A couple of years ago when Peter Jackson announced that Guillermo del Toro would be grabbing the reigns of The Lord of the Rings franchise, I was excited. I wanted to see Middle Earth through the lens of del Toro’s camera. Jackson deserves credit for crafting an ambitious, epic set of movies; however, unlike a lot of movie goers, I felt underwhelmed. Compared with Jackson’s earlier efforts, The Lord of the Rings trilogy came across as visually bland and devoid of character. I found the films to be bleak and filled to the brim with self indulgent shots of faceless CGI armies slamming into each other. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, on the other hand, is a smaller, more intimate story, and Guillermo del Toro generally excels at breathing life into those types of stories. Unfortunately, Jackson ended up back in the director’s chair, and his adaptation of The Hobbit is more of the same. For better or worse, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey turned out to be exactly what I expected it to be.
Everyone should be familiar with the general outline of Tolkien’s The Hobbit by now. At the insistence of the wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen), young halfling Bilbo Baggins sets out with a ragtag band of dwarves to reclaim a vast treasure from the clutches of a fire breathing dragon; along the way, he picks up a magical ring that serves as the catalyst for The Lord of the Rings trilogy. It’s a simple, straightforward narrative that could easily be condensed down into a thrilling three hour movie.
But this is Peter Jackson we’re talking about; the same self-indulgent Peter Jackson who took three hours to retell Merian C. Cooper’s 1 hour and 40 minute King Kong. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is the first movie in a Hobbit trilogy. Yes, trilogy. Somehow Peter Jackson has managed to turn a brief novel into a nine hour epic even though the source material contains one-third the story of The Lord of the Rings.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey sits at nearly three hours, and yet the characters in this movie don’t even make it halfway to the damned dragon. Jackson accomplishes this feat by filling the entire production with tons of needless exposition, back story, and musical numbers. No material is too extraneous or pointless to end up on the cutting room floor. Every brain fart the writers had while concocting the script ends up on the screen. Jackson is clearly too in love with his voice to edit anything, and having reached the same rarified air as George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, nobody around him apparently has the guts to tell him when he’s wrong. The end result is a plodding three hours where nothing much happens.
On the positive side, however, the casting is reliable and the production values are lavish. Actor Martin Freeman makes for a brilliant protagonist. Having read Tolkien’s books in my teenage years, I always preferred the character of Bilbo Baggins to Frodo. He was a more forceful, proactive character as opposed to the weary, burdened, almost passive Frodo. Martin Freeman provides a leading performance that is at once comical and heartfelt, capturing the nervous energy and heroism of the young hobbit. The actors playing the dwarves are suitably brusque, Ian McKellen is his usual reliable self as Gandalf, and Andy Serkis once again gives a memorable performance as the twisted Gollum.
In reviews lambasting this movie, much has been made over Jackson’s decision to shoot the film at 48 frames per second. With only a few exceptions, films are shot at 24 fps. Jackson claimed that the switch in formats here would lead to a crisper, cleaner picture. Detractors argue that the director is right, but the crisper picture only emphasizes the flaws in the movie. Some have gone so far as to unflatteringly compare the cinematography of Jackson’s epic to that of a bad ‘70s soap opera. I’m inclined to think, however, that those comparisons amount to hyperbole.
I understand that not all theaters are running The Hobbit at 48 fps; that some are only running the film at 24 fps. It’s entirely possible that the particular film I watched was being run at 24 fps. Further, I’m half blind myself, and I have to wear my 3D glasses over my regular, glasses. That said, I found the 3D cinematography of The Hobbit to be clear and gorgeous. The increased framerate allowed motion and action to be captured with greater clarity, and the painstakingly crafts props, costumes, makeup, and sets all stood up against the increased scrutiny of 48 fps. I’m willing to retract my statement if it turns out that I only caught the film at 24 fps, but at the moment, I can only say that The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey appears no less majestic than its predecessors.
No, my only issue with Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Hobbit is that it was exactly what I was expecting: a long-winded, self-indulgent affair that contains flashes of brilliance. When something actually happens, the movie is magical and exhilarating. However, like its predecessors, The Hobbit is composed mostly of shots of a band of adventurers tromping across the wilds of New Zealand. I may not be surprised that Peter Jackson is taking nine hours to adapt a three hundred page novel, but I still hoped for better.