The Hobbit was inevitably going to be a step down from The Lord of the Rings. The former is more a children’s story, and clearly a warm-up for Tolkien, though it hints at the lyricism and moral richness of the latter. And charges of “cashing in” were understandable when director Peter Jackson and his fellow writers announced they were going for not one, not two, but another three movies. So while The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is worse than its predecessors, I’m happy to report it doesn’t miss the bar by all that much.
Beginning 60 years before The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit deals with what those films cryptically referred to as “the incident with the dragon.” Twelve dwarves, led by their prince Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), intend to trek across Middle Earth to their ancient mountain kingdom and wrest it from the the dragon Smaug, who drove their people out and claimed the mountain for his own. For reasons not entirely clear, the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) has decided the hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) would make an excellent addition to the endeavor.
After a prologue featuring the welcome return of Ian Holm as the older Bilbo and Elijah Wood as Frodo, the twelve dwarves and the wizard unceremoniously crash Bilbo’s house to shanghai him into the adventure. Copious food is consumed, tales are told, plans are made, and Bilbo steels up his long-buried courage to join an expedition involving trolls, orcs, elves, magic swords, necromancers, giant spiders, wargs, eagles, underground kingdoms, and most of all the magnificently broken, malevolent, and pitiable Gollum (Andy Serkis).
The relative lightness of ”The Hobbit” as source material actually isn’t a problem for the film. Movies are generally just short stories to begin with, and Jackson’s clearly interested in interconnecting organically with the Lord of the Rings films rather than just making a mere adaptation. Apparently lacking the rights to “The Silmarillion,” Jackson relied on Tolkien’s appendices in “The Return of the King” to flesh out his narrative. Tolkien enthusiasts will be pleased to see the Witch King of Angmar’s rise in Mirkwood, as well as a more explicit explanation of Gandalf’s reasons that hint at the coming battle against Sauron. The Hobbit also benefits thematically from its prequel status. Plot points discussed in the earlier films take on an added resonance due to that previously laid emotional groundwork.
The one real problem is Jackson’s overindulgence. While not as catastrophic as it was in King Kong, it still weighs the film down with an unnecessary twenty minutes. The aforementioned prologue and first act drag on entirely too long, as does an early second act encounter with a trio of cave trolls.
The writing is also a slip from the previous standard. Character beats and ideas that should be revealed through subtext are laid out in explicit, on-the-nose dialogue. I bow to no one in my enthusiasm for Tolkien’s pre-modern themes of small goodness holding back tremendous evil, but I’m not sure we needed Gandalf to offer an extended essay on the point to the elves. And the first act muddies the story along with the pacing, as the character arcs don’t come into focus until the second half.
But man, from there things really do start cranking. The visuals are sometimes enthralling, as is the animation of the cave trolls and the king of the orcs. (Though the orc warrior hunting Thorin looks like a video game escapee.) In spite of the script’s clumsiness, the story works. It’s genuinely moving to watch Bilbo and Thorin move from mutual incomprehension to mutual understanding, and Jackson combines his cliffhanger ending with satisfying emotional closure. As for Bilbo’s game of riddles against Gollum — underwritten by excellent animation and the pathos of Serkis’ performance — it’s unsurprisingly the highlight of the fim.
Which brings us to The Hobbit’s infamous frame rate, shot at 48 frames per second rather than the standard 24. It’s a bit jarring at first. Eager to be swept back into the world of Middle Earth, I instead spent the early sequences grappling with an unfamiliar visual format that didn’t feel “cinematic.” Rapid movements look especially odd, and don’t combine well with Jackson’s tendency to shoot action sequences in large, flattened visuals.
All that said, I can see what fired Jackson’s imagination about it. There were moments — generally the quieter ones — when the format, combined with the 3D, gave an extraordinary life-like immediacy to the image. It suggests unexplored possibilities to play with the “tonalities” of digital cinema’s visuals, even if this film feels like a trial run at it.
So whatever its flaws, The Hobbit ultimately finds a genuine artistic reason for existing beyond Jackson’s flights of tech nerdom, or Hollywood’s voracious demand for easy box office. That counts for a lot.