Cantankerous Critic: First Installment Of ‘The Hobbit’ A Journey Worth Taking
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
BY MICHAEL WALTERS
THE CANTANKEROUS CRITIC
You can be forgiven if you find the first installment of Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit” a little familiar.
Jackson has already cut through the thicket of Middle Earth three times before with the “Lord of the Rings” films. But his approach to J.R.R. Tolkien has become warm, comforting, and just right. To fans it feels as much like home as the Shire. So it’s OK if it doesn’t pack quite the revelatory punch that the first three films did.
For those not familiar with the story, it centers on a young hobbit named Bilbo Baggins. He is enlisted by the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellan) to help a band of dwarfs reclaim their homeland from an evil dragon who has taken up residence in their fortress. Baggins (Martin Freeman) is a pipe-and-slippers type of Hobbit, perfectly happy being a homebody. But he shows an unexpected yearn for adventure and accepts the Wizard’s invitation.
I have to admit I was a little skeptical when I heard that “The Hobbit” was being turned first into two and then three films. Where would he get all the material from a book that’s not all that long to begin with? Drawing from Tolkien’s own notes, appendices and writings, Jackson is if anything a little too reverential. He seems to think everything Tolkien ever scribbled on the subject is worthy of addition, expansion and embellishment. But I am pleased to say “The Hobbit” doesn’t drag as much as you might think.
Jackson indulges himself in a few too many scenes of Dwarf-related shenanigans at dinner parties, and lingers lovingly on the elf kingdom of Rivendell for perhaps a little too long. But most of the backstory that has been inserted into this tale (which runs close to three hours) serves to inform and build suspense, rather than feeling like mere padding. Characters who were mentioned in mere passing in the original text get fleshed out, but the action moves along fairly well, with supernatural spirits, Orcs and, of course, Golum making an appearance.
Jackson’s respect and delicate touch with the material can’t be praised enough. With all the elements in play, it’s easy to see how this story could defeat a lesser director. But Jackson has cut through the thicket once more and created a fairly rousing action movie, which should please hardcore fans and those who don’t speak fluent Tolkien in equal measure.
One more note: Jackson shot “The Hobbit” in 48 frames per second, High Frame Rate 3-D, and it’s being shown in that format in select theaters. I have seen “The Hobbit” in both HFR and conventional 3-D and HFR does take some getting used to. The format isn’t entirely perfected, but it creates a hyper-real image where the actors look crisper but seem to occupy a different time and space than the surroundings. And unfortunately, even real places tend to look they were whipped up in a CGI effects factory. The film also can’t quite keep up Jackson’s fluid camera motions. So, the film will pause and then speed up occasionally like a streaming video that’s still buffering. I’d stick with the conventional 3-D if you can.