Disappointing prequels? We’ve been there before. And “disappointing” isn’t the same thing as “bad.” Peter Jackson’s new version of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey has a lot going for it: a continuing affinity for J.R.R. Tolkien’s work, a lovely lead performance from Martin Freeman, and an honest-to-god fire-breathing dragon. Old friends like Ian McKellan and Andy Serkis remind us why we loved them so much, while the locations (both real and virtual) continue to evoke the majesty of Middle Earth.
At the same time, it’s a little draggy: something we never said about The Lord of the Rings, but which grows increasingly undeniable as the movie continues. Blame probably lies with the folks at Warner Bros, who witnessed the end of both the Harry Potter series and the Christopher Nolan Batman films in the past 18 months. In response, they pushed The Hobbit to three movies instead of just two to continue their box office fix. Frankly, they didn’t even need two. Rankin-Bass told the whole story in 78 minutes; Jackson could double that time and still do justice to Tolkien’s marvelous run-up to The Lord of The Rings. Instead, he torturously stretches a three-hour story out to eight… and sometimes with this first chapter, you can feel every moment of it.
Then there’s the issue of Jackson’s vaunted 48 frames per second technique, which reportedly adds considerable detail but renders the image more like a videotape than an actual piece of cinema. (Disclosure: I’ve seen samples of 48 fps, but watched the movie in the garden-variety 24 fps format. It looked fine and I suspect I didn’t miss much.) Such technical aspects run the risk of overwhelming the story: a sideshow that the already stressed narrative simply doesn’t need.
As a result, we end up wading through a lot of superfluous material that really belongs in the DVD extras file. The action constantly diverts into cul-de-sacs, starting with an early appearance by Ian Holm and Elijah Wood who quickly stay far longer than they should. Jackson then tacks on a burgeoning subplot considering the Necromancer in Southern Mirkwood: an early incarnation of Sauron whom Gandalf (McKellan) must eventually unseat. Tolkien’s text cheerfully glossed over the specifics, and Jackson could have emulated him… or even better, saved the story for a stand-alone movie and let The Hobbit take care of business. Instead, Gandalf’s fellow wizard Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy) crashes the party with dire warnings, and Elrond (Hugo Weaving) hosts another gathering of VIPs to determine what’s to be done about the future big-ass eye.
Jackson struggles to connect those moments to his central subplot: the dragon Smaug and his occupation of the Lonely Mountain. It used to be the seat of a rich dwarf kingdom, but Smaug’s arrival displaced the inhabitants and stripped them of their wealth. Now, sixty years later, prince Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), vows to return… despite rallying a mere twelve other dwarves to his side. The ever-crafty Gandalf railroads Bilbo (Freeman) into accompanying them, adding a lucky fourteenth to their number and bringing the intangible assets of hobbit-dom with him. Bilbo isn’t sure he’s up for the task and neither is Thorin. That drives the film’s emotional conflict and lends weight to the characters who might otherwise be overwhelmed by the visual effects. It also helps The Hobbit skirt its vague wanderings and ultimately deliver the goods like we expect.
Indeed, as long as Jackson sticks to the book, the film works wonders, as Bilbo and his companions face a trio of hungry trolls, the meddling of Elrond’s elves and the goblins of the Misty Mountains on the first part of their quest. A certain incompleteness lingers, but the scenes themselves carry the same magic that The Lord of the Rings did… especially the vaunted riddle contest with Gollum (Serkis), which rescues a third hour in dire need of a boost.
And some of the new material actually feels right at home so long as it keeps its eyes on the prize. The backstory of Smaug’s arrival kicks things off agreeably, and Jackson adds further flourishes like the origin of Thorin’s name and a nasty orc named Azog (Manu Bennett) to provide some immediate villainy. It all works… it just doesn’t work quite as well as it once did. The Lord of the Rings blew us all away. This time around, we’ve become accustomed to Middle Earth’s confines, and it has in turn lost some of its ability to dazzle us. Add to that the unnecessary running time, and The Hobbit ultimately settles for something less than brilliant. Jackson may just be gearing up to knock our socks off in the next entry. But the very fact that we need to wait for it speaks to an intrinsic problem with this production. It doesn’t ruin the experience;, though it does demand some lowered expectations: accepting simple entertainment after they promised us another masterpiece.