What a letdown! Peter Jackson’s long-awaited follow-up to his phenomenally successful “Lord of the Rings” franchise nearly one decade ago is a plodding, meandering, epic fail. Jackson has taken J.R.R. Tolkien’s 310 page children’s novel, “The Hobbit,” and stretched it to what will eventually be about a nine-hour trilogy over the next few Christmases. The result is akin to pressing a glob of Silly Putty on the text and stretching it to about three times the length that it should be.
To be fair, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” is not without merit. With at least 15 years of practice, Jackson has managed to fully convey the spectacle of what the magic land of Middle-earth would look like in real-life according to Tolkien. It is a world filled with lush green meadows, all sorts of mythic characters made up of gnomes, elves, sprites, dwarves and trolls, and where imminent danger lurks around every curve. The setting was put to good use in the original “Rings” trilogy, and it’s nice to see it put to good use once again in “Hobbit.”
Some of the previous films’ cast is also back, despite the fact that “Hobbit” is set 60 years before the events that took place in “The Fellowship of the Ring” in 2001 (Ian Holm reprises his role as the older Bilbo Baggins, and Ian McKellan is back as Gandalf the wizard). It’s good to see Gollum once again, depraved, menacing and obsessed as he ever was, although it takes “Hobbit” two hours to get to him. And some of the action sequences — particularly the one that makes up nearly the entire final third of the film — are astonishingly well-done.
But here’s the issue that dogs “The Hobbit”: The story is nothing compared to “The Lord of the Rings.” The movie has to expel so much time setting up young Bilbo’s quest to Lonely Mountain to retrieve a treasure trove stolen by a dragon named Smaug that the movie begins to get a little tedious at times. Surely, the issue is not the new Bilbo — in “Hobbit,” Martin Freeman fills in for Ian Holm as the much-younger Bilbo who has yet to discover the “One Ring.” Although Freeman is pretty much shoved aside for most of the action, it’s mostly because the film has about 20 other characters to introduce and involve in some way, shape or form.
And therein lies another problem with the movie. Too many characters, none of them distinct. Think back to the original “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. You had your Frodo, your Sam, your Aragorn, your Gimli — and it didn’t stop there. Jackson made vivid portrayals of pretty much every character in the book, from Boromir to Legolas to Merry and Pippin. The only memorable characters in “The Hobbit” are the ones we’ve already met.
Certainly, that includes Gollum, an astonishingly fleshed-out gremlin of sorts brought brilliantly to life by Andy Serkis, who is every bit as mysterious and dangerous in “Hobbit” as he was when he was trying to off Frodo in the originals. The only other potentially memorable character in the film is the Goblin King, but he’s only in the movie for about 20 minutes and it, too, is near the end.
What I’m saying is that, despite some clever touches and some admittedly great-looking photography (some of the valleys in this movie are sure to take your breath away), “The Hobbit” suffers under the weight of its length. It’s still shorter than any of the other “Rings” films that preceded it, but this is the first time that every scene — from the goofy dinner party that kicks off the film to the redundant battles that include a troll fight, a giant wolf fight and an utterly pointless rock monster fight — seems calculated to pad the length to nearly three long-seeming hours.
I guess the best that can be said about “The Hobbit” is that, since we know its puny story is part of a planned trilogy that will be released over the next few Christmases, Jackson and Company have at least two more chances to get it right. “The Hobbit” is by no means a terrible movie, it’s just not the movie we expected knowing how great the first three “Rings” movies turned out to be. So if you do see “The Hobbit” — and we all know you will — just promise you’ll keep your expectations low and that you’ll skip the high frame rate (HFR) version. The last thing Jackson needs is people getting disappointed and sick at the same time.
★★ out of ★★★★
Rated PG-13 for fantasy action violence. 169 minutes.
Director: Peter Jackson. Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellan.