All aboard: The Middle-earth Express has once more pulled into the station. As with Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, this new movie is merely the front car housing the locomotive that’s hauling two other cars, which are still in queue further on up the tracks. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is the opening film in a planned trilogy of J.R.R. Tolkien’s 1937 fantasy novel for children, The Hobbit, or There and Back Again, which predates The Lord of the Rings sequel. Unlike the LOTR, The Hobbit is a single 310-page novel rather than a three-volume epic, and this initial offering in Jackson’s film adaptation feels regrettably slight – especially for a movie that approaches three hours in runtime. One suspects that Jackson has fallen down his own personal hobbit hole and lost sight of Middle-earth’s forest for its many trees.
However slight An Unexpected Journey may be in terms of narrative adventure and fantasy revelations, that hasn’t prevented Jackson from painting Middle-earth with abundant visual detail and technical bravura. Bilbo Baggins (Freeman) is the only hobbit in this film, and the wizard Gandalf (McKellen) resurfaces in a more central role than in the previous trilogy. Other LOTR principals return for small, cameolike appearances – among them Elijah Wood as Frodo, Ian Holm as the older Bilbo, and Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett, and Christopher Lee as the Elven leadership. Thirteen dwarves are the primary protagonists in The Hobbit, yet except for their leader Thorin (Armitage), they are an indistinguishable clump of good-natured, hairy-headed troops. So interchangeable are they that few will ever attempt that name-all-the-dwarves challenge common to Snow White’s companions. Gollum (Serkis) reappears for a significant passage in this new film, creepy and deranged as ever, and revealing the backstory of how Bilbo came into possession of the infamous ring. The Hobbit introduces us to a few new creatures – trolls (giants who behave as if they were the Three Stooges gone cannibalistic), the dragon Smaug, who sits on the pile of gold that was once the dwarves’ domain, and a few others – but, for the most part, we keep finding the 13 dwarves, one hobbit, and one wizard doing battle with the same opponents again and again. There is very little surprise or sense of novelty in this film.
Then there’s the much-discussed technological feat in which Jackson filmed the action in a high frame rate of 48 fps instead of the standard 24 fps. The result is an image that has a startlingly high-definition clarity, and there’s an inescapable irony in Jackson’s use of a technique that heightens realism to create the illusion of a fantasy universe. While the sharp detail is pleasing to the eye once one gets used to it, it tends to soften the image’s depth and background. Viewers so far seem divided regarding their opinions of this shooting strategy; personally, I have yet to see it do anything momentous in terms of enhancing the storyline or image. Jackson almost leans more heavily on The Hobbit’s music score to bolster the story: Howard Shore’s music is so abundant that one has to wonder if the composer was being paid by the minute.
To sum it up, there is little that is unexpected in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Rather than an epic continuation of Jackson’s Middle-earth obsession, the film seems more like the work of a man driving around a multilevel parking garage without being able to find the exit.
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