"The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" into mild disappointment

atomictown.comDecember 18, 2012 

I might be among the foremost authorities of the Lord of the Rings movies.

Not because I've written a host of scholarly articles on the subject. I haven't, unless blogging about how elves can be married for hundreds of years while only producing a couple of kids counts as "scholarly." (Theory: maybe dwarves aren't the only ones with beards.) And if it does, I'd like my tenure, please. Ideas like that don't grow on trees. Not even in Lothlorien.

So what are my qualifications? Well, I've watched the movies a few hundred times. That's not a joke, except in the cosmic sense. I like to watch movies while I write, which I do for up to ten hours a day--almost long enough to watch The Fellowship of the Rings 1.5 times. (That is a joke. Fellowship isn't even three hours long!) And I've been doing this for five years now. You do the math. While you're wasting your time on that, I'll tell you this: I have seen The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. It's a fairly good movie, but it's not on par with the three movies before it.

Many years ago, the kingdom of dwarves prospered. Their sea of gold grew immense--and drew the attention of the dragon Smaug. He drove the dwarves from their mountain, home claiming their riches for himself.

Decades later, dwarf-prince Thorin (Richard Armitage) believes the dragon can be driven out. Aided by the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen), Thorin and a band of dwarves set out to reclaim their lost homeland. But the fate of their quest may hinge on the help of a hobbit named Bilbo (Martin Freeman), who's about to step outside his own country for the very first time.

You might think watching The Lord of the Rings several hundred times would lead to impossible expectations for a followup movie, but I take my dogs for a walk first thing every morning, too, and it is rarely with a smile. I hoped The Hobbit would be good, but if nothing else, the extremely lengthy and troubled production stripped me of any need for it to be good. I went into it without any strong expectations of any kind.

Which was nice, because it doesn't get off to a wild start. The earl structure is identical to Fellowship (stormy prologue, shift to the peaceful Shire, fool around there for a very long time, finally kick off the adventure), but much less engrossing. That's partly because it's rehashing scenes we already saw in Fellowship, but also because The Hobbit adopts the Young Adult tone of the book, resulting in a lot of childish goofery centered around the horde of dwarves busting into a flustered Bilbo's home.

This would be a good time to assign some character to a few of these thirteen dwarves, but other than their leader, and the really fat guy, there's not a lot to make any of them special. This is an ongoing problem. Few of the new actors stand out, either, possibly because they're buried in an avalanche of dwarf noses, sausage fingers, and beards so elaborate that the dwarvish Locks of Love program involves donating old beards for the refurbishment of baroque cathedrals.

On the positive side, it looks crazy, crazy awesome. Director/cowriter Peter Jackson's fantasy world is as developed as ever. The 3D is great in an Avatar way, and while the 48 frames per second version is at times too slick, there's a vividness to it that's totally engrossing.

So it's got tonal problems, including a lot of Looney Tunes-esque action sequences. The new heroes are uninspired, but villains old and new have a commanding presence. And once the story gets going, it falls into the same well-oiled rhythms of the original trilogy, serving up a smartly-arranged assortment of exploration, setbacks, discoveries, and energetic action sequences.

In the sum of my vast and obsessive experience, The Hobbit doesn't reach the standards set by the first movies. Really, it's a lot like the difference between Pirates of the Caribbean and its sequel. The magic may be gone, but the craftsmanship and sheer entertainment is still working fine.

Grade: B

* Contact Ed Robertson at edwrobertson@gmail.com. His fiction is available on Kindle, Nook, Kobo, and elsewhere.

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