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Film Review: “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey”

the-hobbitI bow to no one in my love of the Lord of the Rings films. Between unemployment and 9/11, Sauron seemed to grab hold of my life in the fall of 2001, and my spirits lifted as Peter Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring unspooled. Here was a good vs. evil fantasy, a movie-movie made on a colossal scale, and with nary a misstep in three enthralling hours. At age 36 I hadn’t expected to transported by a movie as I had been by Star Wars or Indiana Jones a lifetime earlier, but there I was, awestruck. And the best part? There were two more installments yet to come, and I knew they would be great, too. And they were–the exquisite storytelling and craft carried right through The Return of The King and Oscar glory, 11 well-earned statuettes in all.

The good news about The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, which opens Friday, is that there’s little that’s unexpected about it. It’s not, thank Gandalf, The Hobbit: The Phantom Menace, where everyone goes back to remedial school to recapture, vainly, the mojo. On the creative side the Academy Award-winning fellowship, including cinematographer Andrew Lesnie and composer Howard Shore, is back, largely intact. (Neil Finn has been tapped to contribute a pleasing song over the end credits, “Song of the Lonely Mountain.”) In his ivory tower J.R.R. Tolkien never suspected that he was writing a prequel, and that one day actors would be recalled to enact their characters as their younger selves, but Ian McKellen and, in briefer appearances, Ian Holm, Hugo Weaving, and Christopher Lee carry it off; that we are in the fantastic realm of Middle Earth, with make-believe makeup and digital trickery, sustains the illusion. (Also aboard is Cate Blanchett, summoned from the Rings tales to give this testosterone-heavy epic a bit of feminine allure; the only one who doesn’t pass muster is a noticeably aged Elijah Wood, seen in a framing device with Holm.) With nine more years of computer wizardry backing the astounding Andy Serkis, Gollum returns, more lifelike than ever. (Will Jackson update the LOTR films for re-release?) Cast as the younger Bilbo Baggins, and a good match with Holm, is the always winning Martin Freeman, fussy, fretful, and accidentally heroic–and what Sherlock fan doesn’t await the second chapter, where he will match wits with the fearsome dragon Smaug, played by a mo-capped Benedict Cumberbatch?

The bad news? There’s little unexpected about it. The Hobbit began as a two-fer, intended for the distinctive directorial hand of Guillermo Del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth). All that remains of his participation is screenwriting and “project consultant” credits and trolls, goblins, orcs, wargs, etc., that are quite a bit wetter, gloppier, droolier, and snottier that the LOTR menagerie, as Jackson told hold of the reins and grew the project to three films, using Tolkien’s Return of the King appendices for additional material. A lot of additional material–as An Unexpected Journey ends we’re only up to Chapter Seven of The Hobbit. I’ll never complain about those overly reverent Harry Potter adaptations again.

gollum-the-hobbitI get why Jackson did it. The Rings-less years have been bumpy–King Kong (2005) is less than the sum of its jaw-dropping parts, and at over three hours would have been better had it tried to stick to the original’s 100-minute running time, and The Lovely Bones (2009) is indulgent and overblown, a betrayal of its sparely composed source. Middle Earth is his place, where he’s done his finest work, save for the exquisite Heavenly Creatures (1994). And he doesn’t disappoint, or play into the hands of his detractors, who weren’t nearly as transported by his Rings cycle and have tsk-tskked since. The Hobbit is solid work.

But it is The Hobbit, a lesser work, a comparative molehill that Jackson has seen fit to turn into Kilimanjaro. The climb is steep, and the huffing and puffing is felt. The Lord of the Rings had inspiring, tragic heroes to enjoy–Aragorn, Legolas, Boromir. The Hobbit has–13 dwarves, most of  them interchangeable, who sing and scamper and aren’t nearly as endearing as Tolkien and Jackson think they are. The Hobbit is lousy with dwarves. Thus far it’s difficult to have a rooting interest in their quest to reclaim their gilded homeland from Smaug and other forces of darkness, which Baggins joins. It’s not that you hate them, or want them to be picked off during the various clashes (the one involving the rock men is by far the best, and the movie’s one immediately classic sequence); it’s just that you don’t know who they are, no matter how many times the overseeing Gandalf holds a post-battle headcount. Personal conflict is lacking: The dwarf leader, Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), who has a bone to pick with the slimy orcs, picks on Baggins, and when he proves himself worthy in the field they become friends. That’s it. The spectacle isn’t empty; it does not, however, carry you along. Working in fits and starts The Hobbit is patchy, something that LOTR never was.

photoPerhaps mindful of this Jackson has given his canvas an extra dimension, by filming in 3D. Like Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, effects are used conservatively (indeed, there’s nothing here quite as invigorating as Pi‘s flying fish sequence). In some theaters you’ll see that he’s gone much more immersively, by shooting The Hobbit at 48 frames per second, twice as much as the standard 24 fps (but less than the hyperrealistic Showscan process, which was 70fps). Tech buffs should definitely check out an HFR 3D screening–the image is sheer and intensely vivid, as if the movie was being shot as it was being screened. The live action video quality, however, will be anathema to film purists–a future where the movies look like hi-def football games at a sports bar is a topic for discussion–and the dimensional depth can make The Hobbit resemble a pop-up storybook, which is not unjustified. It intrigued me, though I’d like to see a standard presentation for comparison.

I’m not sure I need to make a return trip, however, as I did with the Rings movies. Those got off to fast start and stayed the course. The Hobbit? Well, two more chances to get it right.