Niagara Gazette — After watching director Peter Jackson’s visually engaging, but meandering “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” I wondered why a motion picture version of J. R. R. Tolkien’s novel had not been made before, especially during the so-called Golden Age of American moviemaking, which spanned the 1930s and 1940s.
In 1937, a couple of decades before the “Lord Of The Rings” trilogy was published, Tolkien created his charming fantasy, “The Hobbit,” and it’s obvious upon a reading of the relatively short book (310 pages) that it would have made a delightful film, something done perhaps by MGM or Warner Brothers, two studios that specialized in adaptations of novels. Cast a few popular stars, add some recognizable character actors, and take advantage of the vast soundstages and the ability to create a world within them, and you could have had an engaging adventure that would have told the story in perhaps a couple of hours. Both “Gone With The Wind” and “The Wizard Of Oz” were released in 1939.
Instead, Jackson, hoping to shake off the failures of his “King Kong” and “The Lovely Bones,” has returned to a familiar well and has seemingly decided to film every sentence in Tolkien’s work, creating not one, but three features, the next two parts arriving in 2013 and 2014. With “The Hobbit,” you’ve got about 100 pages of the book on screen and although devoted fans of Jackson, Tolkien, and Hobbits may relish the opportunity to revisit some favorite characters, the movie doesn’t quite have the sweep, scope and appeal of the three “Lord Of The Rings” movies.
The film is overwhelmed by exposition and a sense that it isn’t going anywhere. Well, it is and it isn’t, but clearly Jackson and his co-screenwriters Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Guillermo del Toro, have chosen to treat every sentence in the novel as sacrosanct rather than treat moviegoers to the rhythms of a smooth narrative. Del Toro was supposed to direct, but Jackson pushed him aside.
The film begins with the loss of the Kingdom of Dwarves that lies near the Lonely Mountain. Hobbits may be cute, but dwarves are messy and uncouth, and giant trolls are bloodthirsty, which means a gruesome war is part of the playbook here. So, before we get to Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), we have to watch Thorin (Richard Armitage), the heir to the dwarf throne, lose his beloved territory.
Along with a dozen other surviving dwarves, Thorin makes his way to Bilbo’s cottage, where these hairy, unkempt, and smelly uninvited guests make Bilbo’s life miserable, eating his food and trashing his home. This goes on for a tedious 40-minutes of screen time, which is much too long and does nothing to create relatable characters because it’s almost impossible to tell one dwarf from another. And none of the dwarves say anything remotely interesting.
A breath of fresh air arrives as the great wizard Gandalf The Grey (Ian McKellen) takes command and encourages Bilbo to join him and the dwarves on a quest to reclaim Thorin’s kingdom. By now, we’re about 90-minutes into the film’s 2-hour and 49-minute running time, and no amount of mountains that move, or wargs or warnings from Gollum (Andy Serkis) can make up for the lethargy of the beginning.
Eventually, the adventurers find their way to Rivendell, where Elf Lord Elrond (Hugo Weaving) is found. They’ll also encounter Queen Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), Saruman (Christopher Lee), and discover that part of the quest involves entering a vast cave full of gold that is guarded by Smaug the dragon. Of course, the band of merry dwarves needs a map and a key, and sometime next year and the year after that, the journey will be completed. The dangers of what lies ahead are obvious. So much of this movie feels like filler. A second vicious battle runs on longer than it should. Dividing the novel into three films is wrongheaded and just a bit greedy.
There are some highlights. High praise to Andrew Lesnie’s truly beautiful cinematography, and McKellen and Freeman’s ability to create characters that hold your interest.
In Western New York, the movie is available in four formats: 2D, 3D, IMAX 3D, and HFR 3D, which stands for “high frame rate.” Jackson has shot his feature at 48 frames per second. Normal is 24 frames per second. I have seen the regular 24 frames a second 3D and the HFR 3D, and the regular version is better. HFR makes some things look fake, like a soap opera shot on High-Definition video. Additionally, HFR may make some moviegoers disoriented as their eyes take time to adjust to the image that occasionally flickers, as if you are watching a silent film.
At this juncture, “The Hobbit,” which is not as engrossing as it should be, may be best strictly for true blue followers of Tolkien’s world.
Email movie reviewer Michael Calleri at firstname.lastname@example.org.