“I’ve had enough dwarves for one day,” someone says early in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, referring to a baker’s dozen fellowship that has descended upon the quiet home of Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman). Up to this point in Peter Jackson’s new movie, they’ve been remarkably raucous and disruptive, but still, there’s little doubt that this is a joke born of deep affection for dwarves and dwarves’ antics. For Jackson, there’s no such thing as “enough dwarves for one day.”
This much seems clear from the fact that Jackson has taken up this new project, a trilogy of films based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, a book full of dwarves. We meet them here as Bilbo does, a gaggle led by the serious, bordering on insufferable Thorin (Richard Armitage), who seeks to take back his homeland and gold from an invading dragon. Thorin’s backstory is delivered by the older Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm), whose recounting then includes his own part in Thorin’s quest, this film’s “unexpected journey,” as he is recruited by the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen).
This recruitment takes a bit of time, as Gandalf and the dwarves arrive at Bilbo’s for a long and rowdy meal, a touch of slapstick, and a couple of songs, including one about dish-sorting that makes the movie feel like an old Disney cartoon feature on steroids, with McKellen looking twinklier than ever. Even so, his renowned gravitas provides even these comic scenes with serious portent, to be borne out over the nearly three hours that comprise this first third of The Hobbit‘s story.
Once the dwarves and the hobbit and the wizard are underway, their adventure seems fitted with a less dramatic urgency than the original Rings films, but also more fun, a series of episodic encounters with fantastical creatures. To a degree, the filmmakers fulfill this promise. The creature effects are realized with typical artistry by Jackson and his WETA Digital crew, including a vast underground city that teems with delightfully hideous goblins and a set of realistic mountains and hills, as well as several mountains that come to life and catch the company in a thunderous brawl.
Yet even at their eye-filling best, these sequences generate more spectacle than suspense. The dwarves are defined by superficial visual characteristics: one is portly, another is young, and Thorin is ever glowering, but are otherwise lost in scenes focused on goblin-bashing or mountain-smashing. Jackson is often more a showman than a personal, idiosyncratic filmmaker; his massive undertakings don’t express a greater anxiety or wonder, like, for instance, those conjured by Steven Spielberg. Jackson’s version of Tolkien, unlike George Lucas’s big fantasy series, employs dei ex machina by the eagle-load.
In fact, An Unexpected Journey‘s tensest moments emerge in its smallest-scale standoff, the one between Bilbo and Gollum (Andy Serkis, as impressive as ever in bringing a digital character to life). When Bilbo escapes the aforementioned goblins and winds up on his own in Gollum’s hiding cave, they duel over a series of riddles—even as Bilbo spies a certain ring of great importance. Here, at last, is a sense of real drama, as well as meaningful connection to the other films.
The new one offers a few other gestures toward prequelization, with characteristic lack of economy: Gandalf sits down to chat with several elves we’ve seen before, and conflicts that will drive the Lord of the Rings cycle begin to percolate. Jackson, along with cowriters Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh, as well as this film’s original director, Guillermo del Toro, draw some material from a Tolkien appendix to expand the relatively slim original book into three features. Apart from Bilbo’s rise to soft-spoken heroism (which can’t help but echo the triumph of Frodo and Sam in the other films), much of The Hobbit feels like such an appendix: trivia rather than storytelling.
This feeling extends as well to the film’s much-discussed visual technology. The enhanced frame-rate technology (Unexpected Journey was shot digitally at 48 frames per second rather than the usual 24, and will screen at the higher rate in select locations) renders the 3D crisper and brighter, but also introduces a variety of ultra-vivid visual quirks: the movie sometimes looks so “real” that it looks fake. That said, the effect doesn’t much affect the movie as a movie; like many of the set pieces, it’s something shiny and interesting to look at it, no less and certainly no more.
The Jackson faithful may love The Hobbit. They might be happy to spend another 170 minutes immersed in this high-definition world, eager to leave the theater only to look up recipes for the Elvish salad glimpsed in one dinner scene. But to the less faithful, it’s a long, digressive trip with only hints of ending.