'The Hobbit': An Unexpectedly Bumpy Journey

Hobbit

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit, and maybe he should have stayed there.

Well, maybe that's a little harsh. Really, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey has its moments, but they're sprinkled sparingly throughout an overlong running time that teeters awkwardly between silly humor, dense exposition, and all-out action. There's a reference to getting out of the frying pan and into the fire toward the end, and after awhile, Journey starts to feel like nothing so much as a numbing succession of frying pans and fires; when you finally arrive at the final battle, you may feel nothing so much as a well-earned sense of frazzled exhaustion.

Before that, though, in classic Tolkien fashion, there's a lot of walking and talking to be done. The Hobbit picks up with Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) preparing for a party at his home in the Shire, hiding something from his beloved cousin Frodo (Elijah Wood) while penning a chapter in his memoirs that recalls the tragic slaughter and exile of the dwarves of Erebor, who were defeated by the dragon Smaug. Bilbo wasn't there when the dwarves lost their homeland, but he was instrumental in their quest to regain it, and that's the winding road leading up to An Unexpected Journey's title card.

It's just the kind of overstuffed setup that led to epic thrills in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but as Tolkien fans are already well aware, The Hobbit is a different sort of tale -- lighter and smaller of scale. A relatively scant 310 pages, it was adapted into a 77-minute animated feature in the '70s, and while that version left out or compressed a lot of the book's plot, it might have been more sensible than expanding it into a trilogy. Director Peter Jackson's affection for the source material is as evident as ever, and his impossibly detailed visuals and lovingly languid pace are impressive in their own way -- but all the same, you can feel the narrative framework of the book loosening like a pregnant woman's joints, and the effect can be frustrating.

Where the Lord of the Rings movies represented a triumph of epic storytelling, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey feels surprisingly lumpy, an uneven mishmash of gory violence, childish gags and unnecessarily broad pratfalls, and loads of the aforementioned walking and talking. It's too intense for the kids who will appreciate burping dwarves and the stoner woodland wizard with bird poop on his face, but those moments will undermine Jackson's epic ambitions for some older filmgoers.

Jackson also displays a surprisingly clumsy hand during several key moments during The Hobbit -- you can almost physically feel him straining for high drama when he has characters stride in slo-mo or scream "Nooooooooo!" It's as if he didn't trust the audience to understand the importance of key moments, and it's distracting.

All that being said, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey does have its moments -- and over the course of its 169-minute running time, enough of them add up to give fantasy fans a film worth recommending, albeit occasionally only barely. The visuals, for one thing, are spectacular; Jackson's had to endure a lot of grousing about his decision to shoot in 48 fps, and it's true that if you do spring for a ticket to one of the movie's 3D IMAX HFR screenings, you're going to notice a few moments that look unpleasantly like a high-budget TV production. Wherever the technology for 48 fps is right now, it isn't far enough along to create a seamless cinematic experience -- it fares particularly poorly in scenes that require a lot of camera movement.

But when it works, it works spectacularly, drawing out a beautiful level of detail in the images -- both real and CGI. In fact, some of The Hobbit's computer-generated creatures are amazingly lifelike, from the trio of Stooge-like trolls that bedevil our heroes to the thoroughly disgusting goblin king. And then, of course, there's Gollum, who pops up here during a key interlude that will be familiar to any Tolkien fan -- and who has never seemed more like a living, breathing thing, thanks in equal measure to technological advances and Andy Serkis' outstanding performance.

By the end, An Unexpected Journey has undeniably taken you on a ride -- it's just a much bumpier one than you might have expected. This is just the beginning, of course, and it's a testament to the strength of the source material that no matter how frustratingly logy and uneven this installment might be, the prospect of setting out for another adventure with these characters remains tantalizingly compelling.

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About Jeff Giles

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Jeff is an entertainment writer and editor whose work currently appears at a variety of sites, including Rotten Tomatoes, Paste, American Songwriter, Popdose, Dadnabbit, Diffuser, and Ultimate Classic Rock.

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