How do you top the Lord of the Rings trilogy? The answer seems to be: with quantity. The medium-length novel The Hobbit is now apparently going to inspire more hours of big-screen film than any comparably-sized book ever.
Originally scheduled as one film, then two, and now three, J.R.R. Tolkien’s 1937 juvenile fantasy book, which begins 60 years before The Fellowship of the Ring, finally comes to the screen after decades of legal disputes, in a bloated two hour and fifty minute production that left me thinking: So what?
It’s not that the movie is bad, exactly. It has as many magical creatures and thrilling battle scenes as you could want. Its special effects are seamless and amazing. It’s just that its structure takes on a numbing, repetitive feel. After nearly an hour of preliminaries, the title little guy Bilbo Baggins, played by Martin Freeman; Gandalf the Grey, played by Ian McKellan; and their associated band of 13 dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield, played by Richard Armitage, head off to fight for the lost dwarf kingdom of Erebor, which has been terrorized by a dragon called Smaug.
So it’s march, battle, discuss the next stage, repeat. For nearly three hours, at the conclusion of which our band of friends spies their destination in the distance, which they figure to reach only after another five and a half hours of such slogging.
Bilbo, the uncle of Frodo (Elijah Wood), is the character through whom we first encounter the One Ring to Rule Them All, in a scene where he meets Gollum (Andy Serkis) that is among the creepiest and most compelling in the film. Bilbo is a mild-mannered little hobbit who had no interest in adventure when a sudden visit from the wizard Gandalf was quickly followed by the unwelcome intrusion of the 13 rambunctious dwarves sworn to repel the dragon from their homeland. Bilbo, tapped by Gandalf to be the “burglar” of this adventure, is at first not interested, but being dismissed as unadventurous seems to bring out the daredevil in him. Bilbo grows as the film goes on, outwitting Gollum for “the precious” and gradually turning into an unexpected, if quiet and mild-mannered, action hero.
But the many battles with orcs and trolls and goblins seem redundant after the ten or so hours of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. They don’t have nearly the impact of the war scenes in the earlier films, particularly the magnificent ones in the final installment. And in The Hobbit, the many episodes of comic relief (such as a lengthy scene in which trolls threaten to eat our heroes but are easily defeated by a blast of sunlight) are awful, and there are even a couple of musical numbers that could have been cut without anyone protesting. It’s hard not to get the sense that director Peter Jackson is milking the clock in order to sucker the public into spending another $3 billion or so on what was originally a modest little children’s story that Tolkien didn’t even intend to publish. Only the first six chapters of Tolkien’s 19-chapter book are covered in this film.
Worse, for technical reasons Jackson chose to make the 3-D movie at 48 frames per second rather than the usual 24, which is supposed to allow him to speed things up but leads to oddly jerky character movements. Some early viewers have reported being nauseated by this new technique (though the 2-D version is being shown in 24 frames per second). Moreover, Jackson has overcompensated for the sometimes dim nature of 3-D film by over-lighting everything, and the expensively-wrought images may remind you of a modestly-budgeted TV production — a look that is more I Claudius than Game of Thrones. To say the least, this is a disappointing detail in a movie for which you may be paying as much as $20 a ticket.
Mainly The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey seems aimed at obsessives who (without cracking a book) want to know exactly how Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), Saruman (Christopher Lee) and Elrond (Hugo Weaving) first enter the story, but then again, how many people do you know who came out of The Return of the King demanding answers to these questions? The Hobbit should have been subtitled, An Unexpected Chore.
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