Directed by Peter Jackson
Whether or not you’re interested in more adventures in multiculti Middle Earth, Peter Jackson has a great deal he’d like to share with you. At times interminable and only occasionally spectacular, The Hobbit Part the First has that Phantom Menace prologue-and-demo feel of a first installment, sitting us down for catch-up sessions and blowing up plot points into chutes-and-ladders set pieces. Jackson’s adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s 1937 children’s classic seems to take forever and a day before Martin Freeman’s hesitant, hairy English-cottager-proxy gets anywhere on his quest with pimp-hatted Gandalf and the single-traited dwarves of Erebor, etc., etc.; most of the human actors (smugly magical Cate Blanchett, dull Richard Armitage as dwarf monarch in exile) pale next to their animated costars; and a lot of it looks rather cruddy.
That is admittedly not a technical term—that would be the movie’s High Frame Rate, 48 fps, perhaps the most significant auteurriffic twist on the bigger picture since Avatar’s proprietary 3D. Opening on an older, wiser Bilbo recounting his adventures, The Hobbit in all its purported hyperreality is disconcerting, glassily translucent, and reminiscent of nothing so much as 1980s television video. The verdant rolling hills of Hobbiton and its wee citizenry look far too chintzily present-tense for the story’s days of yore; whether it was a matter of ocular adaptation, the movie comes into its own only during scenes set at night or underground. For a story that tilts precariously into the precious with its worked-over mythology and languages and fandom, this visual mismatch proves damaging to your reintroduction to this lush world, which Jackson plants firmly in the hybrid tradition of animation-with-photographic-elements-and-simulated-camerawork (the latter at times quaintly recalling the shallow-angle whirls of his Dead Alive).
The requisite, rudimentary personal journey is taken by Bilbo, who in this first part overcomes hesitance to join a mission and then discovers and demonstrates courage. His hemming and hawing is comic relief alongside the Epicspeak of most of the characters, and actual action comes as a relief in a movie that demonstrates Jackson’s weakness for the grand scene (cf. an inexplicable Stone Giants CGfest) without always supplying the bits of business in between (or the thumbnosing humor of his youth) that make myth upkeep bearable. The expedition’s detainment by goblins, thanks in no small part to their extravagantly wattled king, has some sense of fun, and a cliffhanger with the Orcs—whose pursuit of the “Dwarf-scum” supplies the film with regular chase-scene goosing—scares up some passable doom, albeit through fake suspense.
But at a certain point you wonder whether distending The Hobbit into three films—as late as spring, it was reportedly still to be two—is a lazy derogation of the adapter’s duty, the surehanded work of distillation and reimagination. Easily, the film’s highlight is the previously minted, hideous Gollum—a hilarious and horrifying bipolar creation, far and away the most satisfying walking psychodrama in the picture. No one can take away the achievement of The Lord of the Rings from Jackson, a milestone in fantasy cinema. But I came away from The Hobbit caring less about Bilbo than craving that Gollum have his own sociopathic talk show.
Opens December 14