J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit—a relatively slim book the fantasy author wrote as a gentler, more child-friendly predecessor to his gargantuan Lord of the Rings trilogy—bore the pleasingly modest subtitle Or There And Back Again. Director Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Hobbit—or rather, the first third of it, since Jackson has decided to split the book into three parts as a prequel to his own gargantuan epic—doesn’t even get the furry-footed protagonist of the title all the way there, let alone back. As we say goodbye to Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) at the end of this first chapter, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (New Line Cinema), he and his travel companions have just come within sight of their destination, the abandoned mountain city of Erebor, home to an abandoned castle piled throne-deep in gold that’s also the lair of the fearsome dragon Smaug.
If the phrase “the lair of the fearsome dragon Smaug” in and of itself constitutes a reason you would never see this movie, I’m not sure you can understand the particular pathos of The Hobbit’s artistic failure. The beauty of the Lord of the Rings films was that they formed a bridge between hard-core fantasy fans and regular viewers just looking for a good adventure story—many people who didn’t like Tolkien liked them. As someone with a lifelong resistance to fantasy literature (even as a kid, it was “This book has wizards in it? Next”), I was won over to Jackson’s films gradually, by their own cinematic virtues. The gracefully staged large-scale action. The innovative use of CGI and motion-capture technology—especially Andy Serkis’ funny, tragic performance as the miserable changeling Gollum. The New Zealand landscapes so breathtaking it seemed impossible they really existed on this planet. When I heard Jackson was taking on The Hobbit as a three-parter, my first thought wasn’t to snicker at his hubris but to look forward to the chance to spend more time in Middle Earth.
More time in Middle Earth is exactly what The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey provides—so much more that the movie starts to feel like some Buddhist exercise in deliberately inflicted tedium. Before we ever set foot in the hobbits' shire or lay eyes on any of the main characters, there’s a 20-minute long CGI prologue that provides a Bayeux Tapestry-length account of the mythic fall of Erebor, the dwarves’ once-glorious homeland. Bilbo doesn’t actually pack his bag and leave the damn shire until about an hour in to the movie, which clocks in at just 10 minutes short of three hours.
As Bilbo, the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen), and a pack of very poorly differentiated dwarves make their way to Erebor to face down the occupying dragon, there’s always time to pause for the little things—the very little things, like a protracted scene in which a lesser wizard struggles to resuscitate his dying pet hedgehog. Or a moment when the dwarves, gathered around the fire on the eve of their departure, spontaneously burst into a ballad of longing for their lost homeland. Truth be told, I kind of enjoyed the solemn melancholy of that dwarf ballad, but did it need to contain so many stanzas? An Unexpected Journey, which was scripted by Jackson, his partner Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Guillermo del Toro, vastly overestimates its audience’s need to witness every micro-bump in the road to Erebor. It provides service for the hardcore Tolkien-head, but no foothold for the casual fan.
In a fitting convergence of form and content, Jackson’s Hobbit also vastly overestimates the amount of visual information the viewer needs crammed into her optic cavities. Many screenings of The Hobbit around the country will be shown not only in 3-D, but in a new super-high-definition format called 48fps, which unrolls at a frame rate double that of the average movie: Rather than seeing 24 frames of film each second, you’re seeing 48. It’s fully possible that this technology will one day develop into a tool that enriches our experience of movies. If so, I suspect The Hobbit will be remembered as an early, failed experiment in the medium. The best way I can think to describe the quality of the 48fps image in The Hobbit is this: It looks like an ’80s-era home video shot by someone who happened to be standing around on set while The Hobbit was being filmed. (Other visual analogues scribbled down in my screening notes include Teletubbies and daytime soap operas.) The effect is curiously washed out and flat, yet unforgiving in its hyper-realism: Any imperfection or note of artifice in the costumes or sets stands out as if illuminated with a bank of fluorescent bulbs. This wildly expensive visual technology paradoxically conspires to make everything else in the film look cheap. I found myself fixating, for example, on Gandalf’s staff, an elegant Art Nouveau-esque creation that, in the earlier Lord of the Rings films, would have blended in as another part of the richly detailed ambient whimsy. Seen at 48fps, the staff looked like a cast-resin prop you might order online from a Wiccan supply house.
I’m sure I would have found more to appreciate in The Hobbit if I hadn’t been distracted by the eye-grating quality of its visual surface. Ian McKellen as Gandalf gets a ride on the coattails of goodwill we owe him from the Lord of the Rings movies; he has an inextinguishable twinkle, and a knack for making hoary inspirational bromides sound deep and wise. And Freeman, best known as Tim in the original British Office and Watson to Benedict Cumberbatch’s Holmes, is delightful in the role of Bilbo, a timid homebody who gradually comes to prove himself a loyal and courageous comrade. (The character is also played briefly as an old man by Ian Holm, reprising his role from the trilogy.) But the truncated story arc gives Bilbo very little to do other than chafe at the discomforts of travel. At least until a scene—the movie’s best, but far too late in coming—when he engages in a game of cryptic riddles with Gollum, again played with great vibrancy by a motion-captured Serkis. One wildly imaginative action scene bears the mark of del Toro, who also produced and at one point was set to direct: As the travelers are crossing a mountain range the mountains come to life, transforming into brawling stone giants as the travelers struggle to cling to their perch on the mountainside.
These few set pieces aside, most of the vast temporal expanse that is The Hobbit remains a blur in my mind—if it makes sense to refer to perhaps the most hyper-crisp movie you’ve ever seen as a “blur.” It’s hard to overstate the degree to which the 48fps format interfered with my ability to get lost in this movie’s story. I should probably see it again in regular format to give it another chance—but that would involve sitting through that whole dwarf ballad again.