Dear Peter Jackson: Please put down the computer- generated imagery and step away from the Hobbit.
This is a tough request to make as a longtime fan of the New Zealand director (going back to his low-budget horror days of Bad Taste and Dead Alive) and an admirer of the dedication it took to bring J.R.R. Tolkien's seemingly unfilmable The Lord of the Rings trilogy to the screen. Jackson not only garnered Oscars for best picture and best director for the third Rings movie in 2004, but he became a veritable industry, responsible for generating what seems like half of his small country's GDP.
But his first installment of The Hobbit, Tolkien's relatively slim percursor to the sprawling Rings saga, is a technically impressive but bloated adventure that feels every one of its 169 minutes. Outside the circle of the many Tolkien obsessives, the film — whose full title is The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey — is going to strike many as a Rings retread.
Chances are you know the story: A Hobbit leaves the comforts of hearth and home to join with other denizens of the fantastical Middle-earth to save their land from the clutches of evil — all under the watchful eye of the good wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen). Oh, and a certain ring makes an appearance. Or, rather, disappearance. It's going to take three movies and nearly nine hours to unravel this tale. Sound familiar?
The Hobbit here is Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman as the younger Bilbo, Ian Holm as the older Bilbo), who has no apparent gift for cunning or combat. He seems an unlikely choice as one of the Middle-earth supergroup put together to defeat the dragon Smaug and restore the stout-hearted Dwarves to their rightful ancestral home. But Bilbo, much like his nephew Frodo years later in The Lord of the Rings, ends up proving his worth, finding bravery deep in the heart of fear.
That's always a worthwhile theme, but it just takes too long for the story to get going. Jackson — who co-wrote with Fran Walsh, Phillippa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro — has expanded on Tolkien's 300-plus-page novel and stuffed the film with characters that were mere footnotes in the original book.
Once on the road, Bilbo and his mates cross paths with some incredible creatures, including the villainous orcs; hungry giant mountain trolls who turn to stone in sunlight; the warlike goblins; the magical elves, including brief appearances by Hugo Weaving as Elrond and Cate Blanchett as Galadriel from Rings; and, of course, everyone's favorite human/CGI hybrid, Gollum (brought to haunting life again by Andy Serkis).
Aside from its length, The Hobbit is also hobbled by its ambitious technology. On the face of it, that would seem absurd; technological advances are precisely why making a movie from Tolkien's elaborate fantasies are possible. However, with The Hobbit — in 3-D and shot at 48 frames per second instead of the standard 24 frames per second — the technology is distracting at times. The faster frame rate means the images are so sharp you feel as if you're standing on the set, taking the viewer out of the moviegoing experience entirely. In addition, some of the characters' movements appear odd or at the wrong speed. (Also, some viewers reportedly have felt nauseous watching the film in 48 fps.)
Having said that, there are some absolutely gorgeous sequences — especially the elaborate chase scene near the end, or anything involving the doleful, desperate Gollum. And there's no denying the homey charm at work in Tolkien's good-versus-evil tale.
This alone might be enough for die-hard Rings fans, who will be looking forward to the remaining two films, due in 2013 and 2014. The rest of us will be waiting to see what Jackson does after that.