Nine years ago, Peter Jackson completed his film adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings fantasy novels to cheers that circled the globe — plus 17 Oscars and $2.9 billion at the worldwide box office. Now, like Sam Gamgee at the conclusion of that gigantic achievement, Jackson says, Well, I’m back.
Back again and back in time, to The Hobbit, the 1937 book in which Tolkien introduced Bilbo Baggins, Gandalf the Grey and the splendor and travails of Middle-earth. Having made three three-hour movies of the 1,359-page trilogy (not including appendices), Jackson has brought the same capacious vision and maniacal attention to detail — and perhaps the same lavish running time — to a three-film version of Tolkien’s earlier 287-page story.
You could probably read The Hobbit aloud in less time than watching the three movies, after The Desolation of Smaug is released next December and the final installment, There and Back Again, is released a year after that. It’s another matter as to whether a parent with a flair for the dramatic could carve images into a child’s mind as vivid as the goblins and trolls and orcs — and Smaug the dragon — that come to plausible life in this first episode, called The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.
And if children have seen the Rings cycle, they’ll want to revisit the actors, now older, returning to play younger versions of their characters: Ian McKellen as Gandalf, Ian Holm as the elderly Bilbo, Andy Serkis as the treacherous, piteous Gollum, Hugo Weaving and Cate Blanchett as the Elf royals Elrond and Galadriel, Christopher Lee as Saruman the White Wizard and, briefly, Elijah Wood as Bilbo’s nephew Frodo, whose honor and burden in the Rings films was to carry the One Ring to Mount Doom.
By stretching a medium-length prequel into three long movies, Jackson is almost begging for his Hobbit to be compared to another movie trilogy: episodes 1 through 3 of Star Wars, which both expanded and diminished the achievement of the 1977–83 films. So, you ask, is An Unexpected Journey better than The Phantom Menace? Easily, yes — it would take a real effort to make it worse — though the appearance of the wizard Radagast (Sylvester McCoy), a flighty Doctor Dolittle, has stirred the unhappy memory of Jar Jar Binks in some early viewers. Does the new movie boast spectacular visual effects? Undoubtedly. Does Jackson’s shooting at 48 frames per second instead of the standard 24 impose a unique clarity on The Hobbit? Absolutely, and at times almost blindingly so.
But the movie lacks majesty. Grand in parts, it is too often grandiose or grandiloquent, and the running time is indefensible. It’s like the three-hour first cut, assembled by editors, of even the most modest film before the director says, “O.K., now let’s make a movie out of this.” This Hobbit plays like a rough cut, with no deleted scenes left for DVD.
This scrupulous rendering of the story reminds reader-viewers that it involves quite a bit of trudging through hostile terrain and throws this Fellowship into a series of scrapes before the party is rescued by Gandalf, who at this stage of his 7,000-year life was a bit stingy and capricious in his use of magic spells. And so faithful to the book is the movie that Middle-earth geeks will be flummoxed by the few changes (replacing Tolkien’s songs for the elves and goblins with other airs) and deletions (like Bilbo’s dismissive line to Gandalf — “But please come to tea … Come tomorrow! Goodbye!” — that sets the whole quest in motion).
In any adaptation of a beloved book, there’s a fine line between fidelity and fealty, care and obsession. Jackson originally assigned Guillermo del Toro, the Mexican master of Pan’s Labyrinth and the Hellboy films, to direct the Hobbit films (then planned as just two feature-length parts). Then Jackson took over; he wanted The Hobbit for himself, just as he had possessed the Rings movies. In this backstage story, there’s a touch of the sad, covetous Gollum, who kept the Ring for ages and was corrupted by its possession before losing it to Bilbo and then Frodo.
Not that Jackson is Gollum — he’s a more likely Gandalf — or that the movie should be called The Hoard of the Rings. But the director’s nearly two-decade involvement with filming the Tolkien books seems to have stoked a belief that he should put virtually every scene of The Hobbit onscreen. Once or twice he inflates a few sentences, like the thunder battle, into huge FX production numbers. In editing a film, a director has to kill some of his darling scenes for the duty and glory of entertaining 100 million children and adults. Watching this plus-size Hobbit, viewers have to do their own editing, savoring the strong scenes and napping through the weak ones.
Oh, Jackson might sarcastically reply, and I suppose you’d want the 13 dwarves in Tolkien’s story pared down to seven, because that number was plenty for Walt Disney (the animated feature Snow White opened exactly three months after The Hobbit was published). The answer would have to be yes, at least on the evidence of the first film; the dwarves get a great deal of time without more than two or three registering as distinct personalities.
Chief among these is Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), a more glowering and ambivalent simulacrum of Viggo Mortensen’s Aragorn in the Rings movies. Thorin leads the quest to return to and regain his people’s kingdom inside the Lonely Mountain, where the dwarves were routed and his father and grandfather were killed by Smaug. (“Dragon?” one dwarf says to Bilbo. “Think furnace with wings.”)
In this mission — merely a field trip, compared with the earth-saving pilgrimage undertaken in The Fellowship of the Ring — Thorin enlists Gandalf, who brings along young Bilbo (Martin Freeman), whom he advertises to the dwarves as a pre-eminent burglar. Bilbo has not that skill nor the taste for mortal adventure that the journey entails. But eventually, or just before Christmas 2014, moviegoers will discover that the complacent Hobbit has reserves of heroism.
The flashback that begins the film, of the dwarves’ defeat by Smaug, is brilliantly choreographed — the movement of both action and camera — as is a climactic confrontation with the goblins. In the intervening few hours, though, things can get pokey and silly. A good time to end a scene is when the slowest viewer says, I get it; but Jackson, so determined to deploy all his CGI resources, often can’t let go. He leans heavily, as Tolkien did, on ethnic stereotyping: the dwarves are more or less Scottish (hardworking and greedy), the trolls Cockney (comically loutish), the blond, refined Elves super-Scandinavian. Stately and twee, the Elves inhabit a kind of Middle-earth Renaissance faire. The reunion there of McKellen, Lee, Weaving and Blanchett is not epochal but perfunctory, a tepid attempt to convene some of the star personalities of the Rings movies.
The Hobbit‘s most startling innovation — shooting at 48 frames per second — is also the most challenging. Filmgoers have been trained for almost a century to watch movies at 24 frames per second. Doubling the rate keeps the image from blurring when the camera moves, which is ideal for Jackson’s action sequences but disorienting in the more static interior scenes, where the scenery upstages the characters. The clarity of the image is sometimes magical, occasionally migraine-inducing. (Mike Ryan of the Huffington Post wrote that “the picture is so clear that in one scene I could see Ian McKellen’s contact lenses.”) At first, in the Smaug battle, I thought I was watching a video game: pellucid pictures of indistinct creatures. After a while my eyes adjusted, as to a new pair of glasses, but it was still like watching a very expensively mounted live TV show on the world’s largest home TV screen.
What’s curious is that, in this cathedral of high tech, the most telling moments are scenes of intimacy, like Galadriel’s solemn, seductive promise to Gandalf that “if you should need my help, I will come” — one of the movie’s few pulses of adult connection. As Bilbo, Freeman provides the anchor of humanity: ordinary and troubled, and not impervious to the Ring’s corrosive power, but with a good nature and capable of rising to greatness. The British actor is known for playing Tim Canterbury on the original run of The Office as well as Dr. Watson in the BBC series Sherlock. (Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays Holmes, supplies the voice of Smaug in the Hobbit trilogy.)
You wait two hours for the meeting of Bilbo and Gollum, and it satisfies all expectations. We know from The Lord of the Rings that this emaciated figure of doomed dementia was once the Hobbit Sméagol. After a half millennium in subterranean solitary confinement under the Ring’s influence, he is a sibilant wraith, arguing with himself as Norman Bates did with his late mother. Like Frodo’s encounters with Gollum, Bilbo’s game playing reveals the pathetic future of any Hobbit who holds the Ring.
Serkis, aided by Jackson’s CGI gurus, revives the old sick poignancy in a creature who is more haunted than malevolent (and he is very malevolent). In an adventure, villains usually get the best roles; add a touch of madness and the result can be magnificent maleficence. Serkis soars as Sméagol sinks, and if the next two Hobbit films hold hope, it is that this Peter Lorre–esque skulker will get more chances to work his evil magic. Given the fitful inspirations and frustrating longueurs of this middling Middle-earth fable, one wishes that Tolkien had written a darker companion volume called The Gollum. Now that would be worth a trilogy.