If you share a filmmaker’s obsession, then you’re willing to follow him or her anywhere.
Director Peter Jackson’s infatuation with the imaginary world of novelist J.R.R. Tolkien resulted in the masterful Lord of the Rings trilogy, a landmark in fantasy cinema. He hasn’t stopped there. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, is the first installment in a new, three-part adaptation of an earlier Tolkien book set in the same world. I enjoyed it, but it also made me realize that – despite my adoration for the Rings films – I’m not quite as into hobbits and elves, orcs and dwarves, as Jackson is. It’s no knock on his new film; I just may be reaching my limit.
An Unexpected Journey has what it needs – namely Gandalf, Gollum and the recurring theme that small creatures are capable of great things. If the overall sweep isn’t quite as compelling, that may have been inevitable. The Hobbit is a much smaller story, a brief chapter in a larger history that – in many ways – came to its culmination in the Rings trilogy. The sense of urgency is lessened here.
Even so, it’s still a great pleasure to again watch Ian McKellen as Gandalf, a gray wizard of restrained power and clever authority. His deeply wrinkled face has always been one of the franchise’s greatest special effects. McKellen can communicate suspicion, fear, anger and tenderness simply in the way he manipulates those creases. And the wizard’s abiding faith in the small things of the world – including the hobbit of the title, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) – bolsters Tolkien’s underlying theme that steadfast goodwill, rather than aggressive force, will win the day. (It’s partly why these tales of armies and battles have always had something of a hippie reputation.)
In An Unexpected Journey, Gandalf puts his theory into practice by recruiting Bilbo for an unpromising quest. Along with a company of dwarves, he is to travel from his safe home in the Shire to the Lonely Mountain, where the dwarves hope to roust the dragon that terrorized their people and stole their treasure generations ago. Being small and quiet, Bilbo is valued by the dwarves as a spy and thief – though Gandalf also has other purposes for him.
Along the way, while lost in a deep cavern and hiding from goblins, Bilbo encounters Gollum. Once again a computer-generated character built upon the motion-capture performance of Andy Serkis, Gollum is a vile, decrepit creature with huge glassy eyes and a few tendrils of dank, black hair. Obsessed with safeguarding the powerful ring that he came upon years ago and has turned him into such a loathsome figure, he’s greed personified. The scene between Bilbo and Gollum – in which Bilbo plays a game of riddles in order to save his life – is a tingling balance of narrative, character and technology, one that the rest of the picture isn’t always able to maintain.
Speaking of technology, An Unexpected Journey will be projected in some theaters at 48 frames per second, rather than the 24 frames per second that has been the standard since the 1920s. Jackson shot the movie at this faster speed because he claims it allows for a more realistic image, especially in 3-D, but I was less than impressed. Instead of making the CGI creations look real, this type of clarity often made the real elements (such as the actors) look like CGI. Even more distracting, the characters frequently appeared to be moving in fast-motion. Perhaps we need time to adjust (as audiences did to the new levels of realism that came with sound and color), but my first thought after seeing An Unexpected Journey was that I couldn’t wait to see it again – projected at 24 frames per second and without 3-D.