The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (12A/PG-13, 169 mins)
Director: Peter Jackson
★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
Over the Christmases of 2001, 2002 and 2003, New Zealand director Peter Jackson delivered with The Lord of the Rings a trio of rich, rewarding fantasy epics that garnered billions at the box office, 17 Oscars and left a lasting legacy as one of the greatest achievements in the history of cinema.
It was a well too deep not to return to, and after years of legal wrangling and delays that eventually saw the departure of would-be director Guillermo del Toro, Jackson returns for a new prequel trilogy. And we all remember what happened the last time someone made prequels to a beloved trilogy.
Jackson has only made two films since the trilogy closed nine years ago, King Kong and The Lovely Bones, and the fear that he’s sunk into self-indulgence (something never exactly far from the surface when it came to The Lord of the Rings, if truth be told) is confirmed here.
The final instalment of Harry Potter started an insidious trend towards splitting films adapted from popular books into as many parts as possible for maximum profits. The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien, is not a long book. And yet it’s one to which Jackson will devote around 500 minutes of screen time between now and the summer of 2014.
Though it’s a chance to reunite with some old friends, in one of the many instances of padding that stretch this first film’s ridiculous running time, we begin on the same day that The Fellowship of the Ring did; the birthday of Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit.
As Bilbo (Ian Holm) writes about his adventures that he will tell to his nephew Frodo (Elijah Wood), we also get a separate prologue about the great dwarf city of Erebor, which was devastated and then occupied by the fearsome dragon Smaug.
From there we jump back to 60 years earlier, when Bilbo was a younger hobbit, and now played by Martin Freeman. He meets the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen), who along with a bunch of dwarfs, descends on Bilbo’s home wanting him to join an adventure, a quest to take back Erebor from Smaug.
It’s really an awful lot of extraneous gubbins, watching 13 dwarfs turn up and eat and sing and carry on for what would be about a quarter of the running time of most normal films. Where The Lord of the Rings took its time to establish a world of richness, this is simply characters sitting about, and it’s deeply indulgent.
And for all its stunning spectacle and massive action, it was at its heart a story of friendship and overcoming adversity, and peaceful creatures showing courage in the most trying of circumstances. This deals with similar themes, and Freeman is well cast as the reluctant hero, but it’s often much too beholden to a formula.
The opening half is leisurely beyond necessity, with only the occasional raised eyebrow from McKellen to keep you going. A stop at the realm of Rivendell offers some more recapturing of past glories, as Hugo Weaving and Cate Blanchett’s elf lords return, alongside Christopher Lee’s Saruman, but it’s a brief respite from the drudgery.
On the action front, Jackson has revealed his cards one too many times, and every sequence follows an identical pattern: the introduction of an enemy in the shape of an orc or a goblin or a troll, then an extended chase and battle, before a saviour appears from off-screen to rescue the situation.
But beyond the lack of involving incident, it’s also shorn of any character depth or range. Most of the dwarfs (and there are 13 of them, remember) are entirely anonymous. Those that get a bit of screen time, James Nesbitt and Ken Stott among them, offer no real lasting impression, leaving the rest to simply get lost in the mire.
On the one hand, the story and the content must be king. But there’s no escaping that the visual majesty of Jackson’s original films played a significant part in their success, and to have that diluted is a tragedy. Why spend this much money to make something that looks like an Australian soap blended with the old ITV fantasy adventure show, Knightmare?
It just adds to what is a supremely disappointing spectacle that alternates between boredom and silliness. The genuine hope has to be that Jackson was rushing towards the Christmas release date for this opener, and with a year until he unleashes Part II, let’s pray he has the time to fix his mistakes.