½*/**** Image A Sound A+ Extras B
starring Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Andy Serkis
screenplay by Fran Walsh & Philippa Boyens & Peter Jackson & Guillermo Del Toro, based on the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien
directed by Peter Jackson
by Walter Chaw Shot at a vaunted 48 frames-per-second to better approximate the television soap opera its mammoth length suggests, Peter Jackson's vainglorious trainwreck The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (hereafter "Hobbit 1") looks for all intents and purposes like its own porn knock-off. A technological "advancement" that is to the naked eye identical to any episode of reality television or live sporting event you've been watching in your living room for years, the 48fps "breakthrough" was for Jackson a way of making the increasingly unpopular new-gen 3-D a little bit less crappy. It's like putting a dress on a pig. Understand, complaints about "HFR" are not akin to the bellyaching about colour film or CinemaScope, since those innovations didn't actively cheapen the moviegoing experience. The irony of all that being, of course, that while the image indeed doesn't stutter or blur as much in 3-D, what we're forced to look at is overlit, obviously artificial, and reminded me more than once of the jarringly amateurish "Star Wars Holiday Special".
A problem only if you're (un)lucky enough to have a theatre near you with the technology and resignation to exhibit the film in the full glory of Jackson's folly, Hobbit 1 is of course merely the first three hours in what is probably going to be nine total hours invested in adapting a 300-page children's book to the big screen. It includes all the appendices, snippets from The Silmarillion, a manufactured villain, and numerous reminders that the work upon which it's based is light on arcs (emotional and plot, alike). Even at an extended length, the picture fails to flesh out its characters much, succeeding mainly in making the dwarves seem like a ridiculous sideshow attraction given to mad rushes and feats of appetite, while central player Bilbo (Martin Freeman) is Freeman's long-perfected fastidious British fop. The most curious thing about the whole benighted farrago may be the way that 48fps makes Ian McKellen's tender, magisterial Gandalf look like the community theatre's best actor captured on home video.
Perhaps knowing that stretching out The Hobbit like this is suspiciously avaricious (if this were Green Eggs and Ham, the film would stop at approximately the point at which you would not eat them with a fox), the movie offers a couple of sidebars to imply that future instalments will feature the corruption of Mirkwood despite the intervention of addled wizard Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy), and a hushed council composed of Gandalf, Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), Elrond (Hugo Weaving, not Korean in this one, but maybe Vulcan), and Saruman (Christopher Lee) that essentially says, "You've already seen the real trilogy, suckers." A pity that Hobbit 1 will ultimately be most remembered as yet another doomed project that robbed Guillermo Del Toro of a couple years of prime productivity. And after Jackson's disastrous, pandering The Lovely Bones, comparisons of Hobbit 1 to Episode I and of Jackson to George Lucas land uncomfortably close to the bone.
The story finds twelve homeless dwarves and their elderly caseworker kidnapping a vest-wearing English twat and forcing him to help them steal back a giant stash of gold that some monster has allegedly taken from them. It's a task easier said than done, as their quest involves a lot of walking, some camping, a trio of slapstick trolls defeated in a way that is nowhere near as clever as it is in the book, a senseless sturm und drang fight between rock giants, and, just for this movie, an arch-villain, albino orc Azog (growled by Manu Bennett). The need for Jackson and company to manufacture an BigBad is accompanied of course by the need for Jackson and company to manufacture a grim fantasy hero, and so dwarf Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) is made to be an asshole instead of hilarious. He's called "oaken shield" because he uses a log as a shield. Which is fine until one sort of magically appears on his arm long after such improvisation would have been necessary--see, now it's an affection; he's just showing off. Many will proclaim the riddle sequence with Bilbo and Gollum (Andy Serkis; so sick of his shit) the highlight of the film--and they'd be right, given that a large portion of Hobbit 1 is a bunch of dwarves running across slat bridges while fighting a grotesque, wattled Great Goblin (Barry Humphries, because Ian McShane was voicing some other humiliating project). They'd call it the highlight, really, because it's difficult to invest three hours in something without trying to divine one good reason for having done it.
Unforgivably protracted, unbearably familiar, Hobbit 1 lacks the sense of wonder and gravity of any portion of Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy. There's a scene where the dwarves clean up their dinner by throwing the crockery and washing dishes to the consternation of stick-up-me-bum Bilbo, for God's sake, followed by a real-time post-consumption pipe-smoking and song-singing, causing me to briefly hope that some Led Zeppelin lyrics ("Misty Mountain Hop"?) would make an appearance just to provide a moment's respite from all the opulent, self-satisfied self-indulgence. The worst isn't the additions to the source material, in other words--the worst is that when it's not suturing shit willy-nilly to the he's-not-gonna-make-it-doctor carcass of the piece, it's dedicated to filming every single comma, period, and weak resolution that J.R.R. Tolkien hardwired into his minor opus. Nothing in the book or movie is resolved honourably; rather, those frickin deus ex Giant Eagles save the day, or a rock falls the right way, or the sun rises, or, hey, there goes my traveling party--wait up, guys! It's sloppy writing translated into sloppy filmmaking and magnified, sped-up, and brightened preternaturally so that it approximates what I could do with my smartphone and a ton of cheap makeup. There's no magic in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, no sense of wonder, and of all the crimes it commits, the biggest is the one against wonder. There's a Proust quote that goes something like, "Trying to understand eroticism by looking at a naked woman is like trying to understand time by taking apart a watch." The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is clockwork guts, copper and springs. It's a disaster. Originally published: December 13, 2012.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey docks on both the Blu-ray and Blu-ray 3D formats from Warner Home Video. This review refers to the 2-D release. The film was infamously shot at 48fps, but strictly speaking there's not yet a way to replicate HFR at home (one could simulate it by turning up the Hz on one's TV, but why would one do that?), so the Blu-ray transfer ditches every other frame, just as the "flat" and IMAX versions did in theatres. Despite this, there's no choppiness to what's on screen--I'd go so far as to call the 2.40:1, 1080p image cinematic, though it's so razor-sharp it threatens to put the plastic in fantastic cinema. Alas, Middle-Earth is a fully digital realm now, and I try not to fault a video presentation for being faithful to questionable aesthetics. Faint traces of noise are ultimately just that; dynamic range is stupendous. The accompanying 7.1 DTS-HD MA track is ferocious if, and giving it the benefit of my doubt, perhaps a bit more cacophonous downmixed for 5.1 than it is in all its 7.1 glory. In any case, dialogue is lamentably clear, while the soundstage achieves real, impressive transparency.
A second BD warehouses ten "video blogs"--"Start of Production," "Location Scouting," "Shooting Block One," "Filming in 3D," "Locations Part I," "Locations Part II," "Stone St. Studios Tour," "Wrap of Principal Photography," "Post-Production Overview," " Wellington World Premiere"--originally produced for the web. In spite of their teasing nature and spoiler-phobia, they manage to entertain and, occasionally, edify. I didn't know, for instance, that Andy Serkis stayed behind to direct second-unit after filming his part as Gollum. (Serkis admits to struggling with his signature role this time around.) But the takeaway from this 127-minute 'diary,' other than the sideshow fascination of Peter Jackson's fluctuating weight, is the offscreen chemistry between the dwarves, which echoes the camaraderie between members of the "fellowship" captured behind the scenes of the original trilogy. There's a joy here that's absent from, or that at least feels prefabricated in, The Hobbit: Yadda Yadda Yadda proper (an irreverence, too: actor James Nesbitt takes the piss out of Tolkien's songs, comparing them to Cole Porter), although Jackson looks and acts so depleted I'm not surprised that all the film communicates is fatigue. "New Zealand: Home of Middle-Earth" (7 mins., HD), which opens with a startlingly slim Philippa Boyens expressing Kiwi pride, is fairly up front in its desire to promote tourism; it joins six (!) trailers for the film plus trailers for the games "Kingdoms of Middle-Earth", "Guardians of Middle-Earth", and "Lego Lord of the Rings" in rounding out the disc. The set includes DVD and Ultraviolet copies of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, in addition to a secret access code to view the trailer for the first sequel when it goes live next week.