“The Hobbit,” the shortest of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth works, is a simple story. In it, a group of 13 dwarves drag the titular hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, on a quest to reclaim their mountain home of Erebor from the dastardly dragon Smaug. Director and producer Peter Jackson, after his great success adapting “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy into films a decade ago, returns with a new vision, although one that is both limited by — and fails to measure up to — his previous efforts.
Taking the shortest source material (a children’s fairy tale, really) and splitting it into not two, but three films, was a questionable decision, and “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” does nothing to quell those fears. The first film in this new trilogy includes large chunks of unnecessary filler — sure, it may be Jackson’s shortest Tolkien-based film, but the viewer feels every minute of its two-hour-and-40-minute run time, resulting in a slow, long winded, and bloated affair.
The real shame is that Jackson and company sacrifice the charm and character of the “The Hobbit” book and force it to line up with the darker world Jackson already filmed. Gone are things like the cheery singing elves and the whimsical talking eagles, replaced with Jackson’s bread and butter: large-scale battle and chase scenes. The dwarves’ small-scale quest for gold becomes an almost diaspora-like lust for a homeland. Jackson does manage to give more weight to the group’s motivation than just greed — a welcome change, but one that tries to set the events in the film up as much more perilous than they actually are.
Attempting to make a darker version of “The Hobbit” isn’t a bad decision, but by removing the unique charm and tone, Jackson cuts too close to what we’ve seen before. It doesn’t help that most of these locations — The Shire, Rivendell, the Misty Mountains — have all been seen before, and that’s not all that seems familiar. Gandalf (Sir Ian McKellen) feels like an action figure, spouting catch phrases like “Run!” and “Over here!” that seem like sound bites from the original trilogy. Bringing back Frodo (Elijah Wood) is just one of an unnecessary long line of nods to the audience to try to underscore that this is the same universe. We know it is, Jackson. We know.
With 13 dwarves (a much more attractive and Hollywood-friendly portrayal of Tolkien's stodgy and bearded men — several lack beards at all) it’s a challenge to make any of them stand out, making the movie Bilbo’s to steal. Martin Freeman runs away with it. His portrayal of Bilbo is pitch perfect, right down to the small hand movements and facial gestures, capturing the self doubt, humor, and mannerisms of dear Mr. Baggins. The riddles in the dark scene between Bilbo and Gollum (Andy Serkis) stands out as the best in the film, and Freeman’s performance is one of a few truly special elements (aside from the brilliant, haunting Misty Mountain musical theme) that make the film feel fresh.
As much as I’m a proponent of the more Tolkien books filmed the better, purists will likely be divided. Jackson takes several unnecessarily large departures from the source material. Some of them are welcome (I’m looking forward to more of Radagast and the Necromancer) as they actually took place during “The Hobbit” just outside of the main narrative. But with this film it sometimes felt as if he was meddling with plot and character simply to meddle, and in the process of doing so has already created several inconsistencies that hopefully will be addressed in the later films.
What this film may become best known for is Jackson’s shooting it at 48 frames per second. Amidst the doubt, Jackson was right on the money with the new format (shot at twice the frame rate of regular movies), which makes the images clearer, crisper, and more lifelike. After seeing the film twice, once in 24 FPS and once in 48 FPS, the latter really is beautiful and it brings you closer to the actors, almost as if you’re watching live theater. The new look does take some getting used to: the first few minutes of the film seem almost sped up, and film die-hards might not like the “soap opera” effect that replaces the grainy look of film. The change in format might not create the best look for “The Hobbit” or other fantasy films (it makes everything look super real, almost silly, in some instances) as it removes the watcher from the world and reminds them that it’s just actors in costumes, but it creates a level of realism that hasn’t been seen in filmmaking before.
The filming choices don’t save the content of the movie, though, and where “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy set a very high bar and created one of cinema’s timeless trilogies, “The Hobbit” sacrifices character, charm, and uniqueness to an unmemorable end, creating an inconsistent film that struggles between the lighthearted source material and the more serious tone of the previous films. If the first part of a three-movie set already feels this stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread, it bears asking if Jackson’s real quest here — much like the dwarves — is simply for more box-office gold, not giving the story the telling it deserves.