12/20/2012 - Dwarves, a hobbit and a wizard commence a trek toward a mountain full of gold and the dragon that guards it in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the longest movie ever made in the history of the world ever.
Or, at least, that’s how it seemed, there in the theater, watching my hair and nails grow and seasons pass by while the movie just kept going on and on.
Old Bilbo (Ian Holm) is preparing for a party with the help of Frodo (Elijah Wood) — I’m guessing before the events of The Lord of the Rings — when he sits down to write the story of his earlier adventures. Before we get to young Bilbo (Martin Freeman), we get a heaping pile of exposition dumped on us, the gist of which is that a dragon named Smaug attacked the mountain home of the dwarves, stealing their gold and forcing them to become refugees. Eventually, the dwarf king and his son died — there’s a particularly nasty orc named Azog the Defiler (Manu Bennett) involved in the death of the king — but the grandson Thorin (Richard Armitage), prince and now de-facto king of the dwarves, has never forgotten the gold and the mountain. The dragon hasn’t been heard about in years, and the dwarves think that now may be the time to try to take back their ancestral homeland. (They have another ancestral homeland that gets talked about in the movie, but let’s just sidestep that and keep the eyes on the prize of Lonely Mountain, home of the gold and the dragon.)
Gandalf (Ian McKellen), a wizard still sporting gray hair and gray robe ensemble, has decided to help the dwarves in their quest and, because he believes that getting into the mountain will involve an element of sneaking, he decides to rope in young Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit living in the Shire. (Hobbits being small and good a sneaking.) Bilbo has a tidy home and is fond of his peaceful, orderly life. But he also has a streak of the adventurer in him and so, despite his initial urges to simply send these dwarves away, he decides to join in on the quest for gold and glory.
Think of this journey — from A, the Shire, to B, the mountain with the dragon — as a big game of Candyland. Only, instead of Gumdrop Lane or whatever, between here and there lie Rivendell (home of the elves, with whom Thorin has a beef), a bunch of nasty orcs (lead by Azog), a few dwarf-eating trolls, goblins and at least one mountain range featuring mountains that can come to life and throw boulders around. Bilbo, separated from the others for a while, also encounters a hissing Gollum (Andy Serkis) and his Precious. (And that’s all just in this movie.) Along the way, the dwarves, particularly Thorin, complain that Bilbo isn’t really fit for this kind of quest, and Bilbo himself isn’t sure. Also, at Rivendell, magical elf person Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) meets with Gandalf, wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee) and elf elder Elrond (Hugo Weaving) to discuss how the dwarves quest fits into wider geopolitical changes in Middle-earth that seem to involve some encroaching evil. Also, there’s this whole bit about Radagast (Sylvester McCoy), a brown-robe-clad wizard whose kind of a Francis of Assisi and is attacked by giant spiders.
You know, I’ll put up with a lot of goofy, magical “into each generation a slayer is born” or “you must avenge your father Anakin Skywalker by killing Darth Vader” type backstory, but An Unexpected Journey feels like 30 minutes of forward action tacked on to two plus hours of backstory and general exposition. Far too many of the creatures of Middle-Earth look alike (orc or goblin? — only the leaders get enough personality and detail for the difference between the two to be quickly noticeable) and far too many places have names that sound like “Dormor” or “Mooradoon” or something else that could be the name of a small-batch scotch. There is just too much — names, places, battles, creatures — and yet not enough happening. A cast of thousands shows up on an infinite stage, but the plot isn’t even a page long.
Add to this confusion of Middle-earth stuff the way this movie was shot — or I guess specifically the way I saw it. I saw the 3-D HFR version, which features more frames per second than your average movie. The resulting picture is striking. In some respects, it is crisper and clearer than most movies. But is also looks, for lack of a better descriptor, unpleasantly “realer,” like a play being acted out in front of you or like a live broadcast — like a football game or the in-studio part of a local news show. It’s a disorienting visual effect and, while you see detail more, you lose lushness. As the dwarves and co. trudge through digitally-altered New Zealand, you see crisp mountain peaks, but there is no sense of a richness of the landscape. And God forbid you move your head during the movie. While the 3-D clarity grabs your eyeballs and doesn’t let go when your head is perfectly upright, there is a headachey blurring effect if you tilt your head even ever so slightly. And during a nearly three hour movie, trust me, you tilt.
I’m pretty sure that not only did I read The Hobbit as a kid but that it was read to me as well. I remember a rompy adventure. The spirit of that is hard to find in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. In an effort to weave a heavy suffocating tapestry of Middle-earth (and, I’m guessing, stretch this thing out to three movies), what could have been a spirited quest become an overstuffed force march. C+
Rated PG-13 for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence and frightening images. Directed by Peter Jackson with a screenplay by Fran Walsh & Philippa Boyens & Peter Jackson & Guillermo del Toro from the J.R.R. Tolkien book, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is two hours and 46 minutes long and is distributed by Warner Bros.