Should I see it?
An unenthusiastic yes.
Director: Peter Jackson
Writers: Fran Walsh, PhilippaBoyens, Peter Jackson and Guilermo del Toro
Actors: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Andy Serkis, Ian Holm, James Nesbit, Ken Stott and Graham McTavish
Rated PG-13 for violence, and frightening images
Peter Jackson is starting to wade into the George Lucas end of the pool. On the heels of arguably the best, or at least satisfying, cinematic trilogy ever produced, Jackson couldn't leave well enough alone. Like Lucas dragging out his prized gift horse Star Wars out for an unbearable jaunt, Jackson has chosen to risk his fortune on another Tolkien adaptation.
To get right to the point, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is not a bad film. In many ways it is a remarkable adaptation. The trouble is that Jackson is very indulgent and doesn't seem to see a need to restrain his vision for the sake of time or story. Jackson delivers a bloated, wandering tale that resembles The Hobbit, but never quite catches the nature or charm of the original work.
His film isn't an adaptation of The Hobbit, rather it is a long-toothed prequel the The Lord of the Rings Trilogy. Given the technical brilliance of the trilogy, this is a hard trap for Jackson to avoid. Steering clear of looking like he is simply knocking off his previous works should be goal one as the film opens. Jackson instead doubles down on making this film feel like little more than a perfunctory sequel/prequel to a previous success. He unnecessarily drags in Frodo (Elijah Wood) and has Bilbo (Martin Freeman and Ian Holm) spend far too much time in his hovel instead of on the road exploring areas of Middle Earth the audience has never seen.
Jackson made the choice to split/stretch the tale into a full trilogy. This opening film boasts a run time of over 2 1/2 hours. Say what you will, The Hobbit is not a story that takes nearly eight hours to tell on screen, which is how long the full trilogy will last if this first film is any indication - and that's not counting in the obligatory Director's Cut content! All of this time is spent on things not in the original book and culled from other Tolkien sources. This is one of the main reasons the film feels more like a Jackson movie than a Tolkien adaptation.
As with The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, the design work in this film is nearly flawless; the sets, the lighting, the costumes, almost everything is well thought out, and patiently and purposely displayed. After seeing the film, a friend of mine mentioned something that had stuck in his craw. It is now firmly wedged in mine as well. For some reason Jackson decided that only some of the dwarves would look like dwarves. He clearly established their appearance in the trilogy which mimicked traditional perceptions of the fictional race. In this production, Jackson obviously felt that dwarves couldn't look young or like leaders if they retained the usual dwarvish look. Instead of being squat, bulky, puffy-faced miners, the younger dwarves Kili (William Kircher), Fili (Dean O'Gorman) and Bofur (James Nesbitt) look more like miniature elves. Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) seems to be a vertically-challenged human more than a king of the dwarves. I noticed it when watching the film for the first time and it struck me as odd. Afterward, it has been a point of irritation because it is so inauthentic in what is otherwise a praise-worthy production in regards to design.
The film shines in one particular scene, the classic riddle exchange between Bilbo and Gollum (Andy Serkis). Bilbo finds The One True Ring accidentally in a dark, dank cave. The cave's resident Gollum, the Ring's owner, finds Bilbo. The two decide on a simple game where they will tell each other riddles. If Bilbo wins, Gollum will lead him out of the cave. If Gollum wins, he eats Bilbo. This is the only portion of the film which captures the reason why Tolkien's overly episodic and disjointed tale attracts an audience. Tolkien had a clear love and respect not only for Bilbo but also for his language and general attitude. Bilbo is ultimately a classic upright Briton - plenty of custom and easily disturbed by embarrassment and awkwardness. Contrasted against Gollum's slithering, pond-beast demeanor, Bilbo couldn't be more out of his element. It is at this point where the reader, and now the audience get to see the true heroic side of Bilbo. His previous minor victories were accidental. Here, he is challenged to use his wits. Jackson clearly spent a good deal of time designing and executing this scene and does so beautifully. If there was an Oscar for Best Scene (and why isn't there?), this would win by a mile.
The film as a whole is a loud ramble that distracts from its original source. Fans of the original The Lord of the Rings Trilogy who aren't terribly discerning, will find this to be a fun outing. Expect for ponderous and overdrawn moments of Jackson appreciating his own filmmaking skills. I do not think it is possible to watch this without checking your watch at least once.
The bottom line is this: I saw this film in the theater to experience the 48 fps (frames per second) version to see it in action (I won't go into 48fps here, you can get a good idea of what it is all about following this link). When the film was done I wasn't hearing any excited expectation from the folks I saw the film from random strangers nearby. There was quiet discussion about if the film was as awful as some thought. For those who liked the film, there was the question of how in the heck Jackson could possibly stretch this into three full films. When people leave a huge, technical production like this and they are left almost dreading the idea of what the filmmaker is up to - that is a bad sign.