Directed by Peter Jackson. Screenplay by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, Guillermo Del Toro; based upon the novel The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien. Produced by Carolynne Cunningham, Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, Zane Weiner. Music by Howard Shore. Photographed by Andrew Lesnie. Edited by Jabbez Olsen. Production designed by Dan Hennah. Starring Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Ken Stott, Graham McTavish, William Kircher, James Nesbitt, Stephen Hunter, Dean O’Gorman, Aidan Turner, John Callen, Peter Hambleton, Jed Brophy, Mark Hadlow, Adam Brown, Ian Holm, Elijah Wood, Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett, Christopher Lee, Andy Serkis, Sylvester McCoy, Barry Humphries, Jeffrey Thomas, Michael Mizrahi, Lee Pace, Benedict Cumberbatch.
Imagine a version of Star Wars where we spend an hour watching Luke Skywalker putter around his garage and you’ll be close to understanding the issues with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Just like in his classic Lord of the Rings trilogy, director Peter Jackson has taken a novel by J.R.R. Tolkien and chopped it into three expansive films (this one, and two more over the next 18 months). But here, Jackson has chosen thinner source material that can’t support the portentous weight. The Hobbit, a 300-page juvenile fantasy (I call it that with affection, not disdain), is meant to be a fun, shallow romp, but now it’s inflated into an elaborate, effects-laden opera that’s just not about very much, at the end of the day. Jackson is clearly trying to repeat the earlier success of Rings with the three-movie deal, which is fine, but in choosing this material he has sacrificed depth for breadth.
The Hobbit is a prequel to Lord of the Rings, but the two stories share much in common, as both are about cheerful hobbits who are enlisted in a heroic quest, allied with a gang of nomads against a dark power. Hobbits are small and preternaturally timid creatures, more at home with tea and cheese than swords and axes, yet Gandalf the wizard (Ian McKellen) sees much hidden courage in Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and selects his home as a meeting place for a clatch of thirteen dwarves who have been displaced from their mountain by the dragon Smaug, who likes to bathe in gold. The dwarves raid Bilbo’s kitchen and discuss their plan to retake their homeland and sing and dance in a series of lengthy dinner table scenes that could probably have been trimmed if not for Jackson and the studio’s desire to capture every last detail of Tolkien’s prose on film, since they now can.
The dwarves require a stealthy individual for a key piece of their plot, which involves a trek across picturesque landscapes (shot in New Zealand) that are fraught with dangers: goblins, trolls, orcs, lumbering attack dogs, rock monsters, etc. As he is a wizard, one would expect Gandalf to be all-powerful and all-knowing, yet he has a knack for getting distracted by side adventures at precisely the wrong moment, leaving Bilbo to practically fend for himself, since the dwarves are little help. Indeed, the dwarves are completely interchangeable, aside from one or two distinguishing marks (one is a repository for fat jokes, one has the funniest accent, and so on). Special exception is made for the dwarf Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), a warrior with a personal score to settle on this journey. And of course, there is the skeletal wraith Gollum (Andy Serkis), who lives in squalor in a forgotten cave, and whose contribution to both this movie and the tapestry that is the ongoing mythology is most precious, indeed.
The story of The Hobbit is a crucial piece of Tolkien lore, and is essentially the cornerstone of his book legacy, being the first Middle Earth novel published. But movie fans who have been weaned on the Lord of the Rings films may find this to be thin soup: the stakes are lower, the tone is broader (almost jokey), and the ensemble overall lacks the vivid personalities that populated the original trilogy. The action sequences are fun but sometimes uninvolving, and the themes (or at least those of this opening installment) boil down to observations about hobbits that even casual students of Lord of the Rings will find unsurprising. And there is one major subplot (drawn not from the main body of The Hobbit but from additional Tolkien texts) that is meant to prefigure the original trilogy but ends up feeling like a rehearsal for it. The film is well-made, but it offers nothing we haven’t seen before. The screenplay (by Jackson, Phillipa Boyens and Fran Walsh, with an assist by Guillermo Del Toro), gets the job done but has too many talky scenes and lulls, especially in the middle hour with a trip to the elf city Rivendell, which has never felt more like a high-class hippie commune.
The Lord of the Rings films are not exactly actor’s pictures, although the original trilogy did deliver a buffet of terrific turns. Here the work is done mostly by Freeman as Bilbo: effete, self-deprecating and wry, he walks away with the picture to such a degree that when Ian Holm appears in a brief (and unnecessary) prologue as the elderly Bilbo and invites comparison between the two actors, Freeman holds his own. Serkis, a master of body language and contortionism, once again collaborates with the special effects artists to convey a haunting, human portrayal of Gollum. Everyone else is just kind of there, not really given much to do, although when Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett and Christopher Lee pop by to visit…well, if you’re bored by that…then that, I think, is your own fault.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (and its sequels) was shot in 48 frames per second, and is being exhibited at that rate as the flagship of the new High Frame Rate format. Typical films, which move at 24 frames per second, tend to economize detail and bestow a soft “filmic” look. High Frame Rate doubles the number of frames and is meant to more closely approximate the speed of the human eye, resulting in a crisper image and smoother movement. The experiment is interesting, but the upgrade in frames means that the characters, to our trained eyes, seem jerky and unnatural for a movie screen, looking more at home in a soap opera or news broadcast. Camera movements as well call attention to themselves rather than operating invisibly, since they are now, essentially, familiar phrases spoken in a different language that may or may not accommodate them. During intense action sequences, there is literally too much detail to focus on at once in high frame rate, and the addition of fast editing means the overall action set pieces are dizzying and confusing, not thrilling. A little focus pulling would have done wonders. I recommend the (more common) converted-to-24-frames-per-second screenings, and then trying the 48 frames if you’re curious. Just be warned that you may not like it.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, one should also be warned, ends practically in midsentence with a thrilling rescue and a tease for what’s to come: not just more villains (like that dragon waiting in the wings), but more talking, scheming, walking, carousing, and fighting. There’s a fun, exciting adventure movie buried in An Unexpected Journey, and while that side comes out often enough to please fans, I can’t help but think that with more skillful editing it could have been one of the best films of the year instead of a third of a rather endless and ponderous production. “This tale grew in the telling,” Tolkien says in the foreward of Lord of the Rings, and now so has The Hobbit, and I can’t help but feel that’s a business decision, not a creative one, as this film is most definitely padded. There are lots of scary things in Middle Earth, but none of them, I wager, can match M.B.A.’s who smell a payday.