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The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Warner Bros. Pictures, PG-13)

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thehobbit 75We may as well start calling it “the prequel trilogy” now, right?

 

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I think we can all agree at this point that Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies are pretty great. Myself, I like them but am not a super-fan; I find some fault in the sloppy storytelling (they lean way too heavily on the fact that a great deal of the audience has read the books), but still the characterization, some set pieces, the special effects, and the world they create are pretty close to unmatched. As such, I welcome a return to Middle-earth from Jackson, et al.—though, on the surface, it does seem to be running a risk of the Phantom Menace syndrome. At least Jackson has the actual J.R.R. Tolkien novel to fall back on, and they’re not just making this stuff up as they go.

As it turns out, that Star Wars Episode I comparison is a little more apt than people are going to want it to be. Don’t get me wrong: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (which is, of course, the first part in a Hobbit trilogy; we may as well start calling it “the prequel trilogy” now, right?) is a better film than Phantom Menace. Still, it exists perhaps closer to the Phantom Menace side of the scale than it does the Return of the King side.

The problems I had with the original trilogy are still present here, but many of the things I enjoyed about the originals are now gone. Specifically, the storytelling is still sloppy, but in a different way. In a pretty terrible choice, the first 20 or minutes of the movie consist of very story-dense narration, which is hard to keep paying attention to while getting used to your new surroundings. I mean, you’re trying to get immersed in the world—of course, many theaters will be screening this not only in 3D, but in high-frame-rate 3D, and if you’re like me and don’t watch the LOTR movies once every couple of months, you might need a minute to get reacquainted with the feel of the thing (especially when taking in that high-frame-rate technology for the first time). But while all of this is going on, you’re hit with what feels like a near-endless stream of narration, which is intended to get you up to speed, but instead which you will almost definitely wind up ignoring, at least the first time you see the movie.

Here’s the gist of the plot, in short, so maybe you don’t have to worry about it so much (though plot was never any of these films’ main focus anyway): The wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) enlists young hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm in the original trilogy and in the opening of The Hobbit, but the meat of the story takes place 60 years prior to the events of Fellowship of the Ring, and as such Martin Freeman plays the younger Bilbo for the vast majority of the movie) to help on a quest to recapture the dwarven kingdom Erebor, on behalf of a troupe of dwarves that Bilbo and Gandalf travel with, led by Thorin (Richard Armitage). Along the way, Bilbo meets Gollum (Andy Serkis, going back to the motion-capture thing he near-perfected as an actor in the original trilogy), which in the end holds greater repercussions for the group than the potential recapture of Erebor ever could.

Another problem here is that, while the original trilogy was full of characters you loved, The Hobbit has close to none. (Am I the only one who thinks the hobbits are the least-interesting characters in the story? It’s like if the Star Wars prequels were all about the Ewoks.) In fact, the only two I found myself remotely interested in were Gandalf and Gollum, who, of course, are the two most obvious carryovers from the original films. Even Martin Freeman as Biblo didn’t work for me; I usually like Freeman as an actor, but here a lot of the time he seems to be playing George Costanza playing Bilbo Baggins.

Pretty much everything about this film is like that—the direct correlation with the original trilogy is that here it’s done worse. The special effects look faker (as do the props: the swords and canes and gold coins and things look like plastic toys, for the most part), the world isn’t as immersive (I was never outright bored, but still found my mind wandering quite a lot), and the cast isn’t as good (aside from those who were in the first three films). Also, long patches of the movie feel distinctly like a kid’s movie—not a family movie, but a kid’s movie, which is much worse for most of The Hobbit’s potential audience—but then, other parts are legitimately scary enough that you probably ought to keep small children away from this one.

Of course, there are things to recommend, too. One of the most prominent ones is that, from a technological standpoint, this is the best 3D I’ve seen since Avatar—though, with me that’s a double-edged sword, as really well-done 3D seems to take me out of the movie. (“Eek, what’s that in my peripheral vision? …Oh, it’s still just the movie.”) And really, the chief selling point to this film is, in full effect, you get to return to Middle-earth after nine years away. That point alone will be enough for most of The Hobbit’s audience, I’m sure. | Pete Timmermann

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