The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey | Movie review
Peter Jackson offers a dark vision of cinema’s future.
You’ve heard the grumbling from CinemaCon, you’ve read the lukewarm early notices, but nothing can prepare you for just how horrendous—how flatly, distractingly uncinematic—The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey looks in 48 frames per second. Peter Jackson, always technologically adventurous, has filmed his return to Middle-earth at twice the frame rate of a normal movie. Long touted as the next frontier in filmmaking, the choice is meant to amplify the clarity of the 3-D effects. What 48fps mostly does is give the entire picture the too-smooth, hyperreal luster of a daytime soap. Costumes look like costumes. Makeup looks like makeup. And actors glide through scenes at a frantic pace, as though we were watching them at 1.5-speed.
Thankfully, audiences can experience The Hobbit in regular 24fps. (At most theaters, that will be the only option—a handful of locations have had upgrades for 48fps.) Yet it would take more than a change in frame rate to fix this perfunctory prequel, the first in a three-part saga designed to replicate the magic—and box office—of Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. To gaze upon the film, like Frodo staring into that prophetic magic orb, is to be shaken by a dark vision of cinema’s future. One day, will all literary adaptations be diced into multiple installments, regardless of how neatly their narratives might be condensed?
Jackson takes J.R.R. Tolkien’s first novel, a slimmer and more lighthearted adventure than the subsequent LOTR epics, and reconfigures it into a cluttered imitation of his decade-old Oscar winners. The movie begins as The Fellowship of the Ring did: in the Shire with Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm), who’s putting the finishing touches on his memoirs. Flash back 60 years, and our hero is suddenly a young hobbit played by Martin Freeman. Casting the deadpan star of the U.K. Office and Masterpiece’s Sherlock was a stroke of genius, though the actor’s dry wit is frequently eclipsed by the f/x onslaught around him.
At the urging of sage wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen, happily back in gray), Bilbo hits the road with a dirty dozen of dwarves on a quest to reclaim their homeland. From here, the movie begins to resemble a loose Fellowship remake, hitting many of the same plot points and locales. There’s a pit stop in Rivendell, where Jackson—padding out the first third of Tolkien’s novel with the author’s ephemera—stages a council meeting as leaden as the ones in the Star Wars prequels. Déjà vu sets in again during a protracted, subterranean battle, the navigation of a treacherous mountain pass and the appearance of a ferocious orc leader. What’s missing, fatally, is a sense of wonder or discovery.
In his original trilogy, Jackson employed prosthetics and miniatures along with CGI, a tactic that lent his Middle-earth an organic quality. No such luck this time, as The Hobbit delegates almost all of its world-and-creature-building duties to the digital department. As in George Lucas’s prequels, weightless computer animation and forced callbacks are the order of the day.
Only Andy Serkis, returning as schizophrenic jewelry fiend Gollum, is able to provide any danger or personality. Given the liberties Jackson has taken with Tolkien’s text—as well as his need to stretch its 200 remaining pages into two more mammoth movies—is it too much to ask for more of this rasping antagonist? In a franchise gone stiff, Gollum’s theatrics seem particularly precious.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey opens Friday 14.