Movie Review: “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey”

After the massive success of his “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, Peter Jackson has finally delivered the first chapter of his cinematic adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit.” Originally planned for two installments, Jackson somehow managed to stretch the narrative into three films, with the remaining two set for delivery next year and the year after. That baffling decision is only one of the reasons that “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” is anything but unexpected. Instead, when compared to the majesty of Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” epics, this first chapter of the new Middle Earth trilogy is indulgent, long-winded and uninspiring.

“An Unexpected Journey” begins on the very morning that saw Gandalf’s (Ian McKellen) return in “The Fellowship of the Ring.” As Frodo (Elijah Wood) scampers off to surprise him, Old Bilbo (Ian Holm) sits down to pen his adventures and the narrative dissolves to 60 years previous, when Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) is just a young lad with his whole hobbit life ahead of him. At first, it is a pleasure seeing Freeman capture similar mannerisms to Ian Holm’s portrayal, and his interplay with Gandalf is a nice match to the early moments in “The Fellowship of the Ring.”

Aside from the initial visual match, “An Unexpected Journey” soon starts putting as much distance between itself and the “Lord of the Rings” films as possible.

“The Hobbit” is essentially a children’s novel, and Peter Jackson embraces that idea with an overload of tonally awkward humor. The narrative this time concerns 13 dwarves that have lost their home in the Lonely Mountain to an evil dragon known as Smaug. They’d like Bilbo to come along with them as a “burglar” to reclaim their home and slay the dragon. They are led by the great Thorin (Richard Armitage), who doubts Bilbo will be of any real help in their journey. Armitage’s portrayal is something akin to Viggo Mortensen’s Aragorn and is a nice fit for Jackson’s established universe.

Once the titular journey gets under way, it follows a rinse-and-repeat pattern of predictability and an over-abundance of disastrously obvious CGI. Filming on location in New Zealand again, it’s as if Jackson forgot what made his “Lord of the Rings” pictures so marvelous; he used the locations to great effect and as much as possible, filmed on practical sets with real actors in fantastic makeup.

The Orcs in “An Unexpected Journey” are entirely CGI, taking away the fierceness that an actor provides under pound after pound of incredibly detailed makeup work. Key locations like Rivendell look like something out of the “Star Wars” prequels, as do silly animal creatures in a few unnecessary scenes. Gone are the gloriously staged battles, replaced instead with quick-cutting computer imagery.

At 169 minutes, there is something about “An Unexpected Journey” that feels so slight when held up next to “The Lord of the Rings.” Perhaps the nature of the story hinders itself by following this one group comprising Bilbo and the dwarves, leaving the larger narrative to feel numbingly inconsequential. Each chapter of “The Lord of the Rings” follows various races and regions of Middle Earth, creating a cinematic world that feels completely alive. But here we are left to endure a series of generic capture and escape set-pieces, the monotony of which is only broken by the always-welcome appearance of Gollum (Andy Serkis in all his motion-capture glory).

Stretching out “The Hobbit” novel to three films smacks of indulgence and Hollywood greed, which is a shame because Peter Jackson has always made magnificent movies. Alas, you can also catch “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” in 3D and the new 48 fps frame rate. My fear is that these new technologies meant to “improve” the cinema experience will make obsolete the very things that make movies magical. They sure don’t make them like they used to.

“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” — written by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Peter Jackson; directed by Peter Jackson; starring Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage and Andy Serkis; rated PG-13; 169 minutes, 2.5 stars out of 4.

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