This is not a film that knows exactly where it stands. It’s astonishing to think that, since Peter Jackson returns to Middle Earth having so convincingly snake-charmed J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings, but what else can be said about a movie so anonymous, so intermittently clumsy and, ultimately, so insignificant?
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is the first of three films in a series that could liberally be stretched out to two entries, even allowing Jackson his bladder-busting three-hour running times. But if he has so little of substance to say in the first installment, this trilogy is going awfully stale.
It isn’t just the narrative that comes up empty, however. Jackson shot this film in something called High Frame Rate (HFR) 3-D, the first time it’s been used commercially. Whereas normal film speed is 24 frames per second, HFR shoots more frames over that same span, increasing image clarity. For 3-D, this could solve the issue of images “ghosting” as the action moves around. Sounds great, right? In the right environment, it is.
There are moments in The Hobbit that look astonishingly real and unlike a film at all. Most of the exterior medium-to-long shots are amazing. But close-ups are brutal and sweeping crane shots of wide areas might give you vertigo. The problem stems from HFR exaggerating the speed of motion at those extremes, or at least that’s your mind’s perception of what it sees. Close-ups also reveal the artificiality of sets and the art of performance more than they should by eliminating the dramatic distance you normally have from … well, the artificiality of sets and the art of performance.
But buck up, Bilbo fans: This film exists in several formats, so if you skip the HFR 3-D, you might be OK. Still, Jackson’s adaptation is too sedate to spread over this length of time, so there’s a lot of ambling punctuated by battle scenes. Generally, those fights get progressively better, but that’s little solace.
For the uninitiated, the events of The Hobbit predate the Lord of the Rings trilogy, with old, gentlemanly Bilbo (Ian Holm) writing down his epic quest for his nephew Frodo. After a pretty interminable prologue, narrated by Holm, the curtain opens for Martin Freeman to portray the younger Bilbo. Funny, flexible and not a scene-chewer, Freeman is a good choice. Bilbo is coerced by Gandalf (Ian McKellen) to join him on a journey — nay, an unexpected journey — to help a band of dwarves get the loot of a thousand lands back from the clutches of a dragon, something that might happen in two movies’ time.
Boiled down, The Hobbit is a road trip movie with orcs and trolls lining the path. It’s stupidly long; at least each Lord of the Rings film merited going well over two hours. It’s not cleverly or at times even carefully assembled, with Jackson slapping close-up shots in all over the place, presumably to take advantage of the HFR 3-D instead of serving the story. And it’s not fun. Or worth the wait.
THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, directed by Peter Jackson, PG-13, 166 mins.