A film review by Craig J. Koban December 20, 2012



2012, PG-13, 169 mins.

Bilbo: Martin Freeman / Gandalf: Ian McKellen / Thorin: Richard Armitage / Gollum: Andy Serkis / Elrond:  Hugo Weaving / Galadriel: Cate Blanchett / Frodo: Elijah Wood 

Directed by Peter Jackson / Written by Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro, based on the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien.

3D 48fps

Peter Jackson’s THE LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy was worshipped by a legion of devotees of J.R.R. Tolkien’s books and emerged as a critical and box office success (17 Oscar wins and $3 billion in grosses), but it remained only modestly appreciated by me.  The desire for Jackson and company – after a rather long, tedious, and contentious pre-production battle that was a drama in itself – to bring the 1937 prequel book THE HOBBIT (or THERE AND BACK AGAIN) to the silver screen seems obvious enough. 

I enjoyed THE LORD OF THE RINGS films as dazzling works of visual majesty, even though – as a Tolkien agnostic – I found them a bit too solemn minded and elephantine in their plotting to be considered truly fun cinematic experiences.  Even though THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY (its full title) certainly betters its antecedents in terms of having a stronger sense of spirited whimsy about it, it nonetheless suffers even more in the arena of story pacing and momentum.  Part of the problem is the film’s overt sense of gluttony and wanton excess: Jackson et al have taking a relatively slim 300-plus page children’s fantasy novel and have egregiously stretched it out to a near three-hour film…that is just the beginning of a…trilogy, with two more parts of equal running times (!).     

THE HOBBIT clocks in at a hefty 169 minutes, which seems indefensibly long at best, especially considering that that it’s but a fraction of the length of, say, THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING.  The manner with which the makers have strained to embellish the modest material from Tolkien’s literary text into something this cinematically long reeks of overblown artistic self-indulgence.  Arguments can be made as to whether or not this was done primarily out of artistic aims or financial ones, but it’s abundantly clear after screening THE HOBBIT that it’s the former; this is a film that has no business being as long as it is, let alone being further elongated to two more entries; it just leaves me crying foul. 



The film opens with a bit of an unnecessary prologue that shows events that directly lead into the first LORD OF THE RINGS picture, but more or less gives the makers an excuse to bring back old cast members to placate fans.  Just in time for his 111th birthday, Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) sits down to prepare his memoirs, which he aspires to share with his nephew, Frodo (Elijah Wood).  Then the film whisks back 60 years to the Shire (which mostly looks the same) as a younger Bilbo (the fine Martin Freeman) has a chance meeting with the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen).  Why the film just didn’t begin with this scene set in the past and didn’t scrap the needless one involving old LOTR alumni is questionable. 

Gandalf comes with an invitation, of sorts, along with 13 incredibly battle hardened – and hungry – dwarves to go on a special quest to retake the dwarf kingdom under Lonely Mountain and reclaim the massive treasure that is now guarded by a powerful dragon named Smaug.  The leader of the dwarf fellowship, Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) hopes to add a figure of stealth to his battalion, but doesn’t seem convinced of Gandalf’s desire to have Bilbo fit the bill.  Neither does Bilbo himself, but he begrudgingly decides to join the caravan and brace whatever dangers lie ahead in hopes to assist the dwarves with taking back their land and riches. 

Bilbo himself may be a bit less developed as a character than the previous hobbits that dominated the LOTR films, but Freeman is a more engaging actor than, for example, Elijah Wood, which assists with given THE HOBBIT a sense of freshness that it otherwise requires.  Freeman's sly verbal wit and timing occupies and accentuates the film's greatest scene – which comes really, really, really late into the proceedings – as he has a chance meeting with a rather disgusting and schizophrenic creature named Gollum (once again played by the great Andy Serkis, in body and spirit).  During this intoxicating 10-minute sequence the pair engage in a battle of riddles, with Bilbo hoping to win as it would lead to Gollum showing him the way back to his previously lost companions.  For these few minutes I became lost in the characters and their spirited interplay, something that the rest of the film desperately needed.  That, and Gollum - as a state-of-the art CG character and one that's endlessly fascinating because of Serkis' motion-captured performance - remains as riveting as ever.

Alas, the real conundrum of THE HOBBIT is that there's simply not enough scenes of the kind just mentioned, not to mention that its narrative pacing is as slow as an giant smelly orc and it takes so bloody long to get to the real meat and potatoes moments like the Gollum/Bilbo stand-off.  The first 45-50 minutes of the film keeps us in the Shire and digresses into scene after scene of verbal exposition to the point of putting non-Tolkienites to sleep.  To make matters worse, the already bloated running time is riddled with back-story subplots (many which were never a part of the original text) that grind the pacing down even more, like a flashback to how the dwarves lost their kingdom, or how Thorin earned his name, or another throwaway one featuring another wizard named Radagast the Brown.  Many of these filler scenes – including the introductory ones of the Shire set in FELLOWSHIPS’ time – could have been easily trimmed or excised altogether to make a leaver picture. 

The film’s swollen nature also left me asking too many distracting questions, like how come Gandalf appears older than he did in LOTR despite being 60 years younger?  Also, as a wizard, why doesn’t he use his magic more often than primarily when the screenplay deems it convenient to save his fellow friends?  The film does indeed generate a pulse in its final stages, which are considerably more action packed and thrilling, as the dwarfs, Gandalf, and Bilbo find themselves battling nefarious and dangerous orcs, goblins, trolls, rock giants, and…at least in Bilbo’s case…that pesky Gollum.  The visual effects this go-around are as superlative as ever; Jackson, to his credit, is in supreme command of the cinematic technological craft.  THE HOBBIT is a pioneering masterpiece of effects wiz-bangery. 

The film’s much reported 48 frames per second (fps) 3D presentation, though….not so much.  Jackson has opted to shoot the film digitally utilizing twice the normal frame rate (which is 24fps, the standard for as far as films go back), which certainly gives the film a crispness and brightness that compliments the usually dim palette of 3D quite well.  Yet, here’s the issue: Jackson hopes to recreate how the human eye perceives images in reality (which is closer, I’ve read, to 60fps), but the reason people go to the movies is to escape reality.  The ultra-enhanced smoothness of the image (which all but removes motion blur) erodes the warmth, texture, and nuanced grit that we have all become used to by watching 24 fps films.  The unpleasantness of 48fps is not that it makes scenes from the film less realistic looking, but rather that it robs the silver screen of its aesthetic character.  Sometimes, the subtlest of movement now appears jerky and sped-up and actors are illuminated like they’re appearing on daytime HD soap operas.  Too much of THE HOBBIT feels like the LOTR as filtered through the Discovery Channel.  Bummer.

Will Tolkien die-hards mind the hyper-real and – ironically enough – unnatural look of THE HOBBIT’s 48fps 3D glow?  Probably not.  Will they mind the film’s lethargic plotting?   Again, not really.  As for the rest of us uninitiated to the church of Tolkien, though, THE HOBBIT may come off more as a sleep-inducing endurance test than a thrilling and absorbing fantasy epic and worthy prequel to the LOTR.  There's simply no questioning Jackson’s supreme skills as a visual filmmaker that incorporates state-of-the-art effects and production design to immerse us in a return-trip to Middle Earth.  For the most part, I felt transported to the film’s universe, an ethereal sensation that great out-of-body films elicit.  My main complaint with the film is that I just wasn’t involved in the story set within this universe to care, not to mention that the narrative required some shrewd editing to make it more taut, tightly paced, and exciting.  THE HOBBIT could have benefited from some Gandalfian magic…even if the grey-bearded one often does not use much of it himself.

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