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Enter The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, and you are entering the realm of a mad scientist. This would be the lair of Peter Jackson, who mounted in a the Lord of the Rings trilogy an adaptation of sterling fantasy craftsmanship, breaking box office records and earning seventeen Oscars for the series. After straying a bit into the visions of others -- King Kong, The Lovely Bones -- Jackson has returned to J.R.R. Tolkienn’s Middle Earth in his adaptation of The Hobbit, the slimmer predecessor of the Rings stories. But in a move that reeks of studio avarice and arrogance, Jackson and his gang have split Hobbit up into three parts. Journey is, at nearly, three hours, merely the first part of a bloated, self-indulgent package. The title character of Bilbo Baggins may be but one small being, but if Journey is any indication, Jackson has created a series far too big around him – one likely to buckle under the weight of its own pretension.
Many of the massive crew, in addition to some of the cast, returns from Rings. An older Bilbo, still played by Ian Holm, narrates to grandson Frodo (Elijah Wood), about sixty years prior, when Gandalf conscripts him to join thirteen dwarves on their way to reclaim Erebor, a once-thriving dwarf kingdom conquered by the dragon Smaug, who sits in wait atop a castle full of treasure. And Elrond (Hugo Weaving ), Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), and Saruman (Christopher Lee), make brief appearances for those who need more of a tie to the more-exciting Rings films. Gollum (computer-animated from a performance by Andy Serkis) also reappears. Or should I say, makes his first appearance, chronologically speaking? Either way, more about that later.
The rest of the cast, which includes Martin Freeman as the younger Bilbo and Richard Armitage as prickly dwarf leader Thorin, are new. And if I were them, I would be more than a little peeved that they got the short end of the stick, story-wise. Hobbit is a filmic lab experiment, and falls victim to Jackson’s egoism in ways that make it bloated, episodic, and visually straining. Part of the problem is that the source material was lighter. Hobbit as a book, was a light reflection on the triumph of the spirit and of the might of the little people. The Rings books, published during World War II, were more reflective of their time period. Stakes were higher, the vision was darker, and Jackson was able to reflect that those themes appropriately with the grandeur of his trilogy.
Size, unfortunately matters for Hobbit, though not in the ways you might think. Had the adaptation (credited to Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Guillermo del Toro, a new member of this filmmaking fellowship) been done in one film, it would most certainly have been a breathtakingly kinetic sight from start to finish. Instead, each of the film’s chapters feels like forever. And the movie’s high frame resolution, delivering 48 frames per second, means that viewers are watching over five-and-a-half hours’ worth of information – does no storytelling favors. The film is boring and the excessive touches highlight the fakery of it all. The movie begins to resemble the live-to-tape sensibility of early soap operas, resembling 1970s Doctor Who more than anything else. Yes, the technical wizardry on display – inclusive of Jabez Olssen’s editing, Howard Shore’s score, Andrew Lesnie’s cinematography and the effects team at the Weta Workshop – is still pristine, but it is all in service of an abortive mission. The experience looks effortful, but Hobbit is an adventure saga – it should remain playful!
And then there’s Gollum. The tortured man-child who provided the heart of the Rings films is the only element that provides any semblance of beating pulse to Hobbit. Unfortunately, it takes two full hours just to get there. Andy Serkis’ performance, captured and grafted onto a computer animated likeness, continues to be a beacon of great skill, and marks the only moment of real dramatic tension thanks to both Freeman and Serkis. Watching their sequence, one thinks about how all the impressive technological advancements in filmmaking don’t amount to a hill of beans if there isn’t something expressive and visceral lurking underneath. Maybe that will change the closer these hobbits, dwarves and wizards get to Smaug. As for the first installment, though, there’s just not enough there there. Hobbit will no doubt become a cash cow, but it comes at great creative cost.