Bloated script, 3-D drag down ‘Hobbit'
Published: Friday, December 14, 2012 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, December 13, 2012 at 6:28 p.m.
Let us first pause a moment to empathize with Peter Jackson. It's likely that only George Lucas, given his experience with the “Star Wars” prequels, can understand the insane pressure and expectations Jackson is working under. “The Lord of the Rings” is one of the most beloved movie series of all time, a critical and commercial powerhouse with innumerable legions of fans worldwide. The unintended consequence of the success of LOTR is that Jackson's prequels are set up for failure; for lightning to strike twice would've been something of a cinematic miracle.
‘The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey'
Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Cate Blanchett, Richard Armitage, James Nesbitt
All right, enough dodging, let's get to it: “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” is a bit of a letdown. The movie's bloated script and the decision to shoot it in 3-D at 48 frames per second detract significantly from the experience. That said, the second half of the movie is a rousing adventure that recalls the best of LOTR, and there are several noteworthy performances and set pieces.
The decision to make “The Hobbit” — a relatively short, light work of fantasy as a novel — into an epic movie trilogy is at the root of the problems with this first entry. Jackson and his cohorts have said that they've scoured the pages of author J.R.R. Tolkien's other works and supplementary materials to flesh out the story and make this trilogy tie more directly into LOTR. This has resulted in a complete mess of a script; subplots, secondary characters and allusions are piled on so thick that the core narrative is very nearly lost in a sea of backstory and exposition.
The movie can't decide who its protagonist is. While Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) is ostensibly the center of this story (he is the titular hobbit, after all), two lengthy prologues in the first act are devoted to filling in the background of the dwarf prince Thorin (Richard Armitage).
There are also several lengthy, boring digressions on the threat from a “necromancer” (Tolkien code for “bad wizard”), a threat that's totally unrelated to Bilbo's journey. Tolkien diehards know that this is actually Sauron, the big bad from LOTR, but the decision to turn a few ancillary references in a book into a major movie subplot just drags the whole enterprise down.
It doesn't help matters that the 3-D and high frame rate are distracting at best and a major hindrance at worst. Jackson's Middle-earth is strikingly beautiful and methodically detailed, but the 3-D used to render it often makes the world look cheap; there's some added depth, but the backgrounds occasionally look like flimsy matte paintings, and some of the effects shots have an artificial look the LOTR movies never had. If you go see the movie, see it in 2-D at the normal 24 FPS frame rate.
All of this criticism may make it seem as if “The Hobbit” is a total bust, but that's not the case. The movie moves at a brisk clip when Bilbo's story is as the forefront, there are several thrilling battle and chase sequences, and the casting is solid throughout. The standout performances come from Freeman and Middle-earth veterans Ian McKellen and Andy Serkis. Freeman makes Bilbo's transition from fastidious homebody to swashbuckling adventurer believable, while both McKellen and Serkis leap back into their old roles as the wizard Gandalf and Gollum, respectively, with glee and style.
The highlight of the movie is the life-or-death riddle game between Gollum and Bilbo in the bowels of a goblin-infested mountain. The interaction between the two is note-perfect, with Bilbo desperately trying to keep his cool as Gollum alternates between menace and silliness, and Jackson masterfully ups the tension until we're just as terrified as Bilbo. It's the single scene the movie absolutely had to get right, and to its credit, the movie delivers.
There are enough good bits in “The Hobbit” to demonstrate that Jackson and his crew understand this material and what makes it appealing. It's also entirely possible that, now that all of the exposition has (hopefully) been dealt with, the next two entries will focus more on Bilbo and his adventures.
But given the outsize expectations, this first installment is in part a disappointment.
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