Part One of director Peter Jackson’s planned film trilogy of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit forces audiences to run an obstacle course before the fun kicks in.
First, you need to get past the look of it. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is making a bizarre kind of history by going out in limited release at 48 frames per second (double the usual standard). Couple that with 3D and the movie looks so hyper-real that you see everything that’s fake about it, from painted sets to prosthetic noses. The unpleasant effect is similar to watching a movie on a new HD home-theater monitor, shadows obliterated by blinding light like – yikes! – reality TV.
Second, there’s the length of it. The 169 minutes of screen time stretches further than lines for a new iPhone. This hurts, since the first 45 minutes of the film traps us in the hobbit home of the young Bilbo Baggins (the excellent Martin Feeeman, Dr. Watson on the BBC’S Sherlock series). Bilbo’s surprise and unwelcome guests for dinner include 13 dwarves who stuff food down their gullets and sing like Les Miz fanboys. As a literary work, The Hobbit is a quarter the size of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and takes place 60 years before that epic. One movie would have done the job handily. But Jackson has elongated the tale to three films, each released a year apart, and nine hours.
It’s Middle Earth overkill, and perhaps a bit craven. But don’t despair. Once Bilbo and the dwarves, led by Thorin Oakenshield (great name and played to the hilt by Richard Armitage), set on their journey to win back their home from the dragon Smaug, things perk up considerably. It helps big time that the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen, always a treat) is along to make the wild ride wilder. Trolls, orcs, wolves and mountainous monsters made of remarkably pliable stone bring out the best in Jackson and his Rings co-screenwriters Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens.
As if to remind Rings fans that they’re in the same territory, Jackson does things Tolkien never imagined, such as bringing in the elf city of Rivendell and drop-ins from Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), Elrond (Hugo Weaving) and Saruman (Christopher Lee). It’s a shameless ploy and pure padding.
What saves the day is the spidery, schizoid Gollum, again performed by the great Andy Serkis through the craft of motion capture. Though Serkis works on set with the actors, he has been denied Oscar recognition because of the computer animation involved. Fie on you, Academy! Serkis equals and surpasses most of what passes for award-caliber performances. Here, playing a game of riddles with Bilbo, who has stolen the ring Gollum calls “my precious,” Serkis helps turn The Hobbit into everything you wished for – a fantasy with the power to haunt your dreams. Too bad it takes the movie so damn long to get there.