Some of the tricks are truly dazzling
summer 2014. Part one’s embellishments may pay off nicely, but right now, “An Unexpected Journey” looks like the start of an unnecessary trilogy better told in one film.
Split into three books, “The Lord of the Rings” was a natural film trilogy, running nearly half a million words, five times as long as “The Hobbit.”
Jackson and his wife, Fran Walsh, along with screenwriting partners Philippa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro have meticulously mined Tolkien references to events that never played out in any of the books (stuff the filmmakers call the “inbetween bits”).
With that added material, they’re building a much bigger epic than Tolkien’s book, the unexpected journey of homebody Bilbo (Martin Freeman, with Ian Holm reprising his “Lord of the Rings” role as older Bilbo).
Bilbo has no desire to hit the road after wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen, grandly reprising his own “Rings” role) and a company of dwarves turn up to enlist him on a quest to retake a dwarf mountain kingdom from the dragon that decimated it.
Yet off he goes, encountering trolls, goblins, savage orcs and a grisly guy named Gollum (Andy Serkis, re-creating the character that pioneered motion-capture performance in “Rings”).
Improved by a decade of visual-effects advances, Gollum solidifies his standing as one of the creepiest movie creatures ever. And as bigscreen prologue moments go, Bilbo’s acquisition of Gollum’s precious ring of power may be second only to Darth Vader’s first hissy breath at the end of George Lucas’ “Star Wars” prequels.
“Unexpected Journey” resurrects other “Rings” favorites, some who didn’t appear in “The Hobbit” (Elijah Wood as Frodo Baggins, Cate Blanchett as elf queen Galadriel, Christopher Lee as wizard Saruman) and some who did (Hugo Weaving as elf lord Elrond).
Richard Armitage debuts as dwarf leader Thorin Oakenshield, ennobled from a fairly comical figure in Tolkien’s text to a brooding warrior king in the mold of Viggo Mortensen from the “Rings” trilogy.
The filmmakers also pluck orc bruiser Azog out of Tolkien’s footnotes and make him Thorin’s sworn enemy. Azog’s a bland antagonist, adding little more than onedimensional bluster.
While there are plenty of orc skewerings and goblin beheadings, the action is lighter and more cartoonish than that of “The Lord of the Rings.” Still, much of it is silly fun, particularly a battle along a maze of footbridges suspended throughout a goblin cave.
The potential sea change with “The Hobbit” is Jackson’s 48-frame rate. Most theaters are not yet equipped for that speed, so the film largely will play at the standard 24 frames a second.
Proponents, including James Cameron, say higher frame rates provide more lifelike images, sharpen 3-D effects, and lessen or eliminate a flickering effect known as “strobing” that comes with camera motion.
I saw the movie first at 24 frames a second and then at 48, and they’re absolutely right that higher speeds clarify the picture. Strobing noticeable at 24 frames is gone at 48, providing a continuity that greatly improves the action sequences.
The panoramas are like Middle-earth truly come to life, as though you’re standing on a hill looking down at the hobbits’ Shire. If Cameron’s “Avatar” was like looking through a window at a fantastical landscape, “Unexpected Journey” at 48 frames is like removing the glass so you can step on through.
But with great clarity comes greater vision. At 48 frames, the film is more true to life, sometimes feeling so intimate it’s like watching live theater. That close-up perspective also brings out the fakery of movies. Sets and props look like phony stage trappings at times, the crystal pictures bleaching away the painterly quality of traditional film.
Technology may improve the story’s translation to the screen, but there’s just not that much story to Tolkien’s “Hobbit.” Jackson is stretching a breezy 300 pages to the length of a Dickens miniseries, and those in-between bits really stick out in part one.
“I do believe the worst is behind us,” Bilbo remarks as “An Unexpected Journey” ends.
From a hobbit’s lips to a filmmaker’s ears. Let’s hope Jackson has the goods to improve on a so-so start. Otherwise, “The Hobbit” — subtitled “There and Back Again” by Tolkien — is going to feel like traveling the same road more than twice.
From left, Dean O’Gorman as Fili, Aidan Turner as Kili, Mark Hadlow as Dori, Jed Brophy as Nori and William Kircher as Bifur in a scene from the fantasy adventure “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.”