Well, Peter Jackson is no George Lucas, I'm happy to report, and his new Middle-earth prequel is no Phantom Menace. But the movie is a disappointment, and not only because it fails to equal the grand achievement of Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy of a decade ago. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey wanders and slumps and generally fails to engage. It's a welcome entrant in the annual holiday box-office scrum – big and busy and often beautiful to look at. But it's not what you might have been expecting, or hoping for.
First of all, at nearly three hours, the movie is just too long—especially since it's only the first installment of what is now being inflated into a new trilogy. J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings books, which ran to more than a thousand pages, fully warranted a three-part movie of more than nine hours. However, Tolkien's 1937 novel, The Hobbit, or There and Back Again—his introductory exploration of Middle-earth mythology—is only about 300 pages long. Jackson has pumped up this slender tale with about 150 pages' worth of additional material from the Return of the King appendices, and it sometimes feels like padding.
The story involves another quest, of course—the one that's alluded to in the Rings films, which were set 60 years after the events in this one. The quest here is once again organized by the wandering wizard Gandalf (a returning Ian McKellen), who once again recruits an unlikely Hobbit, the young Bilbo Baggins, to take part. Bilbo, who was played as an old man by Ian Holm in the earlier pictures, is here incarnated as a youth by Martin Freeman. Freeman is a star in Britain, and best-known here at the moment for his up-to-date Dr. Watson in the excellent BBC TV series, Sherlock. He is an actor of warm, cheery appeal, and he is not one of the movie's problems.
But there is also a fellowship here, and this is a problem. The quest is to be in aid of 13 dwarves, who seek to regain control of their homeland, Erebor, which has been invaded and occupied by a fiery dragon called Smaug. The dwarves are distinguished mainly by their complicated beards; apart from their king, Thorin (sternly played by Richard Armitage), they never quite register as individual characters, and soon become a blur. We meet them when they are summoned to Bilbo's cozy Hobbit-hole. Here they pillage Bilbo's well-stocked larder for a long night of feasting, drinking and singing—a sequence that goes on far longer than necessary. Finally, with Bilbo roped in, they all set off on the long journey to Erebor.
Now we're once again treated to long helicopter shots of the craggy, snow-capped mountains of Jackson's native New Zealand, and they're as glorious as ever. So is the ravishing elf haven of Rivendell, still bathed in the golden light that so strongly recalls the work of Maxfield Parrish. The new fellowship stops off at Rivendell to seek counsel from some familiar characters: the elf king Elrond (Hugo Weaving), the mind-reading Lady Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), and the white wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee), who at this point has not yet gone to the dark side. After an all-too-brief and not especially encouraging consultation (a darkness is falling over Middle-earth), the fellowship moves on.
Set-piece adventures soon begin to accumulate. There's a lively but tediously extended encounter with a trio of Cockney trolls who seek to roast the dwarves on a spit over their crackling campfire. There's also a rampaging attack by evil Orcs mounted on slavering Wargs, never a welcome sight. Unfortunately, the lead beastie here, a character called Azog (Manu Bennett), pales in fearsomeness compared to the snarling Uruk-hai of the Rings films. Equally unfortunate is the appearance of a mushroom-fuddled wizard called Radagast the Brown, who zips about in a sledge pulled by rabbits. It would be overstating things to call Radagast the Jar Jar Binks of the movie, but he's rather sillier than would seem entirely necessary. We also get a great wattly goblin, a CGI battle between two towering rock monsters, and a misty passing shot of a sinister character called the Necromancer (wordlessly played by Freeman's Sherlock costar, Benedict Cumberbatch), who will loom much larger in future installments of the story.
The movie's high point is the legendary meeting, in a vast dripping cavern, of Bilbo and the wretched Gollum (Andy Serkis), possessor and victim of the magical Ring that was at the center of the previous trilogy. Gollum continues to set the standard for digital performance-capture, and Serkis is once again brilliant in the role, all devious wheedling and spiraling, half-mad rants. As Gollum and Bilbo engage in a high-stakes riddling contest, we are reminded of what a virtuoso filmmaker Jackson is, and we wish that there were more such perfectly constructed scenes in the picture.
The Hobbit's overriding flaw is technological. As everyone is by now aware, the movie was shot in 3D at 48 frames per second—twice the frame rate that has been standard in films for the last 80 years. This pictorial strategy is not exactly new—special-effects master Douglas Trumbull devised a system for shooting at 60 frames per second some 30 years ago, although at the time no one wanted to know. High-frame-rate filming may be the future of big-budget movies. (James Cameron has already announced he'll be shooting his Avatar sequel at either 48 or 60 frames per second.) At the moment, though, 48fps is a considerable annoyance. The intention of doubling the amount of visual information in this film was to provide enhanced resolution—an unprecedented clarity and crispness. This goal is certainly achieved; but the result, especially on interior sets, is to give the images a Blu-ray sheen that may put you in mind of your home sofa and big-screen TV. As for the 3D component, that may be a matter of taste at this point. The Rings films hardly suffered for lacking it (although 3D retrofitting is now being contemplated for that original trilogy), and the problem of the light-dimming glasses persists.
Jackson's next two Hobbit movies could be terrific—the man is a protean craftsman, and it's hard to imagine this series getting anything but better. It's off to a shaky start, though.