Martin Freeman appears as Bilbo Baggins in 'The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.' / Warner Bros. Pictures
‘The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey’
Rated: PG-13 for violence.
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Rated: PG-13 for violence.
“I do believe the worst is behind us.”
That’s what Bilbo Baggins says at the end of “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” as he surveys an expanse of land before him. Let’s hope he’s right. Because with few exceptions, Peter Jackson’s return to Middle-earth is a long slog to nowhere.
With “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, also based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s work, Jackson captured real magic. Yes, they were long movies, but there wasn’t a lot of complaining about meandering plot threads and tossed-off diversions.
But now his decision to make the slimmer book “The Hobbit” into a three-part series is looking questionable, to put it charitably. Scary is another term. The film picks up a bit toward the end, but at 2 hours and 46 minutes, the end is a long way away.
On the plus side, Jackson has left plenty of room for improvement.
The story begins with a framing device, in which the older hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) is preparing for a party. A chat with his nephew, Frodo (Elijah Wood), gets Bilbo to thinking about a time, 60 years before, when he undertook a great adventure.
And we are back in time, when Bilbo (now played by Martin Freeman), after a chat with the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen), gets an unexpected clump of visitors to his little abode. It’s a group of dwarves, seemingly intent on nothing more than eating him out of house and home, which they proceed to do.
But then Gandalf arrives, followed by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), a warrior and heir to the kingdom of Erebor that was destroyed by the dragon Smaug, who also looted the kingdom’s coffers. Gandalf and Thorin want to travel to the Lonely Mountain, where Smaug resides, and reclaim what belongs to the dwarves.
At this rate they should arrive sometime in 2015. (There are sequels planned for 2014 and 2015, actually.) You shouldn’t be able to read a book faster than you can see it play out on-screen.
To the chagrin of the others, Gandalf wants Bilbo to accompany them, as the group burglar, even though Bilbo, a homebody, has never done that kind of work. But he reluctantly joins in, and they’re off. And off and off.
Along the way they encounter many challenges, including trolls, goblins and stone giants. There are fights aplenty, and as you would expect, Jackson stages them expertly. Bilbo manages to win the respect of the others, first grudgingly and eventually wholeheartedly. Their journey is far, so much happens and then, by the end of it, they are standing on a cliff, looking at the Lonely Mountain, which is still far away.
It all just takes so long.
A note about the look of the film: The version I saw was shot in 3-D, at 48 frames per second. That means it was shot at twice the normal speed. In theory, this means more than the usual amount of depth and clarity. In actual practice, it had a scattershot quality that often made chunks of the film look like a giant version of a hand-held video game. A sharp foreground image would be layered against a flat background (or sometimes vice versa). Not every theater has the capability to show the higher frame rate; you’ll miss nothing if you don’t have the option.
For all this, there is one stop that proves worthwhile: When Bilbo runs into Gollum (Andy Serkis). There, some of the old magic reappears. The two stage a game of riddles, and, even with all of the effects and jaw-dropping sets (virtual and otherwise) and whatever else Jackson throws into the mix, this simple exchange is the best, most-genuine scene in the movie.
Plus, Gollum drops this ring and Bilbo takes it. …
Ah, but that leads to another story. One that Jackson told much better.