‘The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey’ is perhaps the biggest film ever made about little people with big, stumpy feet. This is Peter Jackson’s adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s first Middle-Earth fantasy novel. ‘The Hobbit’ is a prequel to the insanely popular ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy (also directed by Mr. Jackson). It is about (as you would expect) a hobbit – he’s been recruited by a wise wizard to join thirteen dwarves. They seek on a quest across Middle-Earth to reclaim the Lonely Mountain from a fierce dragon.
‘The Hobbit’, as I recall, is a quick read. This 320 page children’s book has been stretched beyond the limit. Inexplicably, this story has been dragged out into three movies. The first entry in this series runs at approximately 170 minutes, and I felt all 10,200 seconds of it (I suspect the next two pictures will be at least as lengthy, but here’s hoping those don’t *feel* as long). ‘The Lord of The Rings’ trilogy was a grandiosely epic tale of Good vs. Evil. ‘The Hobbit’, on the other hand, was a very light-hearted adventure book. Early in the film, it is said that Dwarf Thror’s “love for gold had become too fierce.” I think the same criticism can be said for Jackson’s love of this material. Financial motivations aside, I’m not entirely sure I understand why ‘The Hobbit’ needed to be made into a trilogy. The hardcore ‘Rings’ fans who purchased the extended editions of the original trilogy may appreciate what is offered here – it gives them a chance to spend more time with characters they love. This, however, doesn’t make for a tight story and ‘The Hobbit’ really suffers from a narrative standpoint. Note: There are two (!!) prologues!
To make matters worse, there is no resolution to this overlong, plodding spectacle. I understand that this is a deliberate choice and that the full construction of the arc can only take place at the completion of this trilogy. Even so, ‘An Unexpected Journey’ is clearly a setup for a sequel, and while these characters are still in the early stages of this journey, there should be some sense of accomplishment. The movie ends abruptly and unexpectedly (that is until you realize you’ve been sitting in the same seat for three hours). The incomplete feel was both satisfying and dissatisfying – I felt that I was cheated out of a conclusion; but , I also felt that a weight had been lifted, releasing me of my movie reviewing duty.
What is an acceptable length for a film of this scale? There is no answer to that. A movie is only too long if it feels too long. How faithful should a film adaptation be to its original source material? Again, I don’t know the answer. I can say that it feels like everything (and then some) from the first third of Tolkien’s book is displayed on the screen. And yet, the movie doesn’t work.
‘The Hobbit’ resembles a videogame structure – all the pieces are mechanically assembled: Insert a scene featuring the Dwarves, followed by a scene with the Orcs, then one which combines the Orcs with the Goblins; oh wait, let’s see those Orcs again. Also, it doesn’t feel like anything taking place really contributes to the quest these characters embark on. The film goes on so many tangents that after a while, we forget the purpose of their journey. The mission in ‘LOTR’ was to return a powerful ring to its place of creation and destroy it. There were several missteps and setbacks along that journey, but we never forgot what the end goal was – we felt the stakes were high. The stakes in ‘The Hobbit’ are significant lower than they are in ‘LOTR’. If the mission isn’t a success, thirteen dwarves lose their lives. The problem here is I don’t care for these characters – the dwarves are essentially interchangeable; they don’t possess distinctive traits to make them separable.
Since the mid 1920s, 24 frames per second (fps) was agreed upon as a shooting and projection standard – a rate that is slightly slower than how the human eye perceives reality. However, this frame rate creates problems with quick camera pans – the result isn’t as fluid and seamless as one might hope for. I believe this is the reason why Mr. Jackson has decided to shoot ‘The Hobbit’ at a new frame rate – 48 fps. The screening I attended showcased the picture in IMAX 3-D at 24fps. While I can’t comment on the visual intelligence at 48 fps, I feel I should comment on the fact that a $150 million movie cannot change cinema – it can only change the way people make $150 million movies. I’m afraid it comes down to basics: an involving story featuring well-developed characters; the special effects and creative visuals should be the icing on an already tasty cake. But, the visual eye candy (at least present at 24 fps) can’t disguise ‘The Hobbit’ from being the wobbly, ungainly film that it is. The movie *feels* as long as it does because it is difficult to get immersed into the experience – to share the identities and adventures of these characters. We’re witnessing technique from a distance.
There are some good things about ‘The Hobbit’. The casting choice of Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins is a good one. Fans of the ‘LOTR’ series will be glad to see Ian Mckellen, Ian Holm, Elijah Wood, Hugo Weaving, Cate Blachett, Christopher Lee, and Andy Serkis return to their respective roles. We expect good performances out of these actors, and everyone here hits the right notes. ‘The Hobbit’ does build up towards a well-produced climactic battle between the Orcs and the Dwarves (and it was great seeing Bilbo’s character step up to the plate). My personal favorite is a mesmerizing creepy sequence involving a game of riddles between Bilbo and Gollum (once again, played by Serkis in his motion capture character).
‘The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey’ represents the same level of disappointment for ‘Lord of the Rings’ fans as ‘The Phantom Menace’ did for ‘Star Wars’ fans some thirteen years ago. This feels like the rough draft to a much better film – one that is in need of judicial editing to make a tighter movie. Lacking the novelty and excitement present in the ‘LOTR’ pictures, ‘The Hobbit’ comes off as a pale imitation of something we’ve seen back in – oh, hmm, 2001, 2002, and 2003. QED.