their shocked reactions would be as real as possible.

1. RHPS Holds the Record For Longest Release in Film History

20th Century Fox

20th Century Fox

A flop upon release, Rocky Horror gained a following as a midnight movie at New York’s Waverly Theater in the late ’70s. It has since played non-stop for four decades, smashing the record for longest release of a film.

That 70s show

Must Scream TV

10 Spooktacular Halloween TV Episodes

Catch That '70s Show Mondays and Tuesdays 6-11P on IFC.

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A great Halloween episode is like terrific fan fiction. Our beloved characters are thrust into a spooky predicament beyond their normal scope of storylines while wearing garish outfits and fearing for their lives. The annual tradition on-screen is a reflection of the holiday’s appeal in real life: A chance to see the familiar skew towards the garish and macabre.

Fun, scary, and memorable, here are the 10 best Halloween episodes of all time.

10. That ’70s Show, “Halloween”

that 70s halloween

The siren song of an abandoned building on Halloween lures the That ’70s Show gang to their burned-out grammar school where they discover their old permanent records. Secrets and backstories are revealed, such as Jackie’s middle name, Kelso’s real age, and an act of vandalism committed by a 7-year-old Eric which followed Hyde around his entire life.

9. Freaks and Geeks, “Tricks and Treats”

freaks and geeks

freaks and geeks halloween

Expertly capturing the dilemma of kids too old to trick-or-treat but too young for drunken holiday revelry (legally, at least), Freaks and Geeks brings us back to the youthful pursuit of making the most out of Halloween. Wannabe freak Lindsay opts for petty vandalism while Sam and his geeky pals are humiliated by their costumed rounds through the neighborhood. On the plus side, Bill makes a very stately Bionic Woman.

8. Quantum Leap, “The Boogieman”

Quantum leap goat
Leaping into a horror writer’s life in 1964, Sam plays detective as the people around him start dying, Al’s not quite himself, and a goat keeps appearing. The grisly plot culminates to a legitimately unsettling climax that’s as scary as it is funny (seriously, it’s hard to describe) and we find out the neighborhood boy goes on to become somebody very familiar.

7. Cheers, “Bar Wars V: The Final Judgement”



On Halloween, the bar’s longtime rivalry with Gary’s Olde Towne Tavern is curiously called off when Gary reveals his heart can’t take it — literally. But Sam, not buying the medical diagnosis, stages an elaborate (and in reality, logistically impossible) prank involving Carla’s holographic head that may have caused Gary to kick the bucket. (There’s a humorous callback to this episode in the following season’s “Bar Wars” episode.)

6. Amazing Stories, “Mummy Daddy”

Over a decade before Wes Craven upended horror movie tropes with Scream, this episode of the tragically short-lived Steven Spielberg-produced anthology series blurs the line between myth and Hollywood when an actor playing a mummy is pursued by (and mistaken for) an actual mummy. Pure pulp fun if only for the image of a mummy riding horseback.

5. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “Fear, Itself”

Buffy halloween
Mixing a little Scarecrow villainry into the Whedonverse, this episode has Buffy and the gang attending a Halloween frat party where a demon that feeds on fear subjects everyone to their greatest nightmares. A delightful writing exercise that exposes each character’s weaknesses and doubts, “Fear, Itself” is prime Buffy entertainment.

4. MacGyver, “Halloween Knights”

CBS Television

CBS Television/ABC

Less of an episode of television than a convergence of all things great, MacGyver is coerced into joining forces with longtime nemesis and super-assassin Murdoc when his former hitman employers kidnap his sister and threaten to execute her at a posh Halloween party. Complete with a booby-trapped funhouse and thinly veiled references to Raiders of the Lost Ark, this is hands down one of the greatest episodes from the series.

3. Roseanne, “BOO!”

Roseanne halloween

Kicking off an annual tradition of Halloween with the Conners, “BOO!” from season two of Roseanne showcases the family’s obsession with the holiday and the lengths to which they celebrate it. For a family just scraping by and the viewers who watch them, it’s a cathartic outlet and an excuse to let freak flags fly. And from the first holiday go-around, it’s instantly clear the show will do it again and again.

2. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia“Who Got Dee Pregnant?”



Narrowly edging out season eight’s stellar, McPoyle-infested “Maureen Ponderosa Wedding Massacre,” season six’s “Who Got Dee Pregnant?” represents the very best of the Paddy’s Pub crew. Dee reveals she’s pregnant and the gang engage in drunken flashbacks Rashomon-style to determine who the father could be. Featuring the sexual exploits of the always-awesome Artemis, as well as Frank dressed as the canon-busting Man-Spider, “Who Got Dee Pregnant?” is top-notch.

1. The Simpsons“Treehouse of Horror V”

Simpsons Shining

Picking your favorite child would be far easier than picking your favorite Simpsons Halloween special — though they tend to be earlier seasons, don’t they? However, “Treehouse of Horror V” from season six is simply too fantastic to be topped. Between the classic Shining parody, Homer’s time-traveling advice from his father on his wedding night, and Groundskeeper Willie constantly getting an axe in the back, you can’t find a better way to ring in October 31st than this half hour.

Missed Comedy Bang! Bang!’s Rocky Horror-tastic Halloween blowout? Watch it now.

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