“The Hobbit”: An Unexpected Eyesore
Published on December 14th, 2012 | by Matt Cohen3
Running time: 169 minutes; Rated PG-13.
When Peter Jackson first brought J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth to the big screen in 2001’s “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring,” he created a cinematic achievement like no other: a richly detailed movie universe that bridged the gap between hardcore Tolkien-ites and fantasy novices. Innovative C.G.I. and Andrew Lesnie’s sweeping, portrait-like cinematography of the New Zealand-as-Middle Earth setting made “The Fellowship of the Ring” and its two sequels modern movie marvels.
So it was inevitable that an adaptation of Tolkien’s famous Middle Earth-set novel “The Hobbit” would eventually follow. Presenting roughly the first third of the book in its 169-minute running time, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” turns its beloved source material into an overwrought, overlong, and over-produced mess. After a nearly twenty-minute prologue chronicling the fall of the grandiose mountainside city of the dwarves, Erebor, to the fearsome dragon Smaug, the film launches into a second prologue in which an aging Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) is writing his memoir to his nephew Frodo (Elijah Wood). Finally, we’re launched into the thick of the narrative, which involves Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellan) and a group of thirteen displaced dwarves persuading a younger Bilbo (Martin Freeman) to join them on a perilous quest through Middle Earth to The Lonely Mountain (home of Erebor) to defeat Smaug and reclaim their home once and for all.
Sounds like a winning formula for a gargantuan epic, no? Well, it would be, except that over the course of the film, the closest that we get to Erebore is a far-off glance of the outline of The Lonely Mountain in the horizon, in the very last scene of the film. Action scenes are sloppily tied together with an overabundance of Middle Earth navel-gazing, seemingly endless sweeping landscape shots, pointless conversations, and needless distractions. If the first “Lord of the Rings” trilogy proved Jackson’s obsession with Middle Earth, then “The Hobbit” finds him moving towards an unhealthy fetish.
But none of that is worse than “The Hobbit”’s biggest crime: its “revolutionary” screen resolution rate. Movies are typically shot and projected at twenty-four frames per second. For “The Hobbit,” however, Jackson elected to shoot at forty-eight frames per second to produce a supposedly more crisp, hyperrealistic image. Unfortunately, the actual effect is more like a poorly shot daytime soap opera than the “future of film as we know it.” Everything is so overly vivid, stodgy, and fast-paced that it leaves no room for the exquisite visual texture that defined the first three films.
Had it been shot at the normal frame rate, ”The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” (the first of three “Hobbit” films) would probably have felt like a warm return to Middle Earth. It certainly revives the feel and narrative pacing of “The Fellowship of the Ring,” as certain scenes and action sequences mimic ones in the first film with an almost questionable ease. And there’s certainly much to admire in “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey”—including stellar performances by McKellan, Freeman, and Andy Serkis (as the tortured Gollum)—but given how hard it is to stomach the film’s “hyperealistic” cinematography, a journey back to the theater to watch it again would be quite unexpected.