It's been well over a decade since director Peter Jackson and company took on the monumental task of creating a film version of J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy, succeeding against some truly impressive odds. Jackson and co-screenwriters Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh somehow managed to tread a fine and ever-shifting line, displaying both fidelity to the beloved source material and a willingness to tailor it when necessary — a nip and tuck here, an excised character there, a transported battle scene here, an added love story there.
Now, joined by screenwriter (and initial director) Guillermo del Toro, they've turned The Hobbit, Tolkien's earlier, slim, decidedly more lighthearted volume about the original adventures of Bilbo Baggins, into a similarly expansive trilogy. (The first is 169 minutes, and the remaining two are likely to be of roughly equal length.) As such, they've taken greater liberties this time around with the events that bring Bilbo into possession of the One Ring, the obscure object of desire that fuels the later, darker trilogy. As a great admirer of Jackson's work and the Lord of the Rings films, I wish I could tell you that they've succeeded again. But The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a calamitous misfire.
Where to start? Jackson and his writers are deeply versed in the Tolkien universe. They were longtime fans before tackling the Rings films, which, for all their sprawl, were held together by the urgency of the narrative and the unthinkable evil of the chief villain, Sauron. Our heroes were in a race against time from the get-go. Here, there's little such immediacy. And in trying to create something that matches the scope of the original trilogy, Jackson and his cohorts have larded the narrative with digressions and flashbacks and pit stops into the rest of Middle Earth, borrowing from additional Tolkien writings.
The young Bilbo (Martin Freeman, whose usual perplexed demeanor initially suits this character but wears thin after a while) is enlisted by the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) to help a gathering of dwarves. They mean to reclaim their mountain home, which has been taken over by a dragon. Gone are the tense inter-character dynamics of the original series, which maintained interest and helped delineate characters. The scenes with the mini army of dwarves degenerate into a mess of gags and dialogue, with very little to let us tell characters apart or hold our attention. There's about an hour of this stuff before the journey even gets under way. This is tedious stuff — when it isn't outright confusing.
Adding to the sense of dislocation might be that The Hobbit is being presented in many theaters in a new, 48-frames-per-second, 3-D format. It's a trippy technology, to be sure — one that makes every onscreen event appear to unfold before your eyes through goggles of hyper-clarity — but it also has the odd effect of diminishing the fantasy. It sacrifices beauty for immersion; you imagine that it'd be great for NFL games, but it's not an improvement to this experience.
But The Hobbit has bigger problems than its fancy-pants technology. The action sequences, when they eventually come, don't seem to have much at stake. They're just slightly more technically advanced retreads of beloved battles from the original trilogy, and they leave you feeling a little cheated. It doesn't help that the story's chief antagonist — Smaug, the dragon — is seen only very briefly. There's portent to spare but nothing of any consequence — a problem if you're setting up a trilogy destined to total nine hours.
It was always going to be a challenge to reconcile the tonally more effervescent story of The Hobbit with the dark, vast Rings epic. Sure enough, this lighter, less substantial story can't support the monumental bombast that Jackson brings to it. As a result, you're tired before the first film even gets to its halfway point. By the end, you may feel as if you'd made it through Jackson's entire Rings cycle, and Wagner's, too. And there's, like, another six hours to go in this slow-motion catastrophe. Where's Sauron when you need him?