Peter Jackson, director of the fabulously successful "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, returns to J.R.R. Tolkien source material for another ambitious three-pack of movies.
This chronicle is drawn from "The Hobbit," the novel Tolkien published in 1937, some years before he got around to producing the "LOTR" saga.
The action predates "LOTR," although some characters overlap. "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" begins with a somewhat off-putting pair of prologues; one provides a war-like backstory to the tale we're about to hear, the other brings us to the Shire, that laid-back land of the hobbits, where Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) and Frodo (Elijah Wood) are puttering around.
Bilbo flashes back to a long-past adventure. Played now by the engaging Martin Freeman, Bilbo is yanked out of his safe existence and dragged along with the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and a dozen or so obnoxious dwarves.
Many zany chases and escapes await. In fact, Bilbo and Co. don't actually get very far in this journey (this is only Part One, remember), so our attention is diverted through a variety of out-sized special-effects set-pieces.
Ah, but the best scene is quiet. Two characters in a cave, talking, sharing riddles with each other and setting in motion the machinery that will eventually blossom into "The Lord of the Rings."
You know I'm talking about Gollum (Andy Serkis), that shriveled, dual-personality creature, who meets Bilbo for the first time here.
Now, "The Hobbit" is not a notably long book, so Peter Jackson has incorporated elements from Tolkien writings outside the original novel.
He wrote the script in collaboration with Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Guillermo Del Toro, and perhaps the most surprising thing about their approach is the childish tone of the silly humor, although, given various crushings and dismemberments and such, the film isn't always kid-friendly.
None of which explains why this initial episode needs to be a whopping 169 minutes long.
It's not just the length; it's the way scenes tend to indulgently dawdle, as though Jackson knew he had the "LOTR" fan base in his corner from the get-go, and could fill out the space with dwarf sing-a-longs and cameo appearances from the previous trilogy (Cate Blanchett and Christopher Lee sneak into the action).
I liked "LOTR," and I liked a lot of "The Hobbit," but there's much to be said for scooting things along. The tedious bits in this movie hurt the overall flow, but who's to say: Maybe when the project stretches out to its full three-part length, it'll all make perfect sense.
Fine, I'll wait. But a technical point: "The Hobbit" will be available to you in a variety of versions, including 3-D.
At select theaters, you can see it in a form that Jackson and his digital technicians have pioneered, which involves a super-fast, super-clear method of shooting the content (we can't say "film" anymore, because there's none of that involved.).
I saw the preview in the new format, and it is freaky. Jackson insists it makes the action seem more real, but you will likely be reminded of daytime soap operas shot on video.
Maybe someday this technology will advance and become truly immersive, but right now it looks like a very expensive way to make a movie look cheap.
"The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" (3 stars)
Part one of a new Tolkien film trilogy from "Lord of the Rings" director Peter Jackson. This one's the prequel, as young Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) sets out with Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and a gang of dwarves on an epic adventure. The fun stuff is punctuated by childish humor and scenes that (especially at 169 minutes) tend to indulgently dawdle, although nobody beats Gollum when it comes to intrigue.
Rated: PG-13 for violence.
Showing: Alderwood Mall, Cinebarre, Edmonds, Everett Stadium, Galaxy Monroe, Marysville, Olympic, Stanwood, Pacific Place, Sundance, Thornton Place, Woodinville, Cascade, Oark Harbor.
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