The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey ★★

An overwrought, long-winded, self-indulgent, meandering time-suck of a movie. If I didn't know any better, I would've sworn I was watching the latest Judd Apatow joint.

While more an admirer of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy than a staunch supporter, I was nevertheless curious to see what he could do when he returned to Middle Earth. I was even willing to overlook the cynical economic decision to turn a single 300-page novel into three movies, seeing as how it could turn out to be a grand experiment in narrative largesse. But in hoisting this first Hobbit movie onto the screen, Jackson has all but discarded the "story" aspect of storytelling.

Having not read the source material since I was a child, I remember The Hobbit as being largely episodic but still adhering to the classical plot structure that befits a saga: rising action, falling action, and the like. I was hopeful that Jackson and his screenwriters would be able to carve out a similar structure in their three movies so that each installment could stand on its own merits. They have failed. What they've assembled is a collection of overly-long setpieces devoid of narrative thrust. The action lurches forward with no immediacy and is frequently interrupted by interminable exposition scenes that feel like cinematic footnotes. There is little sense of danger or unpredictability either, since we know going in that we're only watching one-third of the plot arc. Characters are established, a journey is started, a few whizz-bang action scenes occur, LOTS of flashbacks are replayed, and... that's it. There isn't any story here. Not even a mini-story that works on its own and is still able to connect the events of the film to the larger trilogy. The film just wanders around directionless until the final action sequence ends and then it's over. If you were to describe the plot of this film, and only this film, to someone unfamiliar with The Hobbit, she would assume that you were a participant of the "write a novel in a month" challenge who got bored about a week into it.

But maybe, maybe I could forgive The Hobbit its storytelling shortcomings if only there weren't so much fat on its bones. Unfortunately, "bloated" doesn't begin to describe it. Starting with the prologue, every scene feels that it's about five minutes too long. The worst offender is where our heroes are captured by trolls and it takes what seems like an hour for this unnecessary little subplot to get resolved. Honestly, the scene took so long, with so many superfluous reaction shots and groan-inducing attempts at humor, that halfway through I was hoping that the trolls would just eat everyone and be done with it. So thanks, Peter Jackson, for giving us a movie that not only doesn't go anywhere but takes twice as long as it should have to do it.

In light of the grave mistakes that Jackson makes in constructing his story, it seems almost unnecessary to describe the various other sins that The Hobbit commits. But screw it, I'll do it anyway. Martin Freeman is the very definition of a one-note actor, and it's a note far more in tune with Douglas Adams than J.R.R. Tolkien. All the dwarves who are not the bloviating Thorin (Richard Armitage) are cartoonish, buffoonish caricatures (and whoever green-lit the idea to stick a "sexy dwarf" in the posse should be publicly shamed). Ian McKellan just looks tired, with every line he utters containing an implied "I can't believe I'm in fucking New Zealand again." The large-scale action sequences (such as the escape from the Goblin kingdom) are filmed in such a way that it's impossible to ascertain how characters relate to one another within the frame, and the result is largely disorienting. All this, and I can't even comment on the largest problem that most audiences have had with The Hobbit: the decision to film it in the not-ready-for-prime-time 48 fps. I saw the movie in good old 24 fps 2-D, and if I had subjected myself to all the film's problems PLUS a wonky presentation style, I'm almost certain that I would have walked out.

At this point, I've got to believe that the problem lies with Peter Jackson. He's like a chef who designs for himself the most elaborate kitchen ever created yet still manages to fuck up a grilled cheese sandwich. His vision of Middle Earth is still a marvel to behold, and his production design and effects crew are all second-to-none. But with all the awesome tools at his disposal, he can't do more than churn out a half-baked quasi-movie that's full of sound and fury but ultimately signifies nothing.

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