NEW YORK – Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy was lightning caught in a bottle. With “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” Jackson tries to recapture that magic, but this time the bottle is cracked.
“The Hobbit” is a beautifully designed, impeccably detailed and developed expansion of the Middle Earth we came to know in “The Lord of the Rings.” Jackson and company went to exhaustive lengths to create the make-believe land. Right from the get-go, it is hard not to get pulled into this fantasy melting pot filled with hobbits, dwarves, goblins, trolls and dragons. “The Hobbit” has out-fantasied its predecessors.
The story is very simple, which is probably why it has endured for so many decades. Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) is unexpectedly enlisted by Gandalf (Ian McKellen) to help a group of dwarves reclaim their home from a dragon named Smaug. Along the way they are hunted by orcs, captured by trolls and also unveil a mystery involving ghosts. The story is so quaint that making three films out of it is a bit of a stretch. It will be hard to make the characters, including Bilbo, compelling enough to warrant our attention for that long.
Bilbo travels with the pack, not quite sure of his role, thus giving him very little to do in the film except tag along and receive wise advice from Gandalf or deflect dwarf banter. Sure, this is just one episode in a three part series, but a condensed film with more focus on the characters may have been a better idea.
“The Hobbit” also acts as an appendix to the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, providing backstories that illuminate situations that occur in the other films, making it very easy to get lost in the swamp of Middle Earth information. If you are unfamiliar with all of the films and books, “The Hobbit” isn’t necessarily the easiest place to begin.
J.R.R. Tolkein’s book is geared toward a younger audience than “The Lord of the Rings,” though Jackson and co-writers Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro strike a healthy balance between the darker tone of the “Rings” films and the lightheartedness of the source material.
The original book is only a few hundred pages long, but “The Hobbit” films are split into three installments, incorporating elements from Tolkein’s appendices. This certainly fleshes out the film, but at what cost? “The Hobbit” has a three-hour runtime and it takes a long while to build momentum before turning into a non-stop chase for the final hour. This becomes an endurance test and would greatly benefit from some significant editing.
The film also utilizes a new 48 frames per second frame rate (traditional film is shot at 24fps) giving a home-video feel, which is jarring. The smoothness and ‘clarity’ of the motion somehow cheapens the visual effects and the beautiful cinematography. The sets look fake, the background actors and creatures scurry around as life-like as live performers, and the aerial photography, which is as much a character in these films as the hobbits, looks like tourism video rather than genuine cinematography. Jackson is a maverick here by incorporating this technique, but the look would best be used elsewhere.
As far as the performances, Martin Freeman, fresh off his ‘Sherlock’ fame, makes the most of the iconic Bilbo Baggins. Some of the enjoyment of watching “The Hobbit” is seeing Freeman, as Bilbo, in awe while discovering dwarves, orcs and wizards.
Andy Serkis returns as Gollum for the film’s most entertaining sequence. Serkis, still on a creative roll after last year’s “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” delivers the most engrossing performance – and what a testament to his acting and performance-capture technology.
Other cast members from the original films reprising their roles are Hugo Weaving, Christopher Lee, Ian Holm, Elijah Wood and Cate Blanchett.
Also returning to recreate the look, feel and sound of Middle Earth are Andrew Lesnie, with his sumptuous photography and Dan Hennah’s intricately detailed production design. Each location is distinct and more impressive than the previous. Howard Shore builds upon his Oscar-winning musical canvas by creating new memorable themes and providing a much needed emotional core throughout the film.
Overall “The Hobbit” is a grand experiment in excess that sometimes works, sometimes doesn’t, and it would be wrong to ignore the technical achievement that Jackson has pulled off yet again. But when said and done, “The Hobbit” feels more like a cinematic encyclopedia of Tolkein’s mythical world rather than a trip to the movies.