Due to its importance, this review will run in three parts. Next week, a cover story, and the following week, an entire issue of Scene. On billboard-sized paper unfolding into a giant wraparound to completely enclose you with its glow-in-the-dark ink (3D glasses included).
Just kidding. But you get the point about bloat and hype. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is one half of Peter Jackson's prequel/encore (pre-core?) to his triumphant adaptation of the classic Lord of the Rings trilogy. Not one to let sleeping dragons lie (or New Line Cinema without a guaranteed moneymaker), Jackson — teamed with Guillermo del Toro, originally slated to direct after a troubled production history — here takes J.R.R. Tolkien's 1938 novel, the shortest in the author's Rings cycle, and amps it to Wagnerian proportions and two movies. Cleaving a little Hobbit in two, in effect. The goblins would be proud.
(Via similar showbiz math, the other LoTR properties could have been nine features. Maybe it would be easier for New Line to levy a tax and get you to repay ticket costs three times in arrears.)
It's about how an average hobbit named Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), a comfort-loving chap — think Amish leprechaun — is chosen by the great wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellan) to join a posse of dwarf warriors-in-exile on a mission to reclaim a mountain kingdom lost to an invading fire-dragon called Smaug. Smaug, clearly the money shot in the upcoming The Hobbit: A Totally Expected Journey (or whatever), goes unseen this outing. Jackson and his loyal band of LoTR talent instead revisit old shires and Elf cities, laying groundwork for intricacies underpinning The Fellowship of the Rings, The Two Towers and The Return of the King.
En route we meet Gollum (mimed again by motion-capture specialty actor Andy Serkis, also second-unit director), the obsessed creature whose One Ring, forged by Sauron, an entity of surpassing evil, will inspire wars and calamities in the later books. Sauron's is one backstory not volunteered. Meanwhile, heavy elaboration does give the high-fantasy fans their multiple "orc-gasms" over, say, dwarfish royal lineage, or seeing the second-string wizard Radagast (Sylvester McCoy). And genre fave Christopher Lee returns (his part was brutally trimmed from Return of the King) for a better bit than he had in Dark Shadows.
But zeal to top what went before cues unnecessarily outsized battles, gratuitous rock giants (on loan from Wrath of the Titans?), and Jackson's jones to cliff-hang his heroes from every peak/tree/crevasse/elevated structure in New Zealand. Action slams exhibit the state-of-the-art f/x and digital filmmaking at a fast-frame rate that, according to gossip, caused test audiences severe eyestrain and vertigo. I suffered no nausea — except over coming-attractions of teen horror-fantasy pics obviously aimed at wringing more cash from Twilight kids.
As for The Hobbit, 'tis magic indeed to revisit and recapture the earlier majesty, Howard Shore music and Tolkien mythology. But a 1977 Rankin-Bass TV cartoon nicely rendered The Hobbit in 78 mere minutes, and this super-sized successor gains little for its incredible bulk.