J. R. R. Tolkien’s classic fantasy novel “The Hobbit” comes to life in the first installment of a new trilogy from “Lord of the Rings” director Peter Jackson. But does it live up to the previous three movies in its ability to leave reality behind and transport viewers to the magical realm of Middle Earth, that domain of elves, orcs, goblins, trolls, and the diminutive creatures of routine and appetite that give the book and movie their shared title?
Those who follow technical advances in cinema will be fascinated by the possibilities of Jackson’s use of 48 frames per second shooting, a doubling of the usual 24 frames per second. Casual viewers might be turned off, as I was, by the hyper-real look of this higher frame rate. Hard-core fans who can turn off their devout passion for the book’s text will enjoy seeing the story given epic treatment on the bigger-than-big IMAX screen and thrill to Jackson’s use of 3D cinematography. Other fans, however, may take umbrage to the fact that while the movie includes a great deal more of the novel’s dialogue and badinage than is good for any film, that in itself is insufficient to pad the book’s relatively slight page count into an “LOTR”-scope trilogy of films each exceeding two and a half hours. In order to up the minute count, Jackson and co-screenwriters Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Guillermo del Toro, have had to invent a few things along the way.
This first third of the new film epic offers the novel’s first six chapters. Sixty years before the events of the “Lord of the Rings” movies, Bilbo Baggins —— uncle to Frodo —— is goaded into joining up with a band of a dozen desperate dwarves led by their dispossessed king, a fellow by the name of Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage). (LOTR fans, sit up and take notice: Both Ian Holm and Elijah Wood reprise their roles in a prelude that casts the story of “The Hobbit” as an extended flashback.) Generations earlier, the dwarves lost their homeland, a subterranean system of mines rich in precious metals, to a dragon named Smaug. Dragons, evidently, have an all-consuming love for gold, and Thorin’s grandfather made the mistake of hoarding way to much of it. The entire city thus became irresistible dragon bait; once Smaug moved in, the residents, faced with exile or incineration, fled. Now Thorin and his man (boisterous fellows with Tarantino-esque names like Kili and Bili… er, sorry, Fili) have heard rumors that Smaug has passed on, leaving their ruined city and its treasures up for grabs. They mean to brave the dragon’s fiery breath to find out for sure.
But there’s many a slip ‘twixt the Shire and just about any place else in Middle Earth; it’s not long before a maimed orc who lost his arm in battle against one of Thorin’s ancestors is on their trail, seeking vengeance. (Hungry trolls are another risk of the road. No wonder young Bilbo, played with a mix of trepidation and curiosity by Martin Freeman, is initially reluctant to saddle up and ride with these boys.)
Thorin has a grudge against the elves of Middle Earth, but the wise wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellan, reprising the role) maneuvers him into a meeting with elf king Elrond (Hugo Weaving). This turns into an occasion to revisit the elven city of Rivendell, a production designer’s wet dream and one of the highlights of the LOTR trilogy.
This courtesy call on Elrond is also, as it happens, a chance to pad things still more and depart from the novel by introducing Galadriel, an elf queen from the Rings books, played by Cate Blanchett. (Well, I give you this: Blanchett makes it worth the while.) The diversion to Rivendell also creates one more opportunity to divide the group, leading to a strange battle that erupts out the blue between giant rock creatures and then, as if this were not enough, a drawn-out showdown in the subterranean world of a nation of goblins.
It’s here that the movie hits both its stride and its nadir. The battle scenes are cleverly kinetic, but go on for far too long (like most other things here). But what Bilbo gets up to —— tumbling down a deep crevasse and coming face to face with Gollum (Andy Serkis) —— is the movie’s best part. Gollum was one of the more compelling characters in “Lord of the Rings,” a poor sap who fell under the spell of a magical ring and spent centuries living in caves and eating fish. This lifestyle robbed him of both his looks and his mind —— though not his cunning. Here, Gollum remains just as tormented, just as cunning, and just as conflicted as he was in “LOTR”; he’s monumentally more interesting than any of the other characters in “The Hobbit.” Everything that follows his wrenching, amusing, hair-raising appearance here feels anticlimactic.
I’m a “Hobbit” and “Lord of the Rings” agnostic, and not much for fantasy as a genre. (I’d much rather have my strange new worlds be far-flung planets, my “magic” be high technology, and my exotic, or grotesque, creatures be aliens.) As such, I can’t really address either the genius or the outrage of the filmmakers daring to tamper with Tolkien’s text. I can say, however, that “The Hobbit” starts off slow, and devotes far too much time and attention to juvenile humor and tedious asides. (An example: An impromptu lesson on how to cook dwarves, delivered as a diversion by a hobbit to a trio of trolls. It would have been hilarious had it been shorter and sharper.) When the film does jog into action, the camerawork is so frenzied (and looks so much like a video game) that you almost want to shut your eyes to block it all out.
For that matter, the camera work is jerky and frenetic even when it doesn’t have to be, perhaps in a bid to keep some interest alive during the film’s interminable stretches. The problem is exacerbated by that vaunted 48 frames per second experiment, which creates such a crystal-clear image that it strips the veneer right off the movie’s images. Even digitally originated cinema retains a certain level of gauziness that lends visual texture and, some have suggested, experiential distance between viewer and film. The result of stripping off that visual gauze is that the movie looks like it was shot on analogue video: Surfaces are too hard, edges too sharp, and light too harsh. This level of hi-def might be meant to draw us deeper into the experience, but it often points up the artifice of the production; everything looks fake because the image is overly real.
At many points in the film the top-notch CGI comes off worse as well, looking far less convincing than it would using the standard 24 frames per second filming speed. In confined spaces, such as Bilbo’s underground home, the combination of 3D and overly busy camera movement makes the film feel cramped —— and the video-like look makes the film resemble something produced for the BBC in the 1980s.
The release schedule for “The Hobbit” trilogy echoes that for “LOTR,” with Part Two, “The Desolation of Smaug,” is due in a year. (No doubt we’ll see a special “Extended Edition” DVD release for the first film, as well, though it’s painful to contemplate a version that’s even more glacial and bloated.) Not being a Tolkien fan, but rather a mere mortal (and a film critic at that, lower than the low!), I can say —— as others cannot —— that, oh yes, I can wait.