Now available on DVD, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” sets up as the first of a three-part prequel to director/writer/producer Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, with the rest of the features due out in successive years. As envisioned, the whole will occupy nearly nine hours of screen time. Even the hardiest fan of J.R.R. Tolkien’s popular tales may be daunted, if this first one out of the box is any indication. It is long—make that looooonnnnggg—on spectacle, stretching what might have been an impressive movie into one with several engaging intervals but in serious need of editing.
For a non-reader of Tolkien like me, the film’s opening forty-five minutes provide some clarifying exposition. (They also contain a cameo appearance by Elijah Wood, a.k.a. Frodo Baggins, hero of the first three films.) Here, an older Bilbo, Frodo’s cousin, is played by Ian Holm, in another brief cameo. He is writing the full story of his earlier adventures, which begin with “an unexpected journey” that tears him out of his comfy Hobbit-hole and its bourgeois pleasures.
These first scenes comprise a back story about Erebor and its loss 60 years before the journey to a gold-loving dragon named Smaug. The fallen king’s grandson, Thorin (Richard Armitage), has sworn revenge. So when Gandalf the Grey Wizard tells him of various portents that the time has come, Thorin and his motley band of dwarves meet up at Bilbo’s to convince him that all they need is a burglar to complete their troupe. In the process, they pillage his larder and, basically, turn him off. Adventures are, to his mind, “nasty, disturbing things” that can make you late for dinner.
Still, Bilbo (Martin Freeman) eventually signs a contract that promises him a share of the booty, and off they set. From this pleasant, mildly comical—if overdone—opening, the movie devolves into a rather standard fantasy thriller, full of battles, monsters, cliffhangers, narrow escapes, heroic rescues, and unlikely outcomes. Much of the visual action is mind-bogglingly gorgeous: Jackson’s having filmed at 48 frames per second instead of the standard 24 imparts a wealth of detail uncommon to the average film going experience. How that will play out on the small screen is problematic.
But it does go on—and on—each episode proving that too much of a good thing is still too much. A peaceful interlude in elfin land affords some brief appearances by Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett, and Christopher Lee—yes, he is still alive, and the only member of this cast to have met Tolkien!—all of whom are familiar from the earlier films. The most welcome reprisal of a role, though, is that of Gollum, the split personality creature who prizes a gold ring all too dearly. The wonderful Andy Serkis again inhabits this twisted body and mind, his work technically enhanced by motion capture technology. The scene in which Bilbo outwits Gollum and, accidentally, captures the ring is far and away the most dramatic in the movie, as well as its quietest and most intimate.
There are some other clever moments amongst the overkill: I particularly enjoyed one where Bilbo helps his fellows escape the clutches and maws of three trolls who call to mind the Three Stooges. Freeman is consistently watchable, his Bilbo gaining in courage almost despite himself and McKellen is, well, McKellen, a theatrical force still going strong at 74.
“The Hobbit,” originally conceived as a children’s bedtime story, is now a “PG-13” movie which I can’t recommend for subteens, as it’s chock full of fearsome monsters and no little realistic blood and gore, summed up as “intense fantasy action violence.” Even adults may find themselves a bit wearied by the battle scenes, cinematically inventive as they may be.