With Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Andy Serkis, Manu Bennett. Written by Fran Walsh & Philippa Boyens & Peter Jackson & Guillermo del Toro. Directed by Peter Jackson. Rated PG-13 for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence, and frightening images. 169 minutes.
What can one say about THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY? It is director Peter Jackson’s prequel to his landmark and beloved “Lord of the Rings” series, now enjoyed in “expanded editions” on DVD and Blu-ray. Expanding this single novel even further than the trilogy, he’s turned it into three films, with subsequent releases set for 2013 and 2014. Even with this one clocking in at 169 minutes, true fans will only hope it will be even longer on video.
The story is well-known. Young Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) is requested by the great wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen), to join a group of dwarves – led by mighty warrior Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) on a quest to recapture the dwarves’ homeland from the evil dragon Smaug. Gandalf claims that Bilbo is adept as a burglar, an ability that will prove useful in the second or third film no doubt, even though Bilbo himself is unaware he has any such talent. In this first entry, the band faces several fantastic battles against horrible creatures like trolls, goblins and orcs, the latter led by Azog (Manu Bennett), the orc chieftain who slew Thrain, father of Thorin. By film’s end, Bilbo will have won Thorin’s respect and the scrappy band will be prepared for part II of the series, “The Desolation of Smaug.”
The best part is that so many old friends from “Lord of the Rings” show up: Ian Holm appears briefly as old Bilbo (and Elijah Wood as Frodo), as does Hugo Weaving as Elrond, Cate Blanchett as Galadriel and the venerable Christopher Lee as Saruman. Fans will be especially enthused by Bilbo’s encounter with Gollum (Andy Serkis), where the plucky Hobbit finds the mystical ring that obsesses the twisted creature once known as Sméagol.
So don’t mind the reviews. Indeed, stop reading this one. You know you’ve waited your whole life for this movie. Run and go see it right now.
Is it safe? Have the hordes of slavish Tolkien fans departed? Good. “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” is one of the most excruciatingly boring movies out this year. If Peter Jackson couldn’t tell this slight story in a single film there’s no hope the other two in this prequel series will be any less bloated. It remains to be seen if this surpasses the “Star Wars” prequels in negative reaction. Gollum apparently has enough good will among the fan base to prevent comparisons to Jar Jar Binks.
In spite of the cameos of a number of actors from “Lord of the Rings,” this is really the story of Bilbo. Martin Freeman is a definite plus in the role, serving as the “everyhobbit” thrown in among the increasingly bizarre creatures and situations. The pack of dwarves is another matter. With names like Oin and Gloin, and Dori, Nori and Ori, they are the living definition of “twee.” (Go ahead and look it up. It’s a Britishism that could have been coined to describe Tolkien’s overwrought fantasies.) The various adventures and battles all seem endless and get resolved with some sort of last minute arrival, usually that of Gandalf. After a while even fans may be saying “just get on with it.”
All of this is shot in a new process – HFR (high frame rate) – which projects at 48 frames a second, roughly twice what we’re used to. (Traditional film projects at 24 frames per second; digital video at a slightly higher rate.) The result is a mixed bag. Some will complain of smeared action shots and will get queasy watching it. Others – including this reviewer – have no such problems, but it doesn’t add much to the experience, either. Rather than looking like a movie, there are scenes that look like really crisp video, which is not the traditional goal for a filmmaker. This might work for recording a concert or other live performance, but in a fiction film – particularly an epic fantasy – it brings out the artifice instead of creating a vivid reality.
There will be those who already have their tickets for “The Hobbit” and who are delirious with joy. Have fun. Time will tell whether these films will be able to enrapture a wider audience.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His first novel, Shh! It’s A Secret: A Novel About Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide will be released in January 2013. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.