First installment of 'The Hobbit' leaves viewers more than sated

Martin Freeman and Graham McTavish in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." SOURCE NEW LINE CINEMA
December 23, 2012

I realize that it’s the journey, not the destination, but for much of “The Hobbit” I felt like the kid in the back seat moaning, “Are we there yet?”

At a butt-blistering two hours and 45 minutes, director Peter Jackson’s Tolkien return was a bittersweet visit indeed. Sure, it’s great to shuffle around Middle Earth with the orcs, elves, dwarves and other sprites and such, but as when a guest is refusing to leave, it’s hard not to glance at your watch and hope they get the hint to wrap things up.

There is no doubt Jackson has an affinity for the locale. Since 2001’s “Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring,” the director has given us nine effing elvin hours of cinema set in the murky otherworld. The majority of that time was well spent providing us with grand spectacle, glorious battles and special effects that still mesmerize 10 years later (it also snagged him a host of Oscars for the achievement).

But with all that wizardry both onscreen and in the effects department, Jackson never really discovered the magic of the “edit” button. The films had more ends on them than a toilet seat. So when it was announced that the much-smaller “Hobbit” was being transformed into yet another trilogy, it seemed that padding was to be inevitable.

The first half of “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” holds the bulk of the bloat. Erratically paced, dramatically stilted and repetitive, it meanders for long stretches that made me want to scream “Cut!” as the cameras continue to roll. Somewhere around the halfway mark (about the time the group arrives at the elf palace of Rivendell, which, at first, looks like a crappy Thomas Kinkade matte painting), the film’s pulse quickens and there are actually quite a number of moments of magic still left to be seen.

“Journey” shows us an earlier excursion of Gandalf (played by Ian McKellen) and a young Bilbo Baggins (here played by Martin Freeman, best known from the British version of “The Office”). They team with a hardy group of dwarves who wish to reclaim their kingdom, lost to a dragon years ago.

For those who recall reading “The Hobbit” in their youth, Jackson’s vision may come as a little surprise. The book was originally written for a younger audience, and the story is much more light and whimsical than the “Rings” novels, but Jackson takes some rather violent turns here that may prove too intense for younger audience members.

Along their path they encounter many a familiar face: Elijah Wood as Frodo, Cate Blanchett as the Elvin Queen, Hugo Weaving as Elrond, and even Andy Serkis as the much-loved Gollum creep in for visits. And while Gollum still is a CGI marvel to behold and quite welcome onscreen, even his scene feels overly long and drawn out, packing on more unnecessary minutes to the running time.

The conclusion is far from it, leaving the lead characters atop a mountain, peering out over miles still left to travel. There was many a thrilling battle in "The Hobbit," but I left hoping we did not have to witness every next step they needed to take in the subsequent installments.

The release timing of "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" is rather appropriate, as it often feels like a holiday meal: There's certainly a feast to be had, but it’s hard not to walk away sluggish and uncomfortable from gorging on far too much that was served.

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