By Van Thomas Roberts
Long before he took the helm of “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, New Zealand born Peter Jackson had acquired both a name and a reputation for himself as an independent splatter-gore horror movie maestro. If you haven’t seen “Bad Taste” (1987), “Meet the Feebles” (1989), and ultimately “Dead Alive,” you’ve missed three memorable epics. Repellent in some respects but brilliant in others with the brilliant winning out over the repellent summarizes these films. The squeamish should shun them. “Bad Taste” lives up to its title, while “Meet the Feebles” teeters on the brink of puppet porn with scenes that anticipated the 2004 gross-out fest “Team America: World Police.” Jackson courted mainstream audiences with “Heavenly Creatures” (1984) starring Kate Winslet of “Titanic” fame. Later, in 1996, he put “Back to the Future” lead Michael J. Fox through the paces in his supernatural chiller “The Frighteners.” These two are both worth renting if you’ve never seen them. Ultimately, Jackson ascended into the pantheon of movie directors with the “Rings” trilogy. Sadly, his creative star plummeted with his dreadful “King Kong” remake and the lackluster but sympathetic crime thriller “The Lonely Bones.” Now, Jackson sets out to relive his glory days with “The Hobbit.” Essentially, Jackson’s Golden Age consists of his J.R.R. Tolkien adaptations of “The Lord of the Rings” with “The Fellowship of the Ring” (2001), followed by “The Two Towers” (2002) and finally the Oscar-winning “The Return of the King” (2003).
Unfortunately, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” emerges as a pale imitation of Jackson’s earlier Middle-earth triumphs. No end of money has been lavished on this sprawling spectacle that serves as the first act of the planned “Hobbit” trilogy. Virtually everybody from the earlier trilogy reprises the roles they created in the “Rings” extravaganzas. Christopher Lee, Ian Holm, Cate Blanchet, Hugo Weaving, and Elijah Wood drop in for a scene or two. Ian McKellen doesn’t wander through every scene, but he clocks in more time than anybody else. By now, you’re probably shaking your head about the decision Warner Brothers and New Line Cinema made to make more than one film out of “The Hobbit or There and Back Again.” Wasn’t it bad enough when Hollywood divided the last “Harry Potter” novel into two movies? Or that they perpetrated the same strategy with the final “Twilight” novel “Breaking Dawn?” Audaciously, Warner and New Line have gone one film further by stretching “The Hobbit” into three, not just two films!
Ostensibly, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” (** 2 out of ****) qualifies as an above-average but predictable first installment in Jackson’s newest, larger-than-life, mythological, sword and sorcery trilogy. Martin Freeman, who co-stars as Dr. Watson in the BBC series “Sherlock,” was born to play furry-footed Bilbo Baggins. Freeman displays a knack for comedy. He is an unobtrusive comic. He doesn’t attract attention to himself, and he savors subtlety the same way the great silent era comic Buster Keaton did. This minimalist approach makes Freeman appear far more hilarious. One can only hope either or both of the remaining “Hobbit” movies do Freeman justice. Freeman imparts both a sparkle and sense of spontaneity to these formulaic antics that nobody but lanky McKellen can rival. On the other hand, as sympathetic a character as Bilbo is, he is one of the few who has nothing to worry about regarding his own survival. Similarly, Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen of “X-Men”) is immune from death, too. Meantime, it is reassuring to see his peaked hat as he looms above Bilbo and the dwarves. Everything in “The Hobbit,” you must understand, is spelled out in flashback by Ian Holm’s elderly Bilbo at the genesis of the action.
The grungy villains are a step down in quality from the “Rings” trilogy. The problem is they aren’t very menacing, even for a PG-13 film. Jackson keeps the violence fairly immaculate, too. “The Hobbit” suffers because it lacks a centerpiece villain. The gauntlet of computer-generated adversaries that our heroes encounter isn’t especially impressive. The “Twilight” wolves looked far more ferocious than these wolves Worst, the movie ends eleven minutes shy of three hours. Comparatively, the theatrical “Rings” movies ran about the same length. Nevertheless, Jackson subjects us to lengthy expository-laden scenes throughout and this loquacity slows down “The Hobbit” until our heroes wade into warfare with trolls, orcs, wolves and other mountainous monsters.
The first 40 minutes of “The Hobbit” channels “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” Various dwarfs assemble at Bilbo’s home in the Shire for an impromptu party. Jackson plays this scene largely for laughs, but nothing about this scene is outrageously side-splitting. Naturally, these fellows with their droopy snouts gobble down everything in sight, while Gandalf entreats the Halfling to join them. . Mind you, Bilbo is content in his easy chair with a library and a larder within arm’s reach. Gandalf persuades Bilbo to join them and experience life first hand. Actually, Bilbo differs very little from contemporary couch potatoes. An evil dragon named Smaug, it seems, has evicted the sword-wielding dwarfs of Erebor. “The Hobbit” depicts the quest of Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and thirteen dwarves to reoccupy their kingdom known as the Lonely Mountain. Not until fadeout do these pugnacious dwarfs accept Bilbo as one of their own. The “Transformer” mountain warriors are imaginative and reminded me of the asteroid in “Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back” where a desolate rock changed into a creature when Han Solo took refuge in it. The best scene in “The Hobbit” takes place when Bilbo stumbles onto Gollum, and they challenge each other with riddles for possession of the ring. Andy Serkis is superb once more as the creepy Gollum. The best part of “The Hobbit” occurs in its final hour when our heroes take a ride in the skies and scramble through a set reminiscent of “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.” Sadly, what was once magical has lost its luster, and “The Hobbit” is only half as good as the “Lord of the Rings” masterpieces.
By Van Thomas Roberts