The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is not a film that knows exactly where it stands. It's astonishing to think that, because Peter Jackson returns to Middle Earth having so convincingly snake-charmed J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. But what else can be said about a movie so anonymous, so intermittently clumsy and, ultimately, so insignificant?
The Hobbit is the first of three films in a series. But if he has so little of substance to say in the first installment, this trilogy could be awfully stale.
It isn't just the narrative that comes up empty. Jackson shot this film in something called High Frame Rate, or HFR, 3-D, the first time it's been used commercially. Normal film speed is 24 frames per second, but HFR shoots more frames in that same span, increasing image clarity. For 3-D, this could solve the issue of images "ghosting" as the action moves around. Sounds great, right? In the right environment, it is.
There are moments in The Hobbit that look astonishingly real and unlike a film at all. Most of the exterior medium-to-long shots are amazing—but close-ups are brutal, and sweeping crane shots of wide areas (a Peter Jackson staple) might give you vertigo. The problem stems from HFR accelerating the motion at those extremes, or at least that's your mind's perception of what it sees. Cutting between medium-range shots that look fine and close-up shots that you perceive as moving too quickly is tremendously disorienting. It is not a good experience.
Close-ups also reveal the artificiality of sets and the art of performance more than they should by eliminating the dramatic distance you normally have from ... well, the artificiality of sets and the art of performance. Props look like props, and the exaggerated movements of the actors, particularly facial expressions, come off as clownish.
But buck up, Bilbo fans: This film exists in five visual formats, so if you skip the HFR 3-D, you might be OK. In fact, because the reaction to HFR has been soundly negative since footage debuted earlier in the year, plans to release it more widely in that format reportedly fell by the wayside in favor of IMAX (with or without 3-D), a traditional 3-D environment, and standard 2-D.
Assuming you've been discouraged from HFR, Jackson's adaptation is still too sedate to spread over this length of time. Indeed, Jackson himself told Entertainment Weekly in 2007 (when this series was planned as two films) that The Hobbit is more "lightweight" and "simplistic" than The Lord of the Rings. As a consequence, there's a lot of ambling punctuated by battle scenes. Generally, those fights get progressively better, but that's little solace.
For the uninitiated, the events of The Hobbit predate the Lord of the Rings trilogy, with old, gentlemanly Bilbo (Ian Holm) writing down his epic quest for his nephew Frodo. After an interminable prologue narrated by Holm, the curtain opens for Martin Freeman to portray the younger Bilbo. Funny, flexible and not a scene-chewer, Freeman is a good choice. Despite the film's many problems, this is one thing Peter Jackson got exactly right.
Bilbo is then coerced by Gandalf (Ian McKellen) to join him on a journey—nay, an unexpected journey—to help a band of dwarfs defeat an evil dragon and return to their homeland.
Boiled down, The Hobbit is a road-trip movie with orcs and trolls lining the path. There is nothing wrong with a simple story from point A to point B. But with so little gravity between those battle scenes, and almost no true character development outside of Bilbo's slowly growing confidence, this movie could be nearly an hour shorter—and many times better.
One subplot of note: The longest scene in the film might be the meeting between Bilbo and Gollum (voiced and green-screened by Andy Serkis). Its importance has very little to do with The Hobbit. But because Gollum is such a pivotal figure in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, he and Bilbo engage in a lengthy riddle contest, and there is a magical gold ring involved. Serkis is fantastic again, and the scene gives The Hobbit some much-needed tension and intensity.
Unfortunately, it's not a pulse that Jackson or the film can maintain. The Hobbit is not cleverly, or at times even carefully, assembled, with Jackson slapping in close-up shots all over the place, presumably to take advantage of the HFR 3-D instead of serving the story. Worse, it's also not much fun. Or worth the wait.