'The Hobbit': Prequel Offers Expected -- and Excessive -- Thrills in an Overstuffed First Film (MOVIE REVIEW)
Although three Lord of the Rings Extended Editions, a three-plus-hour King Kong remake and an interminable adaptation of The Lovely Bones certainly evidenced Peter Jackson’s problem with efficiency, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey achieves new heights of overlong-ness in the director’s expansive canon.
Mind you, I’m a fan of almost all of his films – save Lovely Bones – and considered longer versions of The Two Towers and Return of the King improvements over their theatrical counterparts. But there is simply no need whatsoever for An Unexpected Journey to run two hours and forty minutes, no matter how much one loves J.R.R. Tolkien’s source material.
A briskly engaging adventure shrouded in superfluous detail, an unhurried pace though also, yes, admittedly, technical virtuosity, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is an accomplished if unexciting first chapter in the preamble to his Oscar-winning film series.
Opening with an extended flashback in which the dwarves of Middle Earth are excommunicated from Lonely Mountain by the dragon Smaug, the film chronicles Bilbo Baggins’ (Martin Freeman) participation in helping them begin to reclaim their homeland. Baggins reluctantly agrees to join the Dwarves’ company after Gandalf (Ian McKellen) recruits him, and they soon find themselves battling goblins and orcs across a vast pastoral landscape, eventually arriving at the lair of a mysterious creature named Gollum (Andy Serkis) whose prize possession – a ring – becomes the possible saving grace for a group in dire straits.
In particular, the early scenes in the film drag, a conspicuous indicator that the appendices – or bonus footage to be added to Extended Editions later – offer little to anyone but hardcore fans. As if attempting to outdo the 45-minute wedding sequence in The Deer Hunter, Jackson stages a banquet with the dwarves at Bilbo’s house that is absurdly long without offering anything significant in terms of story – at least not that couldn’t have been accomplished in less than half the same time.
Loyalty to source material only means something if it serves he emotional substance or narrative momentum of the story, and long scenes of dwarves singing, and eating, and eating, and signing, provide none of that. Especially since – crucially – the dwarves, while amusing, are never as distinctive as the members of the Fellowship of the Ring, and we never come to care about them individually even given all of this footage that’s meant to introduce us to them.
That said, the action scenes are as breathless and exhilarating as anything Jackson has previously shot, and they escalate in gripping if decidedly familiar ways. He is so intimately familiar with the source material – perhaps a shortcoming only when choosing what to excise – that he captures the nuances of relationships, spatial and emotional, without seeming to break a sweat. And though we don’t necessarily have that same sort of deep-rooted understanding of all of the characters by the end of the film, Jackson’s palpable affection for them encourages us to share in it, and we mostly do.
Technically, Jackson used the film as a testing ground for 48-frames-per-second projection, which he and James Cameron have heralded as the next great innovation in filmmaking. But as of yet, its effectiveness remains to be seen: while the images are clearer and more stable – especially watching 3D photography – they have an almost super-real clarity that seems too fast, like a DVD player on 1.5x speed or an HDTV with its TruMotion setting amped up to dizzying levels.
I admit that I’m unclear what the long-term benefits are for using this sort of technology, although I don’t presume there are none. But I can’t recommend 48fps presentation as superior to standard 24fps exhibition, at least as it is, and one can only hope that its purpose – and its usage – will improve with time.
Overall, The Hobbit is not a poorly-made movie – in fact, quite the opposite. But it’s a two-hour story in a two-hour-and-forty-minute story’s body, and anyone who’s not consumed copious amounts of Tolkien kool-aid seems likely to question why they’re watching so much story that seems so unimportant, and for so long. Ultimately, An Unexpected Journey only fails in that it doesn’t live up to its title – every expectation is filled, and then some – but for anyone with any hope that these films could live up to their predecessors, The Hobbit is a fine start to what will surely be a series that proves fully satisfying to fans.