POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Dec 14, 2012
Judging part one of Peter Jackson's "The Lord of the Rings" prelude "The Hobbit" is a bit like reviewing a film after seeing only the first act.
Yet here goes: "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" is stuffed with Hollywood's latest technology — 3-D, high-speed projection and Dolby's Atmos surround sound system. The result is some eye candy that truly dazzles and some that utterly distracts, at least in 48 frames a second, double the projection rate that has been standard since silent-film days.
It's also overstuffed with, well, stuff. Prologues and sidestepping back story. Long, boring councils among dwarves, wizards and elves. A shallow blood feud extrapolated from sketchy appendices to J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings" to give the film a bad guy.
Remember the interminable false endings of "The Return of the King," the Academy Award-winning finale of Jackson's "Lord of the Rings"? "An Unexpected Journey" has a similar bloat throughout its nearly three hours, in which Tolkien's brisk story of intrepid little hobbit Bilbo Baggins is drawn out and diluted by dispensable trimmings better left for DVD extras.
Two more parts are coming, so we won't know how the whole story comes together until the finale arrives in summer 2014. Part one's embellishments may pay off nicely, but right now, "An Unexpected Journey" looks like the start of an unnecessary trilogy better told in one film.
Split into three books, "The Lord of the Rings" was a natural film trilogy, running nearly half a million words, five times as long as "The Hobbit." Jackson and his partner, Fran Walsh, along with screenwriting partners Philippa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro — who once was to direct "The Hobbit" — have meticulously mined Tolkien references to events that never played out in any of the books.
With that added material, they're building a much bigger epic than Tolkien's book, the unexpected journey of homebody Bilbo (Martin Freeman, with Ian Holm reprising his "Lord of the Rings" role as older Bilbo).
Bilbo has no desire to hit the road after wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen, grandly reprising his own "Rings" role) and a company of dwarfs turn up to enlist him on a quest to retake a dwarf mountain kingdom from the dragon that decimated it.
Yet off he goes, encountering trolls, goblins, savage orcs and a grisly guy named Gollum (Andy Serkis, re-creating the character that pioneered motion-capture performance). Improved by a decade of visual-effects advances, Gollum solidifies his standing as one of the creepiest movie creatures ever.
"An Unexpected Journey" resurrects other "Rings" favorites, some who didn't appear in "The Hobbit" (Elijah Wood as Frodo Baggins, Cate Blanchett as elf queen Galadriel, Christopher Lee as wizard Saruman) and some who did (Hugo Weaving as elf lord Elrond).
Richard Armitage debuts as dwarf leader Thorin Oakenshield, ennobled as a brooding warrior king in the mold of Viggo Mortensen from the "Rings" trilogy.
While there are plenty of orc skewerings and goblin beheadings, the action is lighter and more cartoonish than that of "Rings." Still, much of it is silly fun, particularly a battle along a maze of footbridges in a goblin cave.
Jackson's higher-speed 48-frame rate clarifies the picture and greatly improves action sequences. And the panoramas are like Middle-earth actually come to life, as though you're standing on a hill looking down at the hobbits' Shire.
But with greater clarity comes greater vision. Sets and props look like phony stage trappings at times, the crystal pictures bleaching away the painterly quality of traditional film.
This may be cinema's future, and the results undoubtedly will improve over time. But it'll be an adjustment for audiences, and like the warmth of analog vinyl versus the precision of digital music, the dreaminess of traditional film versus the crispness of high frame rates will be a matter of taste.
—Review by David Germain / Associated Press