The first installment of Peter Jackson’s new Middle-Earth trilogy has nearly as much going for it (Martin Freeman as Bilbo, much untampered-with Tolkien dialogue) as it does against it (that chintzy-looking 48 FPS speed, bloated screenplay).
The Hobbit: An Unexpected JourneyDirector: Peter Jackson
Cast: Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Ian McKellen, Andy Serkis, Ken Stott, Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett, Graham McTavish, James Nesbitt, Stephen Hunter, Dean O'Gorman, Aidan Hunter
Studio: New Line Cinema
US date: 2012-12-14 (General release)
UK date: 2012-12-13 (General release)
Years from now, possibly around the time that Peter Jackson is winding up The Silmarillion 5: The Fall of Gondolin, audiences may look back fondly on a simpler time when it was thought one film per book was a smart ratio. Given that even a piffle of a novel like Suzanne Collins’ Mockingjay can be sprawled out over two films, if somebody were to tackle the Lord of the Rings trilogy for the first time in these days of blockbuster bloat, it would end up eight-film forced march. That is, unless we’re talking about works of literature that feature nary an orc, vampire, or dystopia. If you’re Joe Wright and Tom Stoppard, then you still need to figure out how to whack Anna Karenina down to just one film. (Answer: less Levin and Kitty.)
For Jackson’s take on The Hobbit, his freedom to sprawl the narrative over three films also gives him the freedom to indulge in the same tricks and tics that gummed up the works so direly in Return of the King. Meaning: a whole server farm’s worth of animated orcs to keep goosing the action along whenever it threatens to flag, and a script too often shorn of the source material grandeur or playfulness. The unfortunate thing is that Tolkien’s book didn’t need any goosing along. He knocked out that brisk, rollicking read as a bedtime tale to read to his children; only later did it become the genesis of his entire Middle-earth mythos.
It starts in much the same way as Fellowship of the Ring did, with a hobbit being asked by a mysterious wizard to leave his comfortable home for a highly dangerous eastward adventure to help rid the world of a great evil. But instead of enjoying the unique aspects of the chattier and more fanciful Hobbit, as opposed to the more adult trilogy, Jackson and his screenwriting team of Fran Wals, Philippa Boyens, and the one-time director Guillermo del Toro are clearly trying to thread the trilogies together so that ultimately all six films will be seen as one body of work. The greatest differences between the two may end up being of a technical nature, with the second trilogy’s having been filmed in a new 48 frames per second format (more on that later).
The most exasperating part of The Hobbit’s failure to craft a vision as transporting as its source is that Jackson couldn’t have been more right casting Martin Freeman as the young Bilbo Baggins. With his daffy nature, blinking-eye nervousness, pointed wit, and an ability to pivot instantly from comedy to vulnerable emoting, Freeman perfectly grounds the story’s swirling adventurousness. After two brief expository scenes (shades here of Return of the King’s inability to end itself), one of which includes Frodo (Elijah Wood, whose dewy-eyed earnestness is not missed) and the older Bilbo (Ian Holm), Freeman takes things over. It’s a very simple treat just to watch his back-and-forth with Gandalf (Ian McKellan), with whom he acts like a fussy British shopkeeper trying to brush off a pesky salesman. By appealing to his childhood sense of adventure, Gandalf ropes Bilbo into signing up with a ragtag band of dwarves who are marching west to liberate their lost mountain kingdom from the clutches of the dragon Smaug. But not before they’ve plundered Bilbo’s pantry.
From this point on, the film becomes less of a lark with danger lurking ahead than a galloping series of nonstop chases. There are a few scenes that stand out, and generally they come straight from Tolkien’s puckish love of word play; particularly the life-or-death game of riddles that Bilbo has to play with Gollum (Andy Serkis). The scenes that Jackson has added do little but clutter up the story. A detail from Tolkien’s appendices in which Gandalf has a side meeting with other members of the White Council fills in backstory for the Lord of the Rings but is dramatically inert, save for one illustrative note, in which Gandalf acts like a caught-in-the-act schoolboy under the stern gaze of his master, Saruman (Christopher Lee). Another long running plot thread introduces an orc warlord, who previously only existed in Tolkien’s notes, solely to give the leader of the dwarf contingent, Thorin (Richard Armitage), a nemesis and also somebody to chase the heroes.
An argument could be made that Jackson needed to add this new orc into the mix to speed along the book, which was more interested in playful dialogue and the textures of this fascinating world. But would then the plot have needed any added speed if Jackson had simply kept it to one film, even one approaching three hours in length? As it stands, the first film concludes with the characters just barely able to see the Lonely Mountain, and hours to go before audiences will come to its end.
The Hobbit: An Expected Journey is a film that doesn’t know when to leave well enough alone. Not content with the spectacular New Zealand vistas that bring an otherworldly gleam to almost every outdoor scene or his crack CGI animators, Jackson introduces a new gimmick here: shooting at 48 fps instead of the traditional 24. It won't look much different for anybody seeing it in a theater equipped with 48 eps 3-D tech. While this adds a tone of richness and vibrancy to the film’s already eye-popping colors, particularly when seen in 3-D, it’s a Pyrrhic victory. The other result of shooting at 48 fps is that many scenes appear sped-up. The herky-jerk movements and tonal flatness to many of the heavily CGI scenes – particularly a nearly endless battle sequence deep underneath the Misty Mountains – give much of the film the same dulling texture as one of those animated story segments in a video game. There’s no way around it: because of the new shooting method, the film’s close-up scenes often look cheap and chintzy, just when it is aiming to be grand and overpowering.
Bilbo’s first reaction to Gandalf’s entreaty is to spurn the whole idea of adventures: “Nasty things … make you late for dinner.” He’s right, of course, but in the end doesn’t care, because for all the pain and agony and even heartache that will afflict him by the end of The Hobbit, he has also seen wonders and discovered strengths beyond his reckoning. With its bloated running time, overabundance of orcs, and frequently rinky-dink look, Jackson’s film isn’t ultimately the kind of thing that will make viewers mind being late for dinner.