For those who simply cannot get enough of Middle Earth, Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit” promises to be the ultimate Travel New Zealand mini-series. He and his “Lord of the Rings” team have taken J.R.R. Tolkien’s dense but slight and more comical “Rings” prelude, a quest to slay a dragon and blown it up into a trilogy.
And since the first installment, “An Unexpected Journey,” clocks in at almost three hours, well you see what lies ahead of us.
The settings are gorgeous. The effects are Next Generation spectacular. Well, most of them. Gollum looks more real than ever.
But in building in a prologue, in transposing character from the “Rings” films into the narrative, and in having the luxury of including “Hobbit” minutia by that fateful, cynical decision to cash in for three films here, I have to say the bloat shows. The hardcore faithful won’t admit it, but they could have told this entire tale in three hours.
Ian Holm, in the days before the party that set “The Lord of the Rings” in motion, narrates his first great adventure to his nephew Frodo (Yes, Elijah Wood). In his youth, he was rousted from his comfy hobbit hole by the great wizard Gandalf (Sir Ian McKellen).
And in his youth, he looked an awful lot like Martin Freeman, a bit of inspired casting that pays off right away. Not only does he look like a younger Ian Holm, the actor’s quirky Dr. Watson (to Benedict Cumberbatch’s Holmes) sensibility in the latest British TV version of Sherlock Holmes shines through here. No one is better suited to be this “reluctant hero.”
All the dwarves want Bilbo for, of course, is his burglar skills. Not that he has any. But Gandolf told the dwarves, Middle Earth’s homeless diaspora, that this bookish homebody Bilbo Baggins was just the sneaky fellow to take with them as they try to recover the treasure that the dragon Smoag stole from them when he occupied their cavern-city ages ago.
To Bilbo, he says “The world is not in your books and maps. It is – out there.”
So out there Bilbo goes, on “An Unexpected Journey” to the land of elves, and into a Middle Earth made increasingly dangerous by the incursions of trolls and goblins, a hobbit (“halfling”) who acquires an elvish sword, a magical ring, an enemy for life (the fellow whose ring he stole) and the respect of a company of dwarves along the way.
Jackson has the time to settle on details – the moths who fly out of the literally moth-eaten beard of the dwarves. He can show us, in detail, Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy), Gandalf’s nature-loving brother wizard, with a team of rabbits driving his sledge, even if he’s barely mentioned in “The Hobbit.”
Some of this is welcome, but one struggles to find a performance that stands out in this opening chapter, aside from Freeman and the reliably grandiose McKellen. Richard Armitage is properly heroic as Thorin, the heir to the dwarf throne. But frankly, he’s no Sean Bean.
It’s a lighter film, the way the book is a lighter novel. But it’s quite violent. One villain even jokes about his manner of death. And there’s singing.
Scenes and sequences are rich, but they go on too long, which turns this Hobbit from a brisk stroll into a bit of a slog.
Jackson hasn’t forgotten his lessons in forced perspective – using the camera, doubles, and the like to make Gandalf, men and elves tower over the hobbits and dwarves in the “Rings” movies. But the contrast is less pronounced, less emphasized here.
And that lesson screenwriters learn when studying the masters seems utterly forgotten in the headlong march into making this book into a trilogy. Even Shakespeare needs editing.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for “extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence, and frightening images:
Cast: Martin Freeman, Sir Ian McKellen, Cate Blanchett, Richard Armitage, James Nesbitt
Credits: Directed by Peter Jackson, written by Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens based on the novel by J.R. R. Tolkien. A New Line/MGM release.