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In The Hobbit An Unexpected Journey, Peter Jackson’s adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien’s first Middle-earth fantasy novel, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) sets out with the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and a posse of dwarfs to battle a fearsome dragon. (Spoiler alert!) They do not kill the dragon, though (spoiler alert) they will eventually, within the next 18 months or so, since (spoiler alert) this Hobbit, which clocks in at (migraine alert) 170 minutes, is the first installment in (movie critic suicide-watch alert) a trilogy.
What’s that old saying so memorably garbled by a recent president? Fool me twice — won’t get fooled again! This is not to say that Mr. Jackson is a con man. On the contrary: He is a visionary, an entrepreneur, a job creator in his native New Zealand. And his Lord of the Rings movies, the last of which opened nine years ago, remain a mighty modern gesamtkunstwerk, a grand Wagnerian blend of pop-culture mythology and digital magic now available for easy, endless viewing in your living room.
The Lord of the Rings was the work of a filmmaker perfectly in tune with his source material. Its too-muchness — the encyclopedic detail, the pseudoscholarly exposition, the soaring allegory, the punishing length — was as much a product of Tolkien’s literary sensibility as of Mr. Jackson’s commitment to cinematic maximalism. These were three movies to rule them all, and they built up an imaginary world of remarkable complexity and coherence. This voyage, which takes place 60 years before Frodo’s great quest, is not nearly as captivating.
Part of this has to do with tone. The Rings trilogy, much of which was written during World War II, is a dark, monumental epic of Good and Evil in conflict, whereas The Hobbit, first published in 1937 (and later revised), is a more lighthearted book, an adventure story whose comical and fairy-tale elements are very much in the foreground.
The equally playfulness of the book could have made this Hobbit film a lot of fun, but over the years Mr. Jackson appears to have shed most of the exuberant, gleefully obnoxious whimsy that can be found in early installments like “Meet the Feebles” and “Dead Alive.” A trace of his impish old spirit resides in some of the creature designs in The Hobbit — especially a gelatinous and huge Great Goblin and an encampment of cretinous, Three-Stooges-ish trolls — but Tolkien’s inventive, episodic story of a modest homebody on a risky journey has been turned into an overscale and plodding spectacle.
Also, I’m not trying to be pedantic or anything, but The Hobbit is just one book, and its expansion into three films seems arbitrary and mercenary. This movie takes Bilbo and the company, led by the exiled dwarf king Thorin (Richard Armitage), son of Thrain, through a series of encounters with orcs, elves, trolls and other creatures, some more threatening or more charming than others. The only character who manages to be a bit of both is the incomparable Gollum, once again incarnated by Andy Serkis in what remains an unmatched feat of computer-assisted performance.
The meeting between Bilbo and Gollum, which takes place in a vast, watery subterranean cavern, is the one fully enchanted piece of An Unexpected Journey. It’s a hilarious, haunting and curiously touching moment that brings the audience to a state of silent, eager attentiveness. Even if you aren’t aware of the apocalyptic importance of Gollum’s precious ring, you feel that a lot is at stake here: Bilbo’s life and integrity; Gollum’s corroded soul; the fate of Middle-earth itself.
If only some of that feeling lasted in the rest of the film. There are, of course, plenty of shots of noble characters turning their eyes portentously toward the horizon, and much talk of honor, betrayal and the rightful sovereignty of dwarfs over their dragon-occupied mountain. However, it all appears extremely hollow, perhaps since the post- Lord of the Rings decade has seen a flood of lavish and self-serious fantasy-movie sagas. We have heard so many strange proper names intoned in made-up tongues, seen so many embodiments of pure evil rise and fall and witnessed so many fine British actors in beards and flowing robes that we may be too jaded for The Hobbit, despite its noble pedigree.
But I don’t mean to blame the cultural situation for the specific failings of the movie, which rises to weary, belated mediocrity entirely on its own steam. Jackson has embraced what may be referred to as theme-park-ride cinema, the basic style of commercially anxious, creatively impoverished 3D filmmaking. The action sequences are exercises in empty, hectic kineticism, with very little sense of peril or surprise. Characters go hurtling down chutes and crumbling mountainsides or else exert themselves in dreadful battles with tons of roaring, rampaging pixels.
It seems harder and harder to bring any real novelty or excitement to this kind of thing, though it is not clear how much Mr. Jackson really tries. (“Giants! Stone giants!” someone yells, and a couple of mountains dutifully slug it out.) When the first rush of a chase or a skirmish dissipates, you are left with the slightly ripped-off sensation of having been here before, but with different outfits, in a Pirates of the Caribbean film or Clash of the Titans.
And near the end, when gigantic birds arrive to pull The Hobbit out of the squall and muck of exhausting combat, your pleasure at this soaring aerial tour of New Zealand may be accompanied by a shrug of recognition, as the flight plan retraces the routes of Avatar and How to Train Your Dragon.
The Hobbit hits the theaters in both standard 3D and in a new, 48-frames-per-second format, which elevates the images to a near hallucinatory level of clarity. This is most impressive and also most jarring at the beginning, when a jolly dwarf invasion of Bilbo’s home turns into a riot of gluttonous garden gnomes.
Over all, the stunning ultra-reality robs Middle-earth of some of its mystical, archaic atmosphere, making the film turn into a gaudy high-definition tourist attraction. But of course it will soon be overrun with eager travelers, many of whom are likely to find the journey less of an adventure than they had expected.