A decade ago, Peter Jackson spent more than nine hours tackling the dense novels of J. R. R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” (LOTR) trilogy. The director takes the same expansive and epic approach to Tolkien’s intimate and episodic prequel, The Hobbit (1937), splitting his adaptation into three films.
The overgenerous running time is somewhat to the film’s advantage, but there are warning signs that Jackson might be stretching the tale to its limit.
Jackson follows the axiom, “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it,” using a similar color palette and much of the production design from his hugely popular LOTR series. With cascading waterfalls and a red sky at sunset, Rivendell, the land of the elves, still looks as if it has sprung from a Maxfield Parrish painting. In addition, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey shoehorns in characters from the later books, as if the director has made one long, contiguous film, though out of sequence.
Told in a flashback, the movie covers roughly the first third of the book, opening as Bilbo writes down his memoirs (“My dear Frodo, I may not have told you all…”). Rest assured, this long, verbose narration finally gives way to Tolkien’s story when a younger Bilbo, a homebody hobbit, is chosen by the wandering wizard Gandalf to join 13 burly, belching dwarfs on a mission to recover their kingdom and to end the reign of the usurping dragon Smaug.
For their mission, they need someone small and nimble, like Bilbo, to get into the mountain and follow the hidden passage to the dragon, who can’t detect the scent of hobbits. Besides Ian McKellen as Gandalf, Ian Holm and Elijah Wood reprise their roles as the older Bilbo and Frodo. Cate Blanchett makes a guest appearance as Galadriel, speaking very slowly, as if making a proclamation every time she speaks. That’s one thing the book is not: declamatory or self-important.
Too often in the LOTR films, the exposition and the action scenes were tightly jammed together, with almost more plot than each installment could contain. Characters would pop in and out before the next fight scene, and the story had to barrel along.
Those films served as a framework for Tolkien’s convoluted story lines, leaving it to readers, armed with foreknowledge, to fill in the blanks—and leaving the uninitiated feeling confused. This time around, Jackson takes his time mapping out the lay of the land, with more of a balance between interactions and keeping the journey apace. A newcomer can easily navigate his way around this Middle-earth.
It may be true that “All good stories deserve embellishment,” according to Jackson’s Gandalf, but at times this retelling feels a bit padded, like an elaborate setup for the second film installment. The battle of the stone giants, which takes up a paragraph in the book, is a full-blown, thunderous special effects extravaganza—one of three elongated battle scenes, which delay an otherwise propulsive story line.
Gollum (brought to life again by Andy Serkis) doesn’t slither onscreen until the two-hour mark, and Bilbo’s other adversary, the gold-coveting Smaug, is glimpsed, barely and never seen in full. And by the end, Bilbo still hasn’t learned about the dark power of the ring, which he finds by accident. By contrast, Richard Wagner’s 18-hour plus “Ring of the Nibelungen,” introduces the dangers of its golden ring in its first scene.
As in LOTR, the on-location New Zealand scenery competes with and frequently upstages the digital effects. That said, the special effects team have whipped up many inspired creations, notably the reptilian-like Goblin King (voice by Barry Humphries, aka Dame Edna). His pustules and sagging goiter may appear even more ghastly in 3D.
These highlights more than compensate for some of the spotty and jarring visual effects. The faces of the giant goblins, the orcs, have a plastic sheen and Botoxed-like smoothness. The fur of the menacing, giant wolves—which look like they could have wandered in from the “Twilight” series—has a static texture, and the flying movements of giant eagles lack fluidity in a standard 24 frame-per-second 2D print of the film. (The alternative version, in High Frame Rate 3D, runs at 48 frames a second.)
The filmmakers have literally brought Tolkien’s world to life—the novel provided the blueprints for Bilbo’s home, Bag-End, from its long tunnel shape to its green door. Yet one of the book’s most appealing qualities remains elusive: Tolkien’s congenial, conversational prose, with its strong sense of humor and wordplay. The film’s script, however, downplays the comedic potential inherent in like the fastidious and flummoxed hobbit at sixes and sevens. (Bilbo is more like a diminutive Felix Unger than Wagner’s fearless Siegfried.) As the mild-mannered hobbit, Martin Freeman is a quiet, self-effacing observer, an innocent and understated everyman (or hobbit). This reluctant adventurer may possess the powerful ring, but the schizophrenic and charismatic Gollum, who, whether trying to devour Bilbo or scheming to steal the golden object, wipes him off the screen.
Directed by Peter Jackson
Rated PG-13 (lots of threats of being eaten)