After the hideous misfire that was “The Lovely Bones,” it’s little surprise that Peter Jackson opted to return to the scene of his greatest triumph, Middle-earth. But in ignoring Thomas Wolfe’s sagacious warning to never go home again, Jackson cast his fate, and hard-won reputation, on a folly that’s not nearly as hobbit-forming as his spectacular “Lord of the Rings.” Like that Oscar-winning classic, his “Hobbit” is also a trilogy of three-hour movies, the first of which has been dubbed “An Unexpected Journey.” But instead of having three epic novels as a source, this time he’s attempting to expand a single 300-page children’s book into a nine-hour presentation.
The aggrandizing of such a slender tale is very much on a par with filmmakers attempting to adapt a 30-page Dr. Seuss offering into a single two-hour flick. And the results are just as anemic. I won’t go so far as to say Jackson’s “Hobbit” is a bore, but it’s certainly a struggle to sit through, something I would never say about his three “Lord of the Rings” films, which were all briskly paced and stuffed full of fascinating characters. Jackson and his hoard of co-screenwriters know this to be true, and in a desperate attempt to disguise this film’s slightness, they’ve invented appendages to the sacred texts of J.R.R. Tolkien to provide an excuse for resurrecting a handful of beloved characters from “The Lord of the Rings” films. And no doubt, the sight of Frodo (Elijah Wood), Saruman (Christopher Lee), Elrond (Hugo Weaving), Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and an aged Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) are a sight for tired eyes, but they can’t begin to compensate for this “Journey’s” blatant deficiencies. Nor can the momentarily intriguing gimmick of shooting the film in digital 3-D at twice the normal 24 frames per second.
The higher speed (available at only handful of theaters) yields a cleaner, purer look along with eliminating the strobing that can occur during action scenes. But it also makes the characters look like they’re appearing in an afternoon soap, in addition to causing the manmade sets to look as cheap and fake as if you’d been granted a backstage pass to Jackson’s studio. The result is more of a distraction than an enhancement, which might not be such a bad thing when you consider how dull and flat a script we’re dealing with. The duration may be nearly three hours, but other than a lot of expository dialogue and perfunctory battles with orcs and goblins, nothing really happens beyond introducing the characters and establishing their quest, which is to reclaim the Dwarf Kingdom of Erebor from a gold-coveting dragon named Smaug.
Missing are all semblances of character development, along with any attempts at creating tight emotional bonds on a level matching Sam and Frodo, who provided the heart and soul of “LOTR.” About as close as we come – and it’s not very close – are the shaky bonds that form between Gandalf, once again played by the great Ian McKellen, and a reclusive, young (the story is set 60 years prior to the events of “LOTR”) Bilbo Baggins, now portrayed by Martin Freeman, a middling actor with a preponderance of bombs on his dodgy resume. I know Frodo; Frodo is a personal favorite of mine; and sir, you’re no Frodo. You’re more like vanilla pudding, colorless, shapeless and virtually tasteless. Certainly not the sort of hobbit one would want to invest nine hours in. In fact, I grew tired of him after about 40 minutes. But even a wizard as wonderful and intriguing as Gandalf fades into these lush Middle-earth backdrops. The 13 Dwarfs accompanying him and Bilbo on this journey are no great shakes, either. None of them stands out, not even their leader, Thorin (the hunky but overmatched Richard Armitage), who Jackson and company futilely try to establish as this trilogy’s Aragorn. Spending time with these lumps is tantamount to spending an evening with 13 sleep-inducing insurance salesman fruitlessly trying to sell to you.
Page 2 of 2 - At least the action scenes still rock, especially when a couple of rock creatures do battle, but even they – like the rest of the picture – have too much of a been-there-done-that feel. Worse, this franchise lacks a villain as powerful and terrifying as Sauron. Sorry, but a gold-hoarding dragon just isn’t in the same league. At least we still have Gollum (again portrayed through capture motion by the brilliant Andy Serkis), and it’s no coincidence that “Journey” comes alive when he appears. Unfortunately, that’s somewhere around the two-hour mark, but seeing him and learning how Bilbo Baggins came into possession of Gollum’s “Precious” is almost worth the wait. But as great as Serkis is, he can’t begin to make “The Hobbit” look anything but short.
THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY (PG-13 for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence and frightening images.) Cast includes Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman and Richard Armitage. Co-written and directed by Peter Jackson. Grade: C