The Hobbit is a long journey

Director Peter Jackson returns to Middle Earth with a new trilogy.

click to enlarge CHICKS DIG BEARDS: (From left) Bifur (William Kircher), Dwalin (Graham McTavish), Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), Bofur (James Nesbitt) and Oin (John Callen) get to know each other in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. - James Fisher
James Fisher
CHICKS DIG BEARDS: (From left) Bifur (William Kircher), Dwalin (Graham McTavish), Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), Bofur (James Nesbitt) and Oin (John Callen) get to know each other in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

The Hobbit comes with the subtitle An Unexpected Journey, though Here We Go Again would have been more appropriate. There’s almost nothing unexpected* about this return to Middle Earth, including the ungodly length to which director Peter Jackson has stretched his tale. The Hobbit clocks in at nearly three hours and is only the first part of a presumably nine-hour trilogy. The expansive running time allows the filmmakers to cram in all manner of Lord of the Rings arcana for the hardcore fans, but it comes at the expense of possibly boring anyone who doesn’t know an orc from an elf.

That’s not to say The Hobbit is without its pleasures. For the aforementioned fans of the Rings books or movies, this new entry into the canon will be well received if not beloved. The look is right, the acting fine, the action often breathtaking. Yet despite its bluster, The Hobbit is nothing more than a glorified first act that lacks a compelling villain or the fun minor characters that seemed to effortlessly pop in and out of the narrative of the earlier Rings films. What remains is a three-hour tease of a movie that left me with a serious case of cinematic blue balls.

After at least two different prologues (I shit you not), the movie gets rolling with wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) paying a visit to Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and offering him the opportunity to go on an adventure. Bilbo initially declines, but after a (very) long night feeding and sheltering a seemingly never-ending parade of dwarves invited by the sneaky wizard, Bilbo rallies and heads off with his new friends to help them reclaim their homeland.

The dwarves are led by Thorin (Richard Armitage, hitting the same notes as Viggo Mortensen in the earlier films, and performing about as admirably), a prince without a throne ever since the powerful dragon Smaug occupied the dwarves’ vast underground kingdom, and orcs led by the evil Azog (Manu Bennett) invaded their lands and killed Thorin’s father. In Jackson’s grand tradition of never leaving anything Tolkien included in the book out of the movie, The Hobbit wedges an ADD-triggering 13 dwarves in the traveling party, though the director also does a solid job differentiating them enough that audiences won’t be perpetually confused by all the beards.

Kevin Smith famously knocked the original Rings trilogy for being mostly about characters walking from one place to another, and that criticism is magnified here. The dwarves need to get to The Lonely Mountain to face off with Smaug. After three hours of movie, the peak is still well off in the distance. Yikes. Along the way they get into a scrape with giant trolls (the scene where I was most aware that The Hobbit is really a children’s story, though one that Jackson has peppered with enough beheadings to spawn fresh nightmares), visit the Elf city of Rivendell (allowing cameos by Rings regulars Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving and a somehow still-kicking Christopher Lee), and get into a prolonged battle with underground goblins that’s thrilling on both a visceral and visual level.

There’s more. Oh, so much more. Orc chases, a wrestling match between stone giants, an apocalyptic confrontation in a burning forest on the edge of a cliff. None of it moved me as much as a game of riddles involving Gollum (Andy Sirkis), Bilbo, and a certain precious ring that will be important later. Only in the Gollum scenes is The Hobbit as emotionally resonant as the original Rings trilogy, though it illustrates that the series is still capable of delivering true movie magic.

So The Hobbit is a mixed bag, but I’m still recommending it, if only so you don’t get left behind on what should still be two exciting films to come. I expect the next chapter, subtitled The Desolation of Smaug, to be better than An Unexpected Journey. Smaug should provide a proper foil for the dwarves, and that same mix of human and CGI magic that animates Gollum will be strong with the dragon. Until then, I’m sure there will be an “extended edition” of The Hobbit on DVD by the summer to hold rabid Rings fans over until next December. Count me out, though. I don’t think my cinematic balls can handle it.

*-I saw The Hobbit in 48 frames per second 3D, commercially known as “HFR 3D,” and not even the much-discussed new film format was all that surprising. Only two Bay area theaters are showing the movie this way (the AMC Veterans 24 in Tampa and Regency 20 in Brandon), and there has been controversy over Jackson’s decision to shoot in the format. HFR 3D offers a very clear image compared to standard 24 frames per second projection, creating a depth of field that is great for giant vistas and action sequences. Early reviewers complained that the effect was less compelling in the dialogue scenes, and pointed to fake-looking props and a general aesthetic reminiscent of a BBC melodrama.

I didn’t have any of these problems and thought The Hobbit looked great — and really, not all that different from other big-budget blockbusters shot in 3D. I expect the format will be used to even greater effect as more filmmakers experiment with it, and I applaud Jackson for taking the bold first step.

I can’t say if The Hobbit is better in HFR or in standard (I’ve only seen it the one time), but if you’re curious about the new technology, I recommend you hit one of the theaters showing the film as the director shot it and intended it to be seen. I found HFR a worthwhile, if not mind-blowing experience.

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