It’s been nine years since Peter Jackson closed out his mammoth Lord of the Rings trilogy with so many endings that I have a sneaking suspicion the movie is still going on, somewhere. A landmark achievement for fantasy fans, special effects and the New Zealand tourism industry, these were respectable films clearly borne out of a filmmaker’s passion, even though some of us heretically might have found their running times a smidge excessive. Alas, the same compliments cannot be paid for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, a bloated, entirely unneccesary cash-grab prequel suffering from a fatal case of elephantitis. Jackson and company have taken the first six chapters of J.R.R. Tolkien’s slender bedtime story and stretched them out like silly putty into a 170-minute slog that is but the first installment of a projected trilogy.
The obvious problem here is one of proportion: The Lord of the Rings took a trio of three-hour movies to adapt three separate novels that ran 1,359 pages. This follow-up series intends to lavish the same amount of time and energy on a children’s story barely a fraction of that length. I’m told these Hobbit films also feature additional material from Tolkien’s various appendices, which only adds to the numbing sensation that we’re sitting through Jackson’s painstaking depiction of every last damn word this guy ever wrote.
We return to Middle Earth with not one, but two prologues. The first involves a dwarf community chased from their Lonely Mountain home by an off-screen fire-breathing dragon, while the second offers blatant fan-service cameos from Elijah Wood and Ian Holm, awkwardly attempting to shoehorn The Hobbit into a framing device that takes place during The Fellowship of the Rings’ first scene. After much of this needless fussing about, we eventually jump back 60 years or so, and the movie’s finally allowed to start.
Martin Freeman stars as a much younger Bilbo Baggins, the fussy, set-in-his-ways Hobbit implored to embark on a great adventure by sly old wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen, slipping back into the role like a comfy sweater.) There are 13 dwarves aching to reclaim their home from that nasty dragon, so they drop by for dinner at Bilbo’s, in an interminable slapstick sequence that you’ll think can’t possibly get any worse until they all start singing.
It takes almost an hour to get on the road, and what’s remarkable is how little information Jackson manages to convey during this time. The dwarves all jostle each other around for a chance to establish their single assigned personality trait, while Freeman exhausts every eyeroll and exasperated double-take he’s mastered on BBC shows like The Office and Sherlock. Our hurry up-and-wait walk to Lonely Mountain at last underway, the movie settles into a stutter-step rhythm in which endless postcard vistas of the New Zealand landscape are punctuated by gargantuanly over-scaled action sequences. Many of the creature designs are effective, and I was particularly taken with the Goblin King, who has a scrotum dangling from his chin like Peter Griffin. But the characters are constantly tossed through the air in these weightless CGI spectacles, and it’s all so gravity-defying that there’s never any sense of danger.
Things pick up after a couple of hours with the arrival of Andy Serkis’ Gollum, that weirdly poignant monster, who, in his return engagement, demonstrates just how much further performance-capture animation has advanced since his already impressive appearance in the original trilogy. There is at long last the feeling of a story coming into focus, at which point, of course, the movie ends. And the closing shot unwittingly says it all: a glimpse of an immense dragon snoozing beneath a massive pile of gold.
The Hobbit’s big technical selling point is that it’s the first movie photographed at 48 frames per second, which theoretically doubles the visual information we’ve grown accustomed to from stodgy old 24 fps. The effect is sort of like watching those HDTVs’ overcranked display settings at a big-box store, the picture so relentlessly vivid and over-detailed that there’s no texture to any of the images. It’s got the flat, video sheen of early ‘80s pornography, and the unforgiving clarity calls glaring attention to every smudge in the makeup and every seam in the effects work. Sorry, but 48 fps makes a very expensive movie look awfully cheap.
It’s almost impossible to reconcile Jackson’s lumbering recent output with the prankish zing of his early 1990s B-movies. His 2005 King Kong remake clocked in at almost twice the running time of the 1933 original and had the great ape on the Empire State building for so damn long, the sun came up and it turned into the next day. Jackson’s personally lost a lot of weight; I guess it all went into his work.