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Die-hard fans will go crazy for Peter Jackson’s adaptation from J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel, though the film itself is a bit of a slog.
There has almost definitely never been an adaptation of a book more studiously, scrupulously and strenuously faithful as Peter Jackson’s movie of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit An Unexpected Journey. Spending almost three hours of screen time to visually represent each single comma, period and semicolon in the first six chapters of the perennially famous 19-chapter novel, Jackson and his colleagues have produced a purist’s delight, something the millions of hardcore fans of his Lord of the Rings trilogy will go crazy for. In pure movie terms, however, it’s also a bit of a slog, with an inordinate amount of exposition and lack of strong forward movement. But based on its maker, source and huge promotional campaign, this first section to the long-anticipated prequel to Rings will undoubtedly mine equivalent amounts of box-office gold, as will its follow-ups next year and the year after that.
If The Hobbit had been shot shortly after the novel’s publication in 1937 (it’s a wonder that it wasn’t), one easily could picture a lively affair full of great character actors and wittily goofy special effects that would have moved the story along in smart style in under two hours. But in Jackson’s academically fastidious telling, it’s as if The Wizard of Oz had taken almost an hour just to get out of Kansas. There are elements in this new film that are as spectacular as much of the Rings trilogy was, but there is much that is flat-footed and tedious as well, especially in the early going. This might be one venture where, instead of DVDs offering an “Expanded Director’s Version,” there might be a treat for a “Condensed Director’s Cut” in a single ordinary-length movie.
Jackson announced his interest in filming The Hobbit as early as 1995, prior to Rings, but was prevented from moving ahead by knotty rights issues. Once the venture is brought back to life again, there were even more hassles concerning ownership, lawsuits, studios coming and going and the original involvement as director of Guillermo del Toro, who ultimately stepped aside but retains co-screenplay credit along with Jackson and the latter’s Rings partners Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens. At first announced as a two-part franchise, it then became three, following the lead of the Harry Potter and Twilight saga to split stories into the maximum number of movies to fill fans’ cravings and the financial coffers.
Then there is the technical innovation of Jackson’s decision to film not only in 3D but in 48 frames per second, double the standard number. The results are interesting and will be much-debated, but an initial comparison of the two formats weighs against the experiment; the print shown at Warner Bros. In what is being referred to as “high frame rate 3D,” while astounding in some of the huge spectacle scenes, predominantly looked like ultra-vivid television video, paradoxically lending the movie a strangely theatrical look, especially in the cramped interior sequences in Bilbo Baggins’ home. For its part, the 24 fps 3D version had a nicer, particularly more textured image quality.
One of the reasons this The Hobbit an unexpected journey to “a land far away” is so lengthy is that Jackson has filled it out with a tremendous amount of backstory relevant to the characters at hand. In doing so, he is able to deliver a titanic opening battle scene, one in which a wealthy ancient kingdom of dwarves together with the Lonely Mountain is decimated by menacing giant trolls. One of the only survivors is Thorin, the heir to the throne, whose attempt to reclaim the kingdom will occupy the thrust of the tale.
But first, there is the hokey business of introducing the motley gang of knights who will undertake this challenging task: 13 dwarves, led by Thorin (Richard Armitage), whose facial hair looks more imposing than their musculature and are guided by the towering wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen, back for another tour of Middle-earth), who approaches the mild-mannered Bilbo (Martin Freeman) to propose that he “share in an adventure,” the nature of which is unfamiliar to the pointy-eared stay-at-home.
The amount of uninvited guests make themselves right at home in Bilbo’s warm underground abode, making short work of his food and drink and in every way behaving presumptuously. A little of their dwarf talk goes a long way, and a moviemaker intent on getting his show on the road would have dispensed with this repast in half the time or less; it’s not as if there’s going to be puzzles on the identities of each dwarf before the quest can proceed. Some of Jackson’s blocking, settings and compositions in this long introduction are completely clunky, in the service of particular lame japes and gags.
More backstory fighting footage spikes things up again as the long adventure starts in earnest. A first glimpse of what the little guys are up against comes in the form of three huge trolls, who make off with a couple of ponies to devour and indulge in a Cockney-flavored Three Stooges routine as they prepare to roast the dwarves for a treat. Also, we can have a glimpse of the dreaded Necromancer, who looks just alike to the video sensation Slender Man.
In terms of length, the sojourners come to Rivendell, home of Gandalf’s fellow Elf Lord Elrond (Hugo Weaving) and, in guest starring, Queen Galadriel (a returning Cate Blanchett) and Saruman (Christopher Lee). If the cave filled with gold that is protected by the dragon Smaug is to be penetrated, Gandalf and the dwarves need both the best maps and a key, with which they get help at this point.
But the way waiting beyond turns increasingly treacherous, what with mountains that weirdly come alive as heaps of rock that fight one another in heaving slow motion; the malignant Gollum (the again brilliant Andy Serkis, in eye-bulging Peter Lorre mode), who brings Bilbo into a winner-take-all riddle battle; and, quite scarily, repulsive trolls who give chase on ferocious, wolf-like wargs and corner the dwarves in a forest at the edge of a cliff in an undeniably thrilling, action-packed climax.
It takes Jackson quite a while to grow a head of steam, but he brings the goods in this last stretch, which is coupled by the hitherto ineffectual Bilbo beginning to come into his own as a character. One of Tolkien’s most brilliant strategies in writing The Hobbit and organizing it to attract both youngsters and adults over the years was making Bilbo a childlike grown-up who matures and believes that responsibilities he originally perceives are beyond him. Freeman, who initially appears bland playing the character, gradually grows into the part, giving hope that the character will continue to bloom in the two forthcoming movies.
The dwarves are quite exchangeable, yet Armitage has a solid bearing as the royal heir and doesn’t emphasize the character’s self-important pomposity too much. There’s nothing McKellen can do to amaze anymore as the ever-imposing Gandalf, but his presence is as making sure to the viewers as it is necessary for the dwarf warriors.
And about the production values, The Hobbit is comparable to what Jackson and his crew have achieved on the Rings outings; he has come together with such vital trilogy collaborators as cinematographer Andrew Lesnie, production designer Dan Hennah (supervising art director and set decorator on the Rings) and many of effects artists and technicians from his Weta shop. Because of technological advances and the 3D technology, in some manners the new movie moves beyond into new territory, and there assuredly will be more spectacle in the next two films, which will be subtitled The Hobbit The Desolation of Smaug and The Hobbit There and Back Again (the subtitle of Tolkien’s entire book).