You’ve seen the giant JumboTron at Cowboys Stadium, right? Well, watching The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is like having that JumboTron installed in your local movie theater. And projecting in 3D, on top of that.
As you may have heard, Peter Jackson’s adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel was shot at 48 frames per second, the first movie ever to be filmed at this frame rate. (The industry standard has been 24 frames per second since the advent of talking pictures.) The result is that the images in The Hobbit are much sharper and clearer than anything you’ve ever seen on a movie screen. An even bigger difference is visible when the camera moves, as in a lengthy prologue when it skitters across parapets and plummets down the sides of towers during a dragon attack on a city of dwarves. The increased frame rate renders the motion with astonishing fluidity even as it maintains the images’ clarity. It all overloads your senses; you’re actually getting a better view than you would be if you were flying over the chaos. I’ll admit that I got a bit of motion sickness in the early going, though I got used to the frame rate as the movie went along. This technological development may well be the future of cinematic spectacle, which makes The Hobbit a noteworthy film indeed. The cosmic joke is that the story and characters are so poorly handled that when you watch this movie on your television in six months, the movie’s not going to look like anything special.
Martin Freeman portrays Bilbo Baggins, a nervous and cautious hobbit who’s recruited by the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) to join a company of 13 dwarves who have set out to get revenge on the ancient dragon who destroyed their glorious city and now hoards their treasure. The movie is the first of three installments, and it covers Tolkien’s novel up to the point when Bilbo escapes from Gollum (Andy Serkis) with the One Ring and rejoins the dwarves.
The film’s visuals are its strong point, with cascading waterfalls making a tremendous backdrop to the elven outpost of Rivendell and the 3D capturing Gollum in all his repulsive glory. These are wondrous and terrifying, so it’s too bad that we get no corresponding sense of wonder and terror out of Freeman, as Bilbo is exposed to a whole set of new worlds. The actor is an accomplished comedian, and he does well with the overwhelmed Bilbo in the early going, when dwarves are overrunning his house. Yet this chapter in the saga ends with him attaining heroic status, saving the life of the dwarves’ leader, Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage). Freeman doesn’t make a convincing reluctant hero, and he’s easily eclipsed by Armitage, an actor from British TV with a properly imposing presence.
Then there’s the fact that it takes at least 50 minutes of screen time before Bilbo actually leaves his house and gets started on his journey. Much of the preceding time is taken up with comic interludes and songs, but composer Howard Shore is uninspired when writing for the human voice and Jackson’s sense of comedy has become cringe-worthy — there’s a mood-killing gag when Gandalf vanquishes the Great Goblin (Barry Humphries). We are given a couple of nicely executed sequences with the dwarves fleeing the goblin city and being hunted on the plains by a troupe of orcs. Yet these incidental pleasures aren’t nearly enough to lift this massive work off the ground, let alone make it into a moving experience. Yes, the movie is intended as a first installment, and we’d expect the biggest thrills to come later on. Then again, at 169 minutes, An Unexpected Journey should give us more.
More than a decade has passed since Jackson finished filming on the Lord of the Rings trilogy. In that time, people have figured out more economical and powerful ways of making these epic fantasy adventures — just look at the Harry Potter series, The Hunger Games, Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, or The Avengers. While they have their flaws, they all make Jackson’s sludgy, self-consciously poetic approach to Tolkien look stolid and passé. I’m reserving the right to change my mind during either of The Hobbit’s next two chapters, but right now, it sure looks like the game has passed Peter Jackson by.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Starring Martin Freeman and Richard Armitage. Directed by Peter Jackson. Written by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, and Guillermo Del Toro, based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel. Rated PG-13.