All the characters in “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” just want to get home. Me, too!
In the first installment of his three-part digital video adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien’s 95,000-word precursor to “The Lord of the Rings,” set sixty years earlier, co-writer-co-producer-director Peter Jackson makes it through six chapters of “The Hobbit: Or There and Back Again” in just under three hours. The final product, finished in 2014, then with extra footage added, as is Jackson’s custom, should amount to a ten-hour or so running time. (Has it ever taken anyone taller than an elf that long to read the 270 or so pages of the book?)
In its present incarnation, “The Hobbit” is exhibited in a numbing number of 3-D formats, including an accelerated frame-rate (HFR) double that of regular projection. (Reportedly, that fashion looks a lot like events shown on badly adjusted flat-screen TVs in sports bars; I’ve only seen the “Real 3-D” version.) “All good stories deserve embellishment,” we’re told. And while to this non-initiate, the relentlessly eventful pageantry, crammed with protean design elements, feels erratic and overinflated, leaning all too heavily on the reverent invocation of names of places, battles, weapons and off-screen characters, “The Hobbit” should bring pleasure to those predisposed to follow those who fear the dragon “Smaug.” (Yes, you know who you are.)
As Gandalf the Grey, Ian McKellen’s on-camera intonations are an intermittent treat while his Icelandic Saga-like litanies of the story’s histories fade into sonorous hum. (“Slowly, the days turned sour…”) Apparently “Good” and “Evil” are the only topics ever bruited in Middle Earth, and we learn that “Good” is good and “Evil,” well, as you might have guessed, it’s bad.
As the central hobbit, Martin Freeman is the most successful at the film’s many diversions into slapstick, with Jackson leaning on his elastic reaction shots. Even later battle scenes work with comedy rhythms as much as action pacing and camera movements, but the mix only evokes the work of other filmmakers. Occasionally, I longed for some Sam Raimi-style “sproinggg!” in camera blocking and only afterward remembered John Boorman’s long-held ambitions to adapt Tolkien. And there are touches of Monty Python-light that never grow Terry Gilliam-visionary. The character design of some monstrous antagonists resembles the comically exaggerated work of co-screenwriter (and first director, who was replaced by Jackson) Guillermo del Toro.
While slackly paced and semi-comprehensible, the film’s episodic character means that some “adventures” are more lively than others and will jostle the casual viewer awake. For example, late in the action, Andy Serkis’ computer-shaped Gollum returns, and a scene of riddles exchanged by Bilbo and the monster in an underground cavern is an elegantly paced treat after several sludgy battles that have no stakes when you realize none of the gibbering pack of dwarves can die so very early in the story. Gollum’s huge blue eyes elicit compassion and disgust, turning from one to the other in the smallest of gestures. (But his loss of his “precious,” the One Ring, is elevated to the level of a collision of elephants in a small, confined space, slowed, echoing, crashing, gleaming.)
Jackson keeps the in-your-face/in-your-eye 3D effects to a minimum: the main title appearing inside an expanding smoke ring is witty, tables laden with food are lit and colored with the care of a foodie photo shoot; and an orange butterfly that sails over the audience’s head has a commonplace beauty akin to that of almost every frame of Ang Lee’s 3D gem, “Life of Pi.” A briar sled drawn by a pack of fleet, leaping hares delights as much as any oh-no-another-beautiful landscape revelation or the bleakly ostentatious castles that resemble luxury hotels in the mountains of Utah. These ridiculous edifices are typical of the design: Too much and yet so little.
Jackson posted a series of making-of videos on the internet, but not the one that might be the most fascinating: a behind-the-scenes look at the day-to-day feats of the production management and the accounting department, where the flicker of electrons representing cash are converted into the pixels of a billion-dollar, post-celluloid film franchise. As an economic engine for Jackson’s small, lovely homeland, New Zealand, “The Hobbit” is nonpareil. He’s home. As for the characters of “The Hobbit,” they can at least glimpse it in the far, far distance at the story break at the end of “An Unexpected Journey.”
“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” opens Friday.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images will be published in Spring 2022.