There’s a question I’ve been asking all year: is Peter Jackson disappearing up his own ass? After the triumph of The Lord of the Rings, Jackson found more success with his strong remake of King Kong, but many questioned whether or not King Kong really needed to be a three-hour epic. When Jackson’s garish, wrongheaded adaptation of The Lovely Bones came out, many wondered whether or not he had forgotten how to tell a smaller story. Now comes the long-expected Lord of the Rings prequel The Hobbit…or rather, An Unexpected Journey, the first part in a trilogy based on the shortest of J.R.R. Tolkien’s most famous books, and just as I’ve feared, film point to a talented filmmaker not knowing what to cut or how to tell a coherent story anymore.
Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), an unassuming Hobbit in the Shire, is visited one night by thirteen dwarves and a wizard by the name of Gandalf (Ian McKellen, reprising his Oscar-nominated Rings role). The dwarves are traveling to Erebor, the old dwarf kingdom, which was taken over years ago by the dragon Smaug. The company convinces Bilbo to come with them as a burglar in spite of the perils ahead of them, including a trio of flesh-eating trolls, a group of Orcs with a grudge against the dwarves’ leader, and the twisted creature Gollum (Andy Serkis, also reprising his role), from whom Bilbo steals a rather peculiar ring.
The good news here is that no one should expect a dull disaster on the level of the Star Wars prequels. If nothing else, Jackson’s instinct as a director of spectacle remain intact. The last third of the film, with its nonstop Orc battles, is frequently exciting, particularly regarding a late battle that tests Bilbo’s courage. Freeman is reliably strong as Bilbo, as is Richard Armitage as the dwarf king Thorin. Freeman is particularly strong in the film's best scene, a game of riddles between Bilbo and Gollum. And while Jackson’s relies more on CGI than practical effects, some of the creatures designs (particularly a nasty character called the Great Goblin) recall the giddy grossness of early Jackson features like Dead Alive.
But Jackson’s gifts as a storyteller have atrophied, or otherwise his editor isn’t doing his job. There’s just not enough material in The Hobbit to stretch it out into three movies, and there’s too much marking time here. The film gets off to a particularly bad start with an unnecessary framing device involving an older Bilbo (Ian Holm) writing his story, which is only there to tie into The Lord of the Rings and bring back Elijah Wood’s Frodo for a distracting cameo. Nor are the flashbacks to Smaug’s conquering of Erebor necessary, nor the pointless comic relief character Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy, who seems to be covered in bird shit). And while the dinner at Bilbo’s house could be rather charming, Jackson’s comedic timing is off, and the scene goes on far too long and breaks out into song twice (one song is haunting, the other irritating).
What’s even worse is when he tries too hard to throwback to The Lord of the Rings, as he does in unnecessary expository scenes where Gandalf insists to other Lord of the Rings characters (Christopher Lee, Cate Blanchett, and Hugo Weaving making distracting cameos) that just maybe the Rings villain Sauron is coming back. Jackson is going for the same sense of epic scale that he had with the Rings movies, but that approach is entirely wrong-headed. He has bloated a simple children’s story into something ungainly, losing the thread of the story and the character development, and he's broken the first part off at an unnatural conclusion. Most of this probably could have been saved had someone told Jackson that he’d already proven he was a great world creator, that he didn’t need to further prove it by cramming all things Tolkien into the film, and that he should instead just get to the point.
NOTE: Jackson filmed The Hobbit at 48 fps, double the frame rate most films are shot on, to give the film a greater realism. It has only been released into select theatres, usually in 3D. And it looks like absolute garbage, like an expensive soap opera or a high definition television with the settings turned on wrong. Every character’s movements make something else seem blurry, and while Jackson’s gift with the camera is still obviously strong, the high frame rate makes an often beautiful movie look cheap. Go to your listings or ask your theatre if they’ve got the regular frame rate in 2D instead.