The first, second, and probably eighth word that comes to mind when thinking about, discussing, or writing about The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Peter Jackson‘s long-awaited return to the Middle Earth, is, to put it bluntly, “bloat.” Clocking in at two hours and fifty minutes, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey suffers from an under-motivated central character, poorly defined supporting characters, a meandering, unfocused first hour, and a sporadically engaging quest narrative in the second and third hours. The visual effects are variable and occasionally cheap-looking and they are made all the worse when viewed in Jackson’s preferred format of 48 FPS (frames per second), which is less a technological leap forward than it is a probable dead end.
Warning: Possible spoilers ahead.
Jackson gives us not one, not two, but three prologues, beginning with an elderly Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm), recounting the events that led to the fall of the dwarf kingdom at the center of the film before segueing to a pre-Lord of the Rings encounter between Bilbo and his nephew, Frodo (Elijah Wood), before segueing again to a younger Bilbo (the wisely chosen Martin Freeman).
The Bilbo we meet has little taste for adventure or risk. He prefers his materially comfortable life in Bag-End to the potential dangers of the outside world. It takes Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen), an itinerant wizard primarily known for his fireworks displays, to spur Bilbo from his provincial complacency by forcefully introducing him to a company of twelve dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), the deposed heir of the dwarf kingdom. Thorin, of course, wants to reclaim his kingdom, but a dragon by the name of Smaug stands in his way.
Even after a reluctant Bilbo decides to join Gandalf, Thorin, and the other dwarves, the narrative pace doesn’t so much pick up as go sideways, filling the next hour with episodic encounters with, among others, Radegast the Brown, (Sylvester McCoy), a minor, forest- dwelling wizard who plays a marginal, tangential role. Naturally, he also encounters orcs, man-eating trolls, stone giants, and goblins — including a grotesque, repellent Goblin King whose singular design reflects Guillermo del Toro’s involvement in pre-production.
Familiar faces makes an appearance in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey thanks to a side trip (they’re all, ultimately, side trips) to Rivendell, the elf kingdom home to Elrond (Hugo Weaving) and Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), along with Saruman (Christopher Lee). familiar faces three, before not one, but two extended battles, one below ground and another above. Another familiar face, Gollum (Andy Serkis), appears as well. With more than a decade’s worth of motion-capture developments to draw from, the Gollum in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is noticeably more expressive than the Gollum moviegoers met eleven years ago. He’s also less the wretched, woeful creature we met a decade ago. He’s far more dangerous, far more treacherous, and far more unpredictable. This Gollum is a cunning, conflicted sociopath willing to bet his life against Bilbo’s in a game of riddles. The encounter, of course, proves key for another reason: Gollum loses and Bilbo gains the ring (and object of desire) at the center of The Lord of the Rings.
Unfortunately, Gollum’s appearance proves to be short-lived. Once Bilbo and Gollum part company on less than friendly terms, the CG monsters, CG backgrounds, and CG- heavy set pieces take over, to increasingly mind- and body-numbing effect. By the time the characters in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey near the end of the first part of their destination audiences will be just as exhausted as the characters onscreen. The promise of two more films to round out another trilogy doesn’t feel like a promise at all. At best, it feels like a challenge. At worst, it feels like a chore. It’s probably more of the latter than the former.
Mel Valentin is a prominent film critic based out of Northern California. You can find his film reviews on NextProjection.com, SFStation.com, and VeryAware.com.