REVIEW SUMMARY: Plodding, ponderous, and ultimately pretentious, Peter Jackson’s prequel to The Lord of the Rings trilogy never reaches its predecessor’s epic heights.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Gandalf the Gray and a gathering of Dwarves enlist Hobbit Bilbo Baggins into a quest to reclaim treasure stolen by the dragon Smaug.
PROS: Breathtaking realization of the riddle scene and the goblin kingdom beneath the Misty Mountains; impressive rendering of goblins, Gollum, and the brief glimpse of Smaug.
CONS: Lumberingly paced; script stretching the source material to excruciating lengths; Peter Jackson’s restless yet surprisingly murky direction; 48 frames-per-second resolution giving the entire movie a cheesy look.
They’ve made a mistake. Several, actually. Though clogged with too many songs and meals, J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, or There and Back Again benefits from a deft touch and, despite occasional lapses, an elegance in its telling, even when the twee narrative spills into the annoyingly cute. While it occasionally touches on big themes, it recounts the adventures of the Hobbit Bilbo Baggins, the wizard Gandalf the Grey, and a band of Dwarves out to reclaim familial treasure from the Dragon Smaug in a way that never bogs down. Perhaps it lacks the epic sweep of The Lord of the Rings, but its relatively simple quest makes it more immediate and, in a way, more engaging.
The Hobbit makes for a breezy, charming, diverting tale, and so should make for a breezy, charming, diverting movie. Certainly it seems in good hands. Peter Jackson, who brought Middle Earth and its denizens to life in the Lord of the Rings trilogy nine years ago, returns to helm The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Lord of the Rings screenwriters Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens (as well as Guilliermo Del Toro) join him in crafting its screenplay, practically guaranteeing a degree of continuity that might not have existed had Del Toro also directed. With Howard Shore returning to score the prequel, the return of Sir Ian McKellen as Gandalf and Hugo Weaving as the Elf king Elrond—and, of course, Andy Serkis once again lending his motion capture talents Gollum, all should unfold beautifully.
Unfortunately, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey never lives up to either the majesty of its predecessor or the winsome manner of its source material. It wants to; Jackson and company obviously so love Tolkien’s world that they decided to visit it again to tell Bilbo’s story, but in transferring the book to the screen somehow failed to remember their own lessons in adapting the previous movies. The Lord of the Rings, seen in its totality, may stretch to twelve hours (depending on the versions you watch), yet each installment stays generally within the framework of the individual books. By contrast, The Hobbit stretches its single tale into three movies (this is only part one), justifying its length by stuffing unnecessary characters and elements of The Simarillion into its 169-minute running time, making it feel far more like The Unexpurgated Journey. One might be glad to once again see Cate Blanchett as Galadriel and Sir Christopher Lee’s Saruman again, but rather than provide the mystery and menace they brought to the previous trilogy, they instead sit in Rivendell with Elrond and Gandalf speaking in ominous tones of impending conflict. It sounds as if it came from the blog of a Tolkien fanboy.
The screenplay covers the novel’s first third. Bilbo (Martin Freeman) finds his everyday world in the Shire suddenly uprooted when Gandalf brings to his home a band of Dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), where they present him with a proposition: join them on their journey to the Lonely Mountain and help liberate Dwarven treasure stolen by the dragon Smaug, and they will give him a fourteenth of what they recoup. Of course Bilbo resists at first, Hobbits not being great adventurers, yet of course he goes, encountering along the way a trio of hungry trolls, marauding orcs, and the warrens of a goblin kingdom. Some sequences display incredible beauty; Jackson renders the goblin kingdom as a maze of stairs and platforms, while the latest CGI and 3D technology animates the movements and features of the goblins themselves. The same could be said of every creature in The Hobbit—especially Gollum, now even more fully realized in the previous movies. And yet the technology that perfectly details these creatures—specifically, a frame rate of 48 per second—also robs the movie of truly grand visuals. Despite the clarity of the shots, too often The Hobbit looks like a BBC or PBS production cobbled together with the sensibilities of a big-budget blockbuster. Though it works well in such moments as the riddle scene between Bilbo and Gollum (perhaps the movie’s highlight), too often it looks cheesy.
Jackson, too, appears to have fallen into the trap of filmmakers like Steven Spielberg and George Lucas in offering a good deal of action but at the expense of interesting characters. Extending The Hobbit to three movies might have offered more depth to not only Bilbo but also Thorin, but what characteristics the screenwriters do fill in never rise beyond the level of the trite and routine. Worse, Jackson drenches the movie with sentimentality, shooting scenes with such saccharine sweetness that the unwary multiplex patron might lose his foot to diabetes at the 90-minute mark.
But the biggest sin The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey commits is one involving history. It’s been almost a decade since the release of The Return of the King. Now we have not just a prequel but a prequel trilogy, causing one to remember not The Hobbit but another much-loved trilogy that saw the release of a prequel trilogy. If The Lord of the Rings was Star Wars for a new generation of moviegoers, it’s hard not to see The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey as something very dire: Lord of the Rings: The Phantom Menace.