the hobbit

After a nine-year hiatus, how does one follow up his Academy Award winning efforts for Best Picture and Best Director? Well, if you’re Peter Jackson, you realize that you little or nothing to prove, so you make The Hobbit. Revealing the life of a young Bilbo Baggins, The Hobbit is beautifully shot and masterfully crafted. The landscape are sprawling and lush; the caverns are dark and treacherous. In truth, the depth of field in this film might be unmatched by any other two-dimensional endeavor – and I can only imagine how it would look in 48fps.

However, what The Hobbit does visually overcompensates for what it lacks narratively.

Intended to be a trilogy based on Tolkien’s original novel, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey stretches the first third of the book as far as it can go. Unfortunately, there is very little substance here. The script offer repeated variations of a few lines:

“Bilbo Baggins should not be a part of this group,” declare a handful of dwarves a number of times.

“Bilbo Baggins is an important part of this group,” rejoins Gandolf (Ian McKellen) and, toward the end, Biblo (Martin Freeman).

Speak, crescendo, solemnity, repeat.

We know Gandolf wants Bilbo there. Bilbo at times wants to be there because his life is without adventure, but it’s a mystery as to why he’s there at all. This will certainly be revealed as Jackson works his way through the trilogy, but, as a stand-alone film, The Hobbit is rather shallow.

In a way, Jackson’s second trilogy – the first installment at least – echoes the second trilogy from George Lucas. At the time that Episodes 1, 2, and 3 were released, much of the acclaim was for visuals, while a lot of the criticism was directed at the story — and unnecessarily added scenes. To be clear, The Hobbit is much more beautiful that anything in Episode 1. Perhaps this is the benefit of fifteen more years of developing technology, but I think, in general, Jackson deserves a lot of the credit for how he shoots each scene. Fellowship of the Ring was released only a few years after Episode 1, and it looked markedly better all around.

However, Jackson seems to employ some of the same gimmicks that Lucas used. When redundant lines and battles are not on screen, The Hobbit plays on our knowledge of what happens in the second trilogy. The movie begins with Frodo (Elijah Wood) so that Lord fans are sated and brought back into the world of Hobbiton. There are also appearances by Saruman (Christopher Lee), Gladadriel (Cate Blanchett), and Elrond (Hugo Weaving), as they sit around a table, but this feels more like an injection of familiarity. We know what happens between Saruman and Gandolf, so this is the very brief precursor suggestion a former friendship, but the content of the discussion is rather unimportant to the tale. Most of what they discuss was exposited a few times before.

In the same way that we have an interest in Annikan Skywalker because we know what he becomes, cameos of familiar characters pique our interest, but this feels like a ploy to remind folks of what happens eventually. Similar allusions occur during tongue-in-cheek references. One in particular finds Bilbo asserting that the “worst is behind them” when, clearly, it is not – at least, not if the next fifteen-to-twenty hours of film have anything to say about it.

Throughout, it feels as if The Hobbit is not deep enough to stretch along nine hours. This is certainly a passion project for Jackson; he has nothing left to prove; and he’s done a marvelous job creating an aesthetically awesome land. At the same time, it often feels as if we are supposed to love the characters because we know what eventually happens and the trials and tribulations that lie ahead.

The Hobbit also highlights storytelling issues in the Fantasy genre. In the midst of wizards, magic, and strange folk able to talk to animals, there exist many loopholes to get out of jams and navigate difficult situations. Here, the third act of the film is wrapped up in a rather incredible manner without explanation other than to just assume the audience will buy the events and suspend their disbelief. This is well and good in small doses, but there was very little on which to grasp throughout this film, so the rescue of the Dwarves becomes confusingly improbable and feels like a convenient Deus ex machina.

Between the stunning visuals (perhaps with the exception of the trolls; they look a bit cell-animationy) and the paucity of story, the best interaction is between Bilbo and Gollum (Andy Serkis). He feels more realistic this time around as CG has improved, but we get a clearer glimpse at the schizophrenic madness that resides within this mysterious creature.