The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey: Review

More is less in Peter Jackson's gargantuan first installment of his second J.R.R. Tolkien trilogy.

Die-hard fans will gorge upon Peter Jackson's adaptation from J.R.R. Tolkien's book, though the movie itself is a bit of a slog, writes Todd McCarthy.

There has almost certainly never been an adaptation of a novel more studiously, scrupulously and strenuously faithful as Peter Jackson's film of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Spending nearly three hours of screen time to visually represent every comma, period and semicolon in the first six chapters of the perennially popular 19-chapter book, Jackson and his colleagues have created a purist's delight, something the millions of die-hard fans of his Lord of the Rings trilogy will gorge upon. In pure movie terms, however, it's also a bit of a slog, with an inordinate amount of exposition and lack of strong forward movement. But based on its maker, source and gigantic promotional campaign, this first section to the long-awaited prequel to Rings will no doubt mine equivalent amounts of box-office gold, as will its follow-ups next year and the year after that.

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If The Hobbit had been filmed shortly after the book's publication in 1937 (it's a wonder that it wasn't), one easily could imagine a lively affair full of great character actors and cleverly goofy special effects that would have moved the story along in smart style in under two hours. In Jackson's academically fastidious telling, however, it's as if The Wizard of Oz had taken nearly an hour just to get out of Kansas. There are elements in this new film that are as spectacular as much of the Rings trilogy was, but there is much that is flat-footed and tedious as well, especially in the early going. This might be one venture where, rather than DVDs offering an “Expanded Director's Version,” there might be an appetite for a “Condensed Director's Cut” in a single normal-length film.

Jackson announced his interest in filming The Hobbit as early as 1995, prior to Rings, but was prevented from moving ahead by knotty rights issues. Once the venture came to life again, there were even more hassles involving ownership, lawsuits, studios coming and going and the initial involvement as director of Guillermo del Toro, who eventually stepped aside but retains co-screenplay credit along with Jackson and the latter's Rings partners Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens. At first proposed as a two-part saga, it then became three, following the lead of the Harry Potter and Twilight series to split stories into the maximum number of installments to fill fans' cravings and the financial coffers.

Then there is the technical innovation of Jackson's decision to film not only in 3D but in 48 frames per second, double the standard number. The results are interesting and will be much-debated, but an initial comparison of the two formats weighs against the experiment; the print shown at Warner Bros. in what is being called "high frame rate 3D," while striking in some of the big spectacle scenes, predominantly looked like ultra-vivid television video, paradoxically lending the film a oddly theatrical look, especially in the cramped interior scenes in Bilbo Baggins' home. For its part, the 24 fps 3D version had a softer, noticeably more textured image quality.

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One of the reasons this “unexpected journey” to “a land far away” is so bulked up is that Jackson has filled it out with an enormous amount of backstory relevant to the characters at hand. In doing so, he is able to provide a titanic opening battle sequence, one in which a wealthy ancient kingdom of dwarves alongside the Lonely Mountain is decimated by fearsome giant trolls. One of the only survivors is the heir to the throne, Thorin, whose effort to reclaim the kingdom will occupy the thrust of the story.

First, however, there is the hokey business of introducing the motley crew of knights who will undertake this daunting task: 13 dwarves, led by Thorin (Richard Armitage), whose facial hair looks more imposing than their musculature and are guided by the towering wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen, back for another tour of Middle-earth), who approaches the mild-mannered Bilbo (Martin Freeman) to propose that he “share in an adventure,” the nature of which is unfamiliar to the pointy-eared stay-at-home.

The gaggle of uninvited guests make themselves right at home in Bilbo's cozy underground abode, making short work of his food and drink and in every way behaving presumptuously. A little of their dwarf talk goes a long way, and a filmmaker intent on getting his show on the road would have dispensed with this repast in half the time or less; it's not as if there's going to be quiz on the identities of each dwarf before the journey can proceed. Some of Jackson's blocking, setups and compositions in this long introduction are downright clumsy, in the service of notably lame japes and gags.

More backstory battle footage spikes things up again as the long journey begins in earnest. An initial glimpse of what the little guys are up against comes in the form of three giant trolls, who make off with a couple of ponies to eat and indulge in a Cockney-flavored Three Stooges routine as they prepare to roast the dwarves for a snack. There also is a glimpse of the dreaded Necromancer, who looks not unlike the video sensation Slender Man. 

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At length, the sojourners arrive at Rivendell, home of Gandalf's friend Elf Lord Elrond (Hugo Weaving) and, in cameos, Queen Galadriel (a returning Cate Blanchett) and Saruman (Christopher Lee). If the cave full of gold guarded by the dragon Smaug is to be penetrated, Gandalf and the dwarves need both the best maps and a key, with which they get help at this stop. 

But the way ahead becomes increasingly treacherous, what with mountains that abruptly come alive as heaps of rock that battle one another in heaving slow motion; the malignant Gollum (the again superb Andy Serkis, in eye-bulging Peter Lorre mode), who engages Bilbo in a winner-take-all riddle contest; and, quite scarily, repulsive trolls who give chase on ferocious, wolf-like wargs and corner the dwarves in a forest at the edge of a cliff in an undeniably exciting, action-packed climax.

It takes Jackson a long time to build up a head of steam, but he delivers the goods in this final stretch, which is paralleled by the hitherto ineffectual Bilbo beginning to come into his own as a character. One of Tolkien's shrewdest strategies in writing The Hobbit and designing it to appeal to both youngsters and adults over the decades was making Bilbo a childlike grown-up who matures and assumes responsibilities he initially perceives are beyond him. Freeman, who at first seems bland in the role, similarly grows into the part, giving hope that the character will continue to blossom in the two forthcoming installments.

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The dwarves are pretty interchangeable, but Armitage has a strong bearing as the royal heir and doesn't stress the character's self-important pomposity too much. There's nothing McKellen can do to surprise anymore as the ever-imposing Gandalf, but his presence is as reassuring to the audience as it is necessary for the dwarf warriors.

In terms of production values, The Hobbit is comparable to what Jackson and his team accomplished on the Rings outings; he has reunited with such key trilogy collaborators as cinematographer Andrew Lesnie, production designer Dan Hennah (supervising art director and set decorator on the Rings) and masses of effects artists and technicians from his Weta shop. Due to technological advances and the 3D technology, in some ways the new film moves beyond into new territory, and there assuredly will be more spectacle in the next two installments, which will be subtitled The Desolation of Smaug and There and Back Again (the subtitle of Tolkien's entire novel).

The score by Howard Shore, who wrote the music for the trilogy, effectively backs the action, nearly every second of it.

The end credits run 16 minutes, certainly a record or close to it, bringing the total running time to six minutes short of three hours.