In this year of bloated movies with inflated running times, Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey feels perfectly at home. Yes, its 169-minute running time is inexcusable and the whole thing has more padding than Eddie Murphy’s Norbit fat suit. But in 2012 that seems pretty standard in terms of the theoretical heavy hitters — and these minutes move far more briskly than such overstuffed compatriots as Les Miserables, Flight, This Is 40 and, yes, Zero Dark Thirty. Frankly, I was prepared for the worst — in part, I admit, because I’m pretty much Tolkiened-out. (I have trouble even reading the character names and not rolling my eyes.) And being prepared for the worst, I was agreeably surprised. Oh, I have issues with the film (I’ll get to those), but all in all I think of it as The Hobbit: A Better Than Expected Journey.
About Jackson’s controversial use of the 48 frames-per-second (twice the normal speed) approach, I can’t say for sure since I only saw it at 24 fps — though that presumably retains some of the enhanced sharpness, and it may account for some of the film’s less delightful aspects where crepe-hair and putty are a little more obvious than they should be. I can, however, say that there is way too much time expended on cramming 13 dwarves into Bilbo Baggins’ (Martin Freeman) hobbit hole (there must be another way of phrasing that). I wouldn’t have been at all surprised if one of the later arrivals had stuck his head in and asked, “Is my Aunt Minnie in here?” (Come on, at least some of you will get that!) The resultant dwarf eating, guzzling, belching, singing and general knockabout could have done with some serious pruning. (And, no, I don’t buy the idea that it has to do with character development since the characters are never developed.) Similarly, there’s a later sequence involving three trolls — that might as well be named Moe, Larry and Curly — that could have been cut out of the movie altogether.
Other aspects of the film feel a bit like Peter Jackson’s Greatest Hits revisited. The trip to where the elves live — Maxfield Parrish Land or whatever it’s called — seems mostly like an excuse for Hugo Weaving as Elrond (is his last name Hubbard?), Cate Blanchett as Galadriel and Christopher Lee as the pre-evil Saruman to pop up, but I can’t say I minded it in the least. It might also be noted that it adds a little weight to the otherwise fairly slim story — and its often even slimmer characterizations. Apart from Bilbo and Ian McKellen’s Gandalf (who is, like the aforementioned trio, already established), there’s not really much characterization. The king dwarf, Thorin (Brit TV actor Richard Armitage), is just mostly sullen and ill-tempered. Radagast (Sylvester McCoy) — and his rabbit-powered sled — is an amusing (and apparently magic mushroom-addled) addition, but most of the film’s new characters are just sort of there — though effective enough.
The question is whether or not this needed to be stretched out into three movies — apart from milking the Tolkien cow for all it’s worth. ( It probably didn’t.) But it’s been done, and it’s been done much better than I could have imagined — at least in its first installment. Yeah, it aims for the kind of emotional kick at the end like the one in Fellowship of the Ring and it falls short because it hasn’t really earned it. And its final image certainly holds a lot less dread than the one in that film, but this is carping. Did I have a good time watching it? Yes. Did I think it was too long? Yes. Could I understand more than half of what Gollum (Andy Serkis) said? No, but that’s nothing new. All in all, any movie that reveals that Gandalf knows how to play Whackbat is hard to dislike. Rated PG-13 for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence, and frightening images.
Playing at Carolina Asheville Cinema 14, Co-Ed Cinema of Brevard, Epic of Hendersonville, Regal Biltmore Grande, United Artists Beaucatcher Cinema 7