Movie review: ‘The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey’


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FILE - This publicity file photo released by Warner Bros., shows the character Gollum, voiced by Andy Serkis, in a scene from the fantasy adventure "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." Filmmaker Peter Jackson's decision to shoot his epic three-part J.R.R. Tolkien prequel in the super-clear format that boosts the number of frames per second to 48 from the current standard, 24, has some unintended consequences. (AP photo)

As a work of literature, “The Hobbit” is not “The Lord of the Rings,” but Peter Jackson does his best to erase the distinctions.

Who can blame him? Jackson’s epic, three-part “Lord of the Rings” was the first great achievement of 21st century cinema. Audiences might feel let down if he faithfully adapted J.R.R. Tolkien’s relatively modest and more whimsical prelude, published as a children’s book in 1937.

Jackson, who has become more indulgent since his “Lord of the Rings” success, probably has gone overboard. His version of “The Hobbit” originally was planned as two films, but he announced only months ago he had filmed enough material for a third film. The first film, subtitled “An Unexpected Journey,” is nearly three hours long. If Jackson sticks to this running time he will devote in excess of eight hours to a novel that is merely 255 pages long.

“Journey,” which covers the book’s first 100 pages, is entertaining enough. The second film will deal with Smaug the dragon, so I have faith Jackson will make that thrilling. I have doubts about the third film, but that’s two years away so why worry about it now?

The installment before us now is fun, though more than a little trying. In the set-up, reclusive hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman, who plays Watson on BBC’s updated “Sherlock”) is recruited for “an adventure” by the wizard Gandalf (the returning Ian McKellen, whose presence is a gift). Bilbo declines the invitation, as adventures “make you late for dinner.”

Nevertheless, Bilbo is soon in the company of 13 unruly dwarves who wish to reclaim their distant kingdom from Smaug. The dwarves are led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), whom Jackson and fellow screenwriters Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro have reshaped into a soulful, haunted warrior in the mold of Viggo Mortensen’s Aragorn.

From the opening moments we know we are back in Jackson’s Middle Earth. The camera sweeps over the welcoming pastoral vistas of New Zealand. Howard Shore’s score provides reassuring hugs as established themes for hobbits and Gollum play. Along with McKellen under that tall, pointy hat, all this is comforting for moviegoers who longed for a return to Middle Earth. That comfort goes a long way toward forgiving this movie’s faults.

The length is a chief complaint. While “Journey” never hits the point of dullness, Jackson often tests his audience’s patience. Many scenes run longer than they ought, as if Jackson couldn’t bear to end them. The greatest offender is longwinded prologue that brings back Ian Holm as the older Bilbo and Elijah Wood as his nephew Frodo.

Jackson extends the scope of the novel by including additional story points and characters contained in Tolkien’s many appendices. Most noticeable is a subplot featuring another wizard, Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy, onetime star of “Doctor Who). The book doesn’t offer many opportunities for massive battle sequences, so Jackson must invent reasons. He finds room for a one-armed orc leader with a vendetta against Thorin, a vendetta that will carry menace through the films.

Another bonus scene is a conference with Gandalf and fellow returnees Elrond (Hugo Weaving), Galadriel (Cate Blanchet) and Saruman (Christopher Lee). Elrond is in the book, but Galadriel and Saruman are not.

Jackson brings back these familiar faces to reinforce the links between “The Hobbit” and “Lord of the Rings.” The strongest such link is already in the novel, and it is easily the film’s best sequence. In a deep cave next to an underground lake, Bilbo encounters the pathetic but fearsome Gollum (the CGI character again played by the remarkable Andy Serkis) and steals his “precious” ring. To Bilbo, it is a magic ring that turns him invisible, but of course it turns out to be the evil “one ring to rule them all” that drives the entire “Rings” cycle.

For all the special effects razzmatazz in the flashier battle sequences, for all the marauding goblins and orcs, no moment in the film is as dazzling and no creature is as terrifying as Gollum. The encounter comes late in the film and is enough of a payoff to make you overlook the obvious padding Jackson has stuffed into the story.

A note on the look of the film, which has already generated controversy: Advances in high-definition video allowed Jackson to shoot “Journey” at 48 frames per second, twice the speed of what has been the industry standard since the end of the silent era. This process, branded as High Frame Rate, is supposed to create a sharper and more detailed image. The image instead looks cheap, like a 1970s BBC production.

I saw “Journey” in 3-D and 48 fps. The 3-D added nothing and the higher frame rate was distracting. Most theater in the suburbs will be showing “Journey” at the traditional 24 fps. To guarantee you will see it this way, choose a 2-D screening. That’s my recommendation.

Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy took us to a world never seen in movie theaters before. “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” returns us to a world that is now well worn. For that reason alone, this reasonably diverting opening chapter could never match the exhilaration of its predecessors. Anyone who hoped otherwise was expecting too much.

 “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey”

3 stars

Rated PG-13 for frightening images and extended sequences of intense fantasy action and violence

Running time: 2 hours, 49 minutes

Who’s in it: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Andy Serkis

What’s it about: The hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Freeman) joins Gandalf the wizard (McKellen) and a company of 13 dwarves in a quest to reclaim the dwarves’ homeland from an invading dragon. They encounter monstrous obstacles in the first leg of their journey.

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