Once there was a director named Peter Jackson, who made three grand movies based on a high-fantasy novel by John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, about a mighty battle of good and evil, called The Lord of the Rings. The movies had misty, mountainous landscapes, massive CGI battle scenes, quaintly costumed wizards, beautiful princesses and fierce creatures such as the world had never seen, and the movies earned many awards (17 Oscars) and riches ($2.9-billion at the box office).
Then, after nine years, and many legal struggles, Peter Jackson set out to make another three movies, out of a much smaller book, called The Hobbit. To make something fresh, he filmed the new trilogy in 3-D and at 48 frames per second. And here, dear reader, is the point in our imaginary voice-over narration, where we hear the rude scrape of a needle across a record.
How can I put this? The first half-hour of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey – including a battle scene – is painful on the eyeballs. The look on the screen is distracting but familiar – somewhere between a soap opera, a sports-bar football game and a direct-to-video kids program from a bygone era. By doubling the frame rate of traditional 35mm film production and current high-definition video, the new format provides twice the visual information. Instead of being immersed in the action, you find yourself staring at the prosthetics and props. Instead of engaging with the drama, you’re staring at the sets and the actor’s choreography. Things get better as the film progresses into its second and third hour, and the skillful CGI effects and fanciful creatures are integrated into this world, but the difference between this and conventional film is the difference between in-your-dreams and in-your face.
Once you get over studying the architectural detailing of Bilbo Baggins’s cozy hobbit hole, you can begin to care about the story.
Bilbo is the uncle of Frodo from LOTR, played by Ian Holm in those movies and the affable, amusingly flappable Martin Freeman (Hot Fuzz, Sherlock) here. Bilbo loves his pipe and books and his well-stocked larder and is firmly opposed to adventures until he is visited by Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellan), who seconds him for a mission. He must join a group of 13 hairy, rambunctious dwarfs who want to reclaim their home mountain kingdom of Erebor, which has been occupied by the dragon Smaug, who breathes fire and sleeps under mounds of gold nuggets.
They are not, apparently, in a hurry. After about 45 minutes of dwarfish songs and high jinks at Bilbo’s home, the team hits the road, led by the doughty black-bearded Thorin (Richard Armitage). Their first adventure involves a trio of giant hairless grey trolls with Cockney accents. Bilbo, as the designated “burglar” in the group, is assigned to rescue ponies stolen from the dwarfs, and ends up having his friends tied to a roasting spit.
“Out of the frying pan, into the fire,” Gandalf declares at one point, which, repeated half a dozen times, sums up the plot. Epics, by definition, tend to be episodic, but the repeated iterations of fight, flight and respite here get wearing. Especially perhaps because, with Jackson’s fetish for detail, they take more time to watch on screen than to read about.
The major set pieces include a battle in a cavern, with collapsing bridges and vast canyons, and a grossly lumpy-looking goblin king (voiced by Barry Humphries, a.k.a. Dame Edna). There are stone giants who cast boulders at each other, in a sequence reminiscent of Ray Harryhausen’s 1963 effects in Jason and the Argonauts.
And let’s not forget the bellowing bald grey orcs riding wolf-like wargs, who chase the Bilbo and his crew across beautiful landscapes to the refuge of Rivendell. There, we briefly meet some familiar, and thankfully serene, faces: Lord Elrond (Hugo Weaving), Queen Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and the wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee).
Bilbo’s character development – and recognition that he may well be more hero than homebody – is delayed until late in the movie, after his discovery of the ring of invisibility that becomes the central subject of Tolkien’s later books.
In this fitfully engaging, but often patience-straining preamble to Hobbit adventures to come, there is one transporting 10 minutes of screen time. It happens when Bilbo meets the freakish, ring-obsessed creature Gollum (with voice and much-improved motion-capture performance by Andy Serkis). With his pink hairless body, his shrewd, soft-boiled-egg eyes and bitter, quivering mouth, he seems at once pathetically ancient and creepily fetal. This uncanny blend of human and technological art is a source of pure fascination at any number of frames per second – and as Gollum might say, yes, we wants more of it.