‘The Hobbit : An Unexpected Journey(Hobbit: Omoigakenai Bouken)’

Middle-earth romp suffers from pop-up fairytale effects


OK, I know that some of you out there are anticipating the release of Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit” more eagerly than the Second Coming, and for you, here’s the short review: If you liked Jackson’s first three “Lord of the Rings” movies, you’ll love this one, too.

For the less committed, it’s a hard call: based on the 1937 novel by fantasy author J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” is the first in another marathon three-film excursion into epic swords and sorcery territory. Should the casual fan take the plunge?

The story follows bourgeois Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman)- uncle to Frodo, the hobbit hero of “The Lord of the Rings” — as he’s reluctantly enlisted by sly old wizard Gandalf (Sir Ian McKellan) to join him on an adventure. Exiled dwarf king Thorin Oakenshield and his ragtag band of dwarves hope to regain the treasure of their lost kingdom of Erebor, now guarded by the ferocious dragon Smaug, and Bilbo is meant to be their burglar. To get there, the group will have to dodge bands of marauding trolls, orcs, goblins and ravenous wargs. En route, Bilbo will meet this creepy fellow named Gollum and wind up pocketing a very special ring.

The look and feel of the film is very similar to the other Middle-earth movies Jackson has made, with painstakingly detailed costumes and sets, epic digital effects, and earnest acting. The highlight remains Gollum, as performed by Andy Serkis using motion-capture technology; his schizophrenic dialogues with himself are the only time in the film that a performance seems larger than the visuals.

The biggest difference is that there’s a lot more humor this time; Bilbo is your average stay-at-home fussbudget — think Wallace of the “Wallace and Gromit” series — and he is rather less than happy to be dragged off on a thrilling/life-threatening adventure. Freeman (of “The Office”) was canny casting, and he flusters well enough, while McKellen is good at delivering a joke straight-faced behind that beard.

A lot of the humor, though, moves well beyond Tolkien into something more like “Shrek” territory. When a troll blows snot all over Bilbo, or the Goblin King — who looks like Jabba the Hutt with a tumorous testicle hanging from his chin — makes a fart joke, it feels less like Middle-earth and more like the 21st century.

Much has been made of the fact that Jackson turned one 300-page book into a nine-hour movie trilogy, and for the casual viewer, it may well be a bit much. Jackson stretches out the battles and escapes to lengths Tolkien never imagined — albeit thrillingly so — while also fleshing out the book with backstory from a 100-page appendix, much of which ties the film in more tightly with “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. The wizard Radagast the Brown, who is hardly mentioned in “The Hobbit,” winds up having several of his own scenes — the rabbit-drawn sled is priceless — while the Orc warlord Azog, not even in the book, is dropped in presumably because each chapter of the film needed a clear-cut bad guy.

One of the biggest issues surrounding the film is Jackson’s decision to make the new trilogy in 3-D, while also shooting in HD at 48 frames per second, an unproven format, and one that will be rarely seen, since most digital films will be projected in cinemas at 24 frames per second. Some viewers have claimed the new format leaves them feeling queasy, whereas Jackson has said that 48 frames per second improves the 3-D experience, “because it’s less eyestrain and you have a sharper picture.”

I can only offer my own opinion, but as someone who has frequently had headaches with badly employed 3-D (usually of the postproduction kind), I was fine with this one, even at three hours. As for the queasy feelings people report, a more likely cause may be the hyper-fast sweeping camera movements that Jackson employs, especially during a battle scene with the goblins in the Misty Mountains; the speed level here is something akin to the “hard” level on your average video-game shooter, which can be a bit daunting on a huge screen.

A bigger issue for this critic is that 3-D — with precious few exceptions — continues to result in this curious pop-up book sort of look, where the foreground seems entirely unattached to the mid- and background. There’s one scene where our band of intrepid travelers emerge from a tunnel and see the Elven kingdom of Rivendell glimmering across a valley, and the effect was really not far removed from a bunch of actors standing in front of a painted backdrop. Dorothy and the Scarecrow on the yellow brick road to Oz was what immediately came to mind, and being reminded of 1930s special effects by what is claiming to be state-of-the-art is rather ironic.