The main problem with “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” is one that wasn’t unexpected at all. It sounded like a bad idea when honorary Middle-earth resident Peter Jackson declared his intention to stretch J.R.R. Tolkien’s average-length novel into three films — especially since a 1:1 book-to-movie ratio had served Jackson quite well when he adapted Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. Wouldn’t a three-part “Hobbit” epic feel, you know, padded?
Now the first 169-minute segment has arrived — and by the beard of Gandalf, it DOES feel padded! Huh! Who, other than everyone, would have guessed?
As a fan of “Lord of the Rings” and Peter Jackson in general (I even liked “The Lovely Bones”!), I was more than willing to be wrong about this. But if “An Unexpected Journey” is any indication, we’re in for a long, tedious trilogy. As great as the director and his collaborators are at using state-of-the-art technology to create marvelously lifelike fantasy worlds, it’s not enough to compensate for the fundamental problem of making a 2.75-hour movie out of one-third of a story.
With guest appearances by old Bilbo (Ian Holm) and young Frodo (Elijah Wood) to set the stage, “The Hobbit” takes us back 60 years before the events of “Lord of the Rings,” with young Bilbo (Martin Freeman) recruited by slightly-less-elderly Gandalf (Ian McKellen) to join him and a gaggle of dwarves on a mission to reclaim their mountain home and its treasure from a dragon named Smaug. They’ll have to travel a great distance and face many perils along the way, which certainly sounds like a fine setup for a thrilling adventure.
Here’s a prime example of how Jackson and company screw it up. It’s 40 minutes before the expedition is actually on the road. Is that screen time — a quarter of the film — used to establish the dwarves’ characters? No. (And neither is the rest of the movie. Except for their leader, Thorin, played by Richard Armitage, they are essentially interchangeable.) Is it used to show why the initially reluctant Bilbo changes his mind and joins them on their quest after all? Also no. He just does, that’s all.
So how are those first 40 minutes spent? With dwarves horsing around in Bilbo’s house, eating his food, throwing plates around, singing songs, generally being wacky shenanigans hijinks pranksters. Not that I begrudge the comical characters their merriment, but a little of it goes a long way, especially when the story hasn’t even begun yet. There’s also the not-insignificant matter of all this madcap activity being hectic without being funny.
The story’s pace remains leisurely once our heroes are on the road, though it is punctuated by periodic flurries of adventure. The best of these is an altercation with a subterranean band of goblins, whose leader (voiced by Barry Humphries) is a delightfully grotesque creature who looks like Honey Boo Boo’s mom. The highly energetic and smoothly produced battle — involving dozens of participants, most of them CGI — is the kind of rollicking fun that the rest of the movie desperately needed more of.
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Bilbo’s encounter with Gollum (Andy Serkis) lets us see how far motion-capture technology has come since “Return of the King” (when it was already pretty impressive), and a sequence with some oafish trolls is likewise a visual feast. In 3D, and at the increased frame rate Jackson shot it in, the interactions between real people and CGI things are often shockingly convincing, as if the fantasy creatures somehow came to life and are inhabiting the same space as the actors. (The 48 frames-per-second gambit doesn’t pay off nearly as well in other scenes, where the action has the unappealing video-like brightness of a daytime soap opera.)
Fans of Tolkien’s book (which I haven’t read) may find it satisfying just to hang out in Middle-earth with the old gang, regardless of whether anything’s actually happening. A visit to Rivendell seeking support from the elves — they have a “history” with the dwarves; don’t ask; it’s awkward — brings cameos by Elrond (Hugo Weaving) and Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), as well as the not-yet-evil Sarumon (Christopher Lee). Any admirer of Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy must smile to see the familiar faces. No question, it’s nice to be back in this world.
Which makes it all the more disappointing that so much of our time is spent spinning our wheels, going on pointless tangents, and getting out of scrapes via Gandalf ex machina. It’s fine if “The Hobbit” is lighter in tone than “Lord of the Rings,” but it still has to move. It’s like we returned to Disneyland to find it looking as magical as ever, but with most of the rides closed.
C (2 hrs., 49 min.; )