I was ready to be underwhelmed by The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Nearly a decade after The Return of the King, director Peter Jackson hasn't merely adapted J.R.R. Tolkien's novel into a breezy supplement to his epic Lord of the Rings trilogy. No, the madman from New Zealand decided to split that relatively slender children's story into another trilogy. Do you realize what that means?
Three more movies. At least nine more hours, probably more. Who knows how many interminable scenes of hobbits, dwarves, and the ragtag band of Middle-earth's finest walking... walking... walking toward a mountain far off in the distance. All of this, from an imaginative bit of juvenile fantasy that famously inspired a richer, more intricate, wildly more impressive story.
The Hobbit: MartinFreeman
(Photo by James Fisher)
These were the things I was thinking about when I sat down to watch The Hobbit. Yet, before a sword was unsheathed or a single arrow nocked, this movie beamed with Jackson's geeky enthusiasm and unassailable confidence. With just a few glimpses of the Shire, I was convinced that this wild idea could work. After a few more minutes passed, I was hooked. Rather than disappoint, The Hobbit delights.
This much is certain, however: Despite functional similarities, this is not The Lord of the Rings. The Hobbit is a lighter, simpler story without much of the tension that leant Jackson's earnest direction the gravitas he needed to successfully take on Tolkien's masterpiece. It's just as lovely -- and at times, even defter with its execution of humor -- but it doesn't entirely earn the dramatic urgency it apes from its predecessors.
The fault mostly lies in the narrative itself. Remember Bilbo Baggins, that nasty-looking old hobbit who buggers around before leaving the One Ring to his nephew? Well, this movie's about him. Sixty years before Frodo goes off on a long walk to Mount Doom, Gandalf (Ian McKellen) recruits Bilbo (the brilliantly cast Martin Freeman) into an adventure of his own. The wizard and hobbit team up with 13 dwarves on a quest to kill Smaug, a dragon who hoarded unfathomable amounts of gold after savaging their ancient city. Along the way -- or, at least as far as they get in the opening round of this trilogy -- this unlikely company butts heads with elves, clashes with goblins, and faces down bloodthirsty orcs who hope to kill Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), the leader among them and the heir to the dwarf kingdom's throne.
Yes, it's that kind of movie. Were you really expecting something else?
Of course, The Lord of the Rings was far from subtle, too. Like most fantasy epics, it didn't need to be. Jackson's brilliance, however, was making that first trilogy accessible. Sure, he alluded to many of Tolkien's elaborate details with a bevy of visual cues, but he never did it at the expense of the story his movies told. Infamously, for example, he even cut a beloved character named Tom Bombadil from The Fellowship of the Ring. (Not that I'm still sore about it or anything. Jerk.) That sort of sensible exposition is difficult to spot in The Hobbit. Characters, new and old alike, appear for reasons unknown, only to drop additional elements into an untidy plot. The sheer amount of detail Jackson crams into 169 minutes borders on the gratuitous. To put it another way, this adaptation loves its source material too much.
Against difficult odds, Jackson made an admirable movie that adds a pleasant chapter to his Middle-earth catalog. Despite a cloying palette of vivid pastel colors, it manages to look downright gorgeous. Jackson's much-maligned decision to film The Hobbit at 48 frames per second, double the Hollywood standard, produces ultra-clear images that don't look too "real." In fact, 48p's crisp appearance makes it an ideal complement to today's oft-muddled 3D filming techniques. Unfortunately, an uncanny smoothness undermines that revolutionary definition during the movie's bright action sequences.
The bottom line? If you're a fan of Tolkien's fantasy, you'll enjoy The Hobbit. And if you're not, remember this: There's only two more of these damned things left.