"The Phantom Menace" also started at a glacial pace, repeated many of the same
story beats and ended similarly to the series' first installment. ("Hobbit"
also has its own Jar Jar Binks -- the cross-eyed wizard Radagast the Brown,
played by an over-the-top Sylvester McCoy.)
True, Tolkien wrote "The Hobbit" before the "LOTR" trilogy. But in fleshing out "The Hobbit" to make three movies, Jackson has overlain elements onto the basic structure that are simply repetitive.
The film's tone also wobbles occasionally -- the book is essentially light-hearted kiddie lit, but many of the more threatening scenes are too dark and menacing for many parents' comfort.
There also is a lot of bloodless and strangely consequence-free violence. The sheer number of bodies slashed, gouged, stabbed and sent falling to their doom in a goblin-infested cave might rival the body count in "The Expendables 2."
And it's flabby. There's an unnecessary cameo in the film's overly talky prologue. Jackson shows us countless extraneous panoramas and repeatedly cuts to multiple close-ups of dwarves reacting to something. Several times after some sort of ridiculously dangerous moment, Gandalf counts the dwarves as though he's a flabbergasted grade-school teacher organizing a field trip.
Technologically, however, the film is nearly perfect. There has been much hand-wringing and social-media nattering about Jackson's decision to shoot the film at a higher frame rate. (Most films are shot at 24 frames per second; "The Hobbit" is shot at 48. James Cameron plans to shoot the next "Avatar" at 60). At first it's distracting, but you quickly get used to it.
To nitpick, the picture is so clear that the seams show on some of the makeup and computer-generated imagery. Some fake noses don't match skin tones. An Orc chase across a sunlit plain looks about as realistic as a local TV news weather map. Nonetheless, it's the technical aspects that make "The Hobbit" required viewing in a theater.
The performances are all as expected. We've seen McKellen play Gandalf for so many years, it's hard to see if he's acting. The dwarves range from super-serious to super-silly.
Freeman doesn't look much like the 111-year-old Bilbo (Ian Holm) from "Fellowship," but his comic timing and sense of bewilderment are welcome in the face of all the sobersides and sourpusses. And the scenes Bilbo shares with the returning ring-coveting villain Gollum (another excellent motion-captured performance by Andy Serkis) are the film's quietest moments, and the most menacing.
Whether it's the familiarity of the world or the timelessness of the heroic journey story, these arduous Middle-earth walkabouts are overall enjoyable. Generations of Tolkien fans have spent years immersing themselves in the minutiae of the author's writings. And fans of the "LOTR" movies don't mind spending one extra minute in this very familiar world.
Think of it more like an amusement park than a movie. We've returned, willing to endure the long waits for something exciting to happen, because something exciting eventually does happen. There's always a payoff to the ponderousness.
3-D or not 3-D? HFR or not HFR?
"The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" is definitely worth the higher ticket price for 3-D. We recommend seeking out a theater with a high-frame-rate (HFR) projector. Cinemark Merriam and AMC's Barrywoods, Independence and Studio 30 theaters are showing HFR in just one auditorium each -- Studio 30's is the IMAX screen. (Remember, a 3-D screening isn't always an HFR screening.) The HFR 3-D version we saw at Cinemark Merriam was crisp, bright, colorful and nearly blur-free, and the 3-D was clear and vibrant. There's so much detail in many of the frames it's hard to take it all in.
What others are saying
-- Rene Rodriguez, Miami Herald: "In terms of images alone, this is one of the most beautiful fantasy films ever made."
-- Lisa Schwarzbaum, Entertainment Weekly: "Just as I felt I was hitting a Middle-earth wall, out pops a savior to remind the faithful of what we loved about 'LOTR' in the first place. I'm talking, of course, about the great Gollum."
-- David Germain, The Associated Press: "'I do believe the worst is behind us,' Bilbo remarks as 'An Unexpected Journey' ends. From a hobbit's lips to a filmmaker's ears. Let's hope Jackson has the goods to improve on a so-so start."
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