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DAILY | Peter Jackson’s THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY

“Just good enough to make you aware of how it could have been much, much better.” Updated through 1/5.

“At almost three hours, Peter Jackson’s fourth foray into the world of J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, is initially worrisome and typically self-indulgent,” begins Rodrigo Perez at the Playlist. “An extremely jarring 48 fps look—which looks like an odd Masterpiece Theater in HD—is unsettling and the opening is slow-going and tepidly genteel, taking its time with two prologues, one that includes an aged Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) and Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood). And while The Lord of the Rings films always sported a jovial and light-hearted tone, The Hobbit (set some 60 years before the events of LOTR) ratchets up the goofiness to a near unfortunate level (yes, the source material is more of a kids’ book, but even this is a little much).”

So already, we’ve got a couple of issues to deal with here. For James Rocchi, writing for Box Office, the projection at 48 frames per second results in “flat lighting, a plastic-y look, and, worst of all, a strange sped-up effect that makes perfectly normal actions—say, Martin Freeman’s Bilbo Baggins placing a napkin on his lap—look like meth-head hallucinations.” Then there’s the book itself: “Lord of the Rings was a saga, three huge books stripped down to fit on the screen. A mix of Wagner, Dungeons and Dragons and Days of Our Lives, it was a huge risk and it worked. The Hobbit is no such thing…. [W]here the Rings trilogy had weight, The Hobbit is all wigs and slapstick and head-lopping violence unsuitable for children—who are the only audience who won’t be bored to tears…. Tolkien could invent names and languages, but he couldn’t create a plot at gunpoint. Any and all crises in The Hobbit are solved by [Ian] McKellan’s Gandalf casting a spell that he could have cast 10 minutes prior.” In short: “The Hobbit is just good enough to make you aware of how it could have been much, much better.”

“If The Hobbit had been filmed shortly after the book’s publication in 1937 (it’s a wonder that it wasn’t), one could easily imagine a lively affair full of great character actors and cleverly goofy special effects that would have moved the story along in smart style in under two hours,” writes the Hollywood Reporter‘s Todd McCarthy. “In Jackson’s academically fastidious telling, however, it’s as if The Wizard of Oz had taken nearly an hour just to get out of Kansas. There are elements in this new film that are as spectacular as much of the Rings trilogy was, but there is much that is flat-footed and tedious as well, especially in the early going. This may be one venture where, rather than DVDs offering an ‘Expanded Director’s Version,’ there might be an appetite for a ‘Condensed Director’s Cut’ in a single normal-length film.”

Variety‘s Peter Debruge agrees that “splitting the source material into multiple pics here mimics a frustrating trend among lucrative fantasy adaptations, from the two final Harry Potter films to the bifurcated Twilight Saga finale, stringing fans along with incomplete narratives.” The original story, after all, “recounts the relatively simple tale of how Bilbo Baggins (The Office‘s Martin Freeman, affable as ever) traveled with dwarves to face the dragon Smaug and, in so doing, came to acquire the fabled ring. A mythologically dense, CG-heavy prologue details how Smaug raided the dwarf stronghold of Erebor, taking possession of the Arkenstone, a glowing gem of ambiguous power. Conjured by Jackson and returning co-writers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens (credited along with Guillermo del Toro, who at one point planned to direct) for the sake of spectacle, this unnecessary pre-title sequence recalls setpieces from the second and third Lord of the Rings movies, as if to assure fans they can expect more of the same—and sure enough, The Hobbit offers familiar run-ins with orcs, trolls, goblins and even Gollum before interrupting the adventure halfway to its destination, the Lonely Mountain, to make room for the next installment.”

All that said, Tim Grierson, reviewing The Hobbit for Screen, finds that “Peter Jackson’s return to the land of Orcs, Dwarves, Elves, Wizards and Hobbits turns out to be a happy homecoming…. Boasting an appreciably dark tone and a seemingly endless array of visual astonishments, this Hobbit suggests that, nine years removed from his last J.R.R. Tolkien adaptation, Jackson has lost none of his ability to deliver this sort of brawny mainstream entertainment, even if a bit of déjà vu hovers over the proceedings.”

And, to be fair, returning to Perez, he finds that, while the 48 fps projection is initially “harsh-looking and disconcerting,” some will get used it, and “by the third act, when the action is at its thunderous peak, the 3D/48 fps visuals are wholeheartedly spectacular and ravishing. Indeed, a few moments of panoramic action vistas are as stunning and gorgeous as anything seen in Avatar, Hugo or Life of Pi.”

Updates, 12/5: Nicolas Rapold at the L: “Easily, the film’s highlight is the previously minted, hideous Gollum—a hilarious and horrifying bipolar creation, far and away the most satisfying walking psychodrama in the picture. No one can take away the achievement of The Lord of the Rings from Jackson, a milestone in fantasy cinema. But I came away from The Hobbit caring less about Bilbo than craving that Gollum have his own sociopathic talk show.”

“You wait two hours for the meeting of Bilbo and Gollum, and it satisfies all expectations,” agrees Time‘s Richard Corliss. “We know from The Lord of the Rings that this emaciated figure of doomed dementia was once the Hobbit Sméagol. After a half-millennium in subterranean solitary confinement under the Ring’s influence, he is a sibilant wraith, arguing with himself as Norman Bates did with his late mother…. In an adventure, villains usually get the best roles; add a touch of madness and the result can be magnificent maleficence. [Andy] Serkis soars as Sméagol sinks, and if the next two Hobbit films hold hope, it is that this Peter Lorre-esque skulker will get more chances to work his evil magic.”

“Where Jackson might occasionally misstep tonally,” writes Shawn Adler, “he takes the reigns from the episodic original and runs with generally fantastic results through several narrative additions, all of which give the characters more agency in their own affairs. After the film’s somewhat meandering first half (which includes two separate dwarf musical numbers), Bilbo and Thorin succeed in, for instance, escaping the trolls and wargs with actual actions and choices, instead of a Deus Ex Gandalf. Though hardcore fans might scoff at the blasphemy of adding anything to the source material, even those things written by Tolkien himself in the appendixes, Jackson succeeds cinematically in pulling off the Orc/Dwarf Battle of Nanduhirion and the fleshing out of Azog as a dominant and recurring adversary. Less successful are scene additions consisting of actors reprising their roles from Lord of the Rings. While the stuff with Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and Sarumon (Christopher Lee) at the White Council works like gangbusters, an early scene where Frodo (Elijah Wood) stands around and does nothing smacks of prequel-itis.” Also in Movieline, Jen Yamato on “the frame rate issue…. The future may well be 48, but it hasn’t arrived yet.”

“While Jackson hasn’t delivered a hit on par with his Lord of the Rings movies, The Hobbit proves he can still do justice to the tricky blend of fantasy and action that made the earlier entries such enjoyable works of popular entertainment,” writes Indiewire‘s Eric Kohn.

More from Larry D. Curtis, who “spent five weeks on the set during film of The Hobbit” for Movies.com “and freely acknowledges his opinion of this film is compromised,” Todd Gilchrist (Celebuzz), Jordan Hoffman (Screen Crush), Caryn James, and Drew McWeeney (HitFix).

Entertainment Weekly‘s Anthony Breznican gets a few words with Jackson, while the Playlist‘s Drew Taylor reports on a recent press conference.

Updates, 12/6: For Time Out‘s Dave Calhoun, “the early dominance of slapstick, knockabout comedy gives the whole thing an alienating whiff of kids’ TV…. It’s during the film’s final third that, at last, we feel a true sense of peril and the dwarves’ journey starts to feel energetic and purposeful.”

“Action, nostalgia, acting, and lovingly rendered landscapes are the strengths of The Hobbit, and they can’t be casually dismissed,” writes Laremy Legel at Film.com. Still: “I loved The Lord of the Rings, and as such The Hobbit is difficult to muster gobs of affection for.”

Andrew O’Hehir will be turning in a full review at Salon next week, but for now, he focuses on 48 fps: “It’s not easy to describe the hyperreal, ultra-clear, sharp-edged look of the 48fps image, except by way of analogy. As one critic was heard to say on the sidewalk outside a Manhattan screening, ‘I turned that setting off on my TV.’ Some viewers have said that The Hobbit has the harsh video shimmer of a 1980s soap opera, with, of course, many times the resolution. Another guy I know said the whole movie looked like a cutting-edge screen saver from the early days of digital imaging, around 2000 or so. That’s getting close. To me, The Hobbit looked like a prototype of some new computer game, or a demonstration video that some dude at Best Buy was using to sell a $1,700 HDTV monitor while murmuring, ‘Someday, man, all movies will look like this!’”

At the Los Angeles TimesHero Complex, Noelene Clark introduces an exclusive clip, “which runs 1 minute and 11 seconds, foreshadows the events of The Lord of the Rings, set 60 years after The Hobbit, and features Ian McKellen as Gandalf, Cate Blanchett as Galadriel, Hugo Weaving as Elrond and Christopher Lee as Saruman sitting in council in the Elven city of Rivendell.”

Updates, 12/9: “Because Tolkien’s The Hobbit is a less foreboding work than his Lord of the Rings trilogy, the goofily lighthearted tenor and bouncy fleetness of the film isn’t unexpected or unfortunate for bringing to mind, for better and for worse, Disney’s Alice in Wonderland and The Adventures of the Gummi Bears.” Ed Gonzalez in Slant: “But while Jackson has transported us to Middle Earth before, the place seems almost foreign now, presented anew through a lens that gives faces and landscapes, albeit strikingly detailed, an unmistakably televisual quality. Jackson’s Shire was always a bit Lucky Charmed, though now it seems undistinguishable from the land Tinky Winky calls home, or the bucolic set used for part of the opening ceremony at this year’s Olympic Games.”

For Slate‘s Dana Stevens, “most of the vast temporal expanse that is The Hobbit remains a blur in my mind—if it makes sense to refer to perhaps the most hyper-crisp movie you’ve ever seen as a ‘blur.’ It’s hard to overstate the degree to which the 48fps format interfered with my ability to get lost in this movie’s story. I should probably see it again in regular format to give it another chance—but that would involve sitting through that whole dwarf ballad again.”

Euan Ferguson profiles Ian McKellen for the Observer.

Updates, 12/10: The New Yorker‘s Anthony Lane: “‘All good stories deserve embellishment,’ Gandalf says to Bilbo before they set off, and one has to ask whether the weight of embellishment, on this occasion, makes the journey drag, and why it leaves us more astounded than moved. And yet, on balance, honor has been done to Tolkien, not least in the famous riddle game between Bilbo and Gollum, and some of the exploits to come—dwarf-wrapping spiders, a battle of five armies, and the man who turns into a bear—will surely lighten the load. As Bilbo says, nearing the end of the book, ‘Roads go ever ever on.’ Tell me about it.”

“There can be no doubt that Jackson has made The Hobbit with brio and fun,” writes the Guardian‘s Peter Bradshaw, “and Martin Freeman is just right as Bilbo Baggins: he plays it with understatement and charm. But I had the weird, residual sense that I was watching an exceptionally expensive, imaginative and starry BBC Television drama production, the sort that goes out on Christmas Day, with 10 pages of coverage in the seasonal Radio Times, and perhaps a break in the middle for the Queen’s Speech. Well, it grows on you. The HFR style has immediacy and glitter, particularly in the outdoor locations, where the New Zealand landscapes, in all their splendor, are revealed more sharply and clearly, and there is an almost documentary realism to the fable. Indoors though, it’s not quite the same story.”

“The work of the sombre Hungarian auteur Béla Tarr, whose grinding tale of apocalyptic poverty The Turin Horse ran to a mere 155 minutes, feels nippy by comparison,” writes the Telegraph‘s Robbie Collin. “This film is so stuffed with extraneous faff and flummery that it often barely feels like Tolkien at all – more a dire, fan-written internet tribute.”

But for Phillip J. Piggott, writing in the Critic’s Notebook, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey has plenty of pace and energy, and does not feel unnecessarily padded or lengthened. In fact, the 174 minutes merrily whisks by without ever feeling labored.”

American Film profiles Andy Serkis, while the Telegraph‘s John Hiscock interviews Freeman.

“The film as a whole suffers from this schism,” proposes Adam Lee Davies at Little White Lies: “when there are new ideas or quests or characters to be introduced, the film is sure-footed, bold, energetic and luminous. But, apart from one or two precious exceptions, every time Jackson is forced to rake over old ground—the Shire, Rivendell—or decides to shoehorn in familiar faces—Frodo, Saruman—he seems notably uninspired.”

Jennifer Vineyard talks with Serkis for Vulture.

Updates, 12/12: MSN MoviesGlenn Kenny actually “liked how the 48 fps 3D presentation looked. It’s highly variable: Depending on lighting, backgrounds and other factors, it can deliver that sheen that one associates with bizarrely calibrated HD displays in big-box stores. But for most of the movie’s running time, I found that it provided a pretty convincingly immersive experience, and I look forward to the technology’s evolution/refinement. Which I guess also means I look forward to the next two installments of the trilogy, even if Led Zeppelin remains my preferred platform for Tolkien-mythos consumption.”

“I don’t necessarily have a problem with a fantasy which opts to swim in the shallow end of the pool,” writes Ed Champion. “The covenant is that, if the fantasy short-changes on human scope and capitulates to escapism, then the fantasy must inspire new awe and fresh wonder…. By my calculation, it takes Jackson 168 minutes to dramatize about 82 pages of material, which seems needlessly profligate. The Hobbit is many things, but it is neither Ulysses nor Gravity’s Rainbow.”

The Atlantic Wire‘s Richard Lawson finds it “hugely disappointing, if not all that surprising, that Jackson’s first foray back into the land of Middle Earth… is such a sullenly, basely commercial and junky affair, a movie that feels not crafted with Jackson’s seemingly divine inspiration but by the hands of studio executives. Perhaps the reason that Warner Bros. is forgoing the usual console video-game tie-ins for simple mobile games is because the damn movie already looks like a video game, and not a very fun one at that.”

And Katy Steinmetz talks with Serkis for Time.

Updates, 12/16: “The failure of The Hobbit‘s HFR / 48 fps,” argues Ignatiy Vishnevetsky in MUBI’s Notebook, “isn’t so much a failure of design as it is a failure of imagination. Imperfect technology can produce striking results (see: early color processes, the clattery sound design of early talkies, ghostly video), but only in the hands of filmmakers who can appreciate (and stylize) its shortcomings. Every technology has its limits (24 fps is no exception), and film style operates by either smoothing over these flaws (as classical Hollywood did) or exploiting them (as a lot of key avant-garde filmmakers have). The Hobbit’s problem is that it does neither. Instead, it attempts to fit 48 fps motion into a 24 fps visual grammar; the result is a visually-dissonant film that serves mostly as a showcase for the technology’s flaws.” More on 48 fps from R. Emmet Sweeney, writing for Film Comment.

But back to the movie. “For all their Wagnerian bombast, the LOTR films proceeded at a clip, with lots of story to tell and spirited new characters lurking around every bend,” writes Scott Foundas in the LA Weekly. “There was exuberance in the filmmaking, too, as if Jackson—who cut his teeth on some of the most outlandish, low-budget splatterfests of the 1980s and ’90s—still couldn’t quite believe he’d been allowed to make these movies. They were generous entertainments that you didn’t have to be a Tolkien convert to enjoy—they made one out of you. The Hobbit, by contrast, feels distinctly like a members-only affair. It’s self-conscious monument art, but is the monument to Tolkien or to Jackson himself?”

“There are, of course, plenty of shots of noble characters turning their eyes portentously toward the horizon, and much talk of honor, betrayal and the rightful sovereignty of dwarfs over their dragon-occupied mountain,” notes A.O. Scott in the New York Times. “But it all sounds remarkably hollow, perhaps because the post-Lord of the Rings decade has seen a flood of lavish and self-serious fantasy-movie franchises. We have heard so many weird proper names intoned in made-up tongues, witnessed so many embodiments of pure evil rise and fall and seen so many fine British actors in beards and flowing robes that we may be too jaded for The Hobbit, in spite of its noble pedigree. But I don’t mean to blame the cultural situation for the specific failings of the movie, which rises to weary, belated mediocrity entirely on its own steam.”

The Hobbit

Just one of a zillion posters in as many shapes and sizes

But for R. Kurt Osenlund at the House Next Door: “With these films, Jackson turns small gestures into indispensable movie magic. One really can’t overstate the power of McKellan’s wise narration, and the emotional swell it conjures when paired with that ethereal Middle-Earth-ian glow, which Jackson resurrects for many shots in The Hobbit. Ultimately, it’s hugely comforting to return to this world, which fights the tireless threat of cynicism, on screens and beyond.”

A knock-down, drag-out at Vulture: “Blogger Jesse Fox and editor Josh Wolk both saw it and came away with two entirely perceptions, each of which made the other doubt the disagreer’s very sanity: Jesse thought the movie was horribly boring, and essentially made up of little but walking and eating. Josh thought that this was a weirdly skewed view of a movie that seemed flush with action. We decided to have it out on the blog.”

More from Nigel Andrews (Financial Times, 4/5), Marjorie Baumgarten (Austin Chronicle, 2.5/5), Shaun Brady (Philadelphia City Paper, B-), Sean Burns (Philadelphia Weekly), Ty Burr (Boston Globe, 2.5/4), Matt Cohen (Cinespect), A.A. Dowd (Time Out Chicago, 2/5), David Edelstein (New York), Philip French (Observer), Graham Fuller (Artinfo), Robert Horton (Herald), Cienna Madrid (Stranger), Demetrios Matheou (Arts Desk), Andrew O’Hehir (Salon), Andrew Osmond (Sight & Sound), Ray Pride (Newcity Film), Tasha Robinson (AV Club, B-), Kenneth Turan (Los Angeles Times), and Keith Uhlich (Time Out New York, 4/5).

Updates, 12/23: “Although lacking the visionary chutzpah and demented social energy that characterized the great pulp fantasies orchestrated by Fritz Lang in the 1920s, Jackson’s Ring trilogy was the greatest feat of pop movie magic between Titanic and Avatar,” writes J. Hoberman for the New York Review of Books. “Not so The Hobbit which, less a movie than a promotion for its inevitable ancillary computer game, features endless digital battles predicated on space-warping virtual camera moves and chute-and-ladder sudden escapes. Reviewing the Ring trilogy in the mid 1950s, Edmund Wilson famously called it ‘a children’s book which has somehow got out of hand.’ The same could be said of The Hobbit. In this case, a children’s story got out of hand and morphed into Battlefield 3.”

The Hobbit “relies either too heavily or too obviously on CGI to replicate its predecessors’ magic act,” writes Max Nelson in Reverse Shot. “Too weightless, too sleek, too immaterial, it tends to suggest the impossible approximated rather than made possible. Jackson is clearly having a blast letting his camera weave and glide effortlessly through The Hobbit‘s chaotic battle scenes, but the resulting footage exhilarates without ever making us feel threatened.”

For Film International, Diarmuid Corkery conducts and experiment: 9 Day Hobbit. More from Cleaver Patterson.

Update, 1/5: “The moment news came that The Hobbit was going to be stretched into an immense movie trilogy, the outcome should have been obvious,” writes Ilana Teitelbaum for the Los Angeles Review of Books, “but I still allowed myself to hope. After all, somehow Pride and Prejudice made an excellent six-part TV series for the BBC, ensuring that all future film adaptations would seem rushed in comparison. With a lavish attention to the details of Tolkien’s world, I reasoned, perhaps three movies would afford the filmmakers an opportunity to do justice to the richness of Middle Earth. But in that reasoning I was optimistically overlooking evidence from the Lord of the Rings movies that when it comes to the director’s take on Tolkien’s world, a better title for all the above movies would be The Battle Fantasies of Peter Jackson. Battles that are mere paragraphs or chapters in The Lord of the Rings books are the centerpieces of Jackson’s films. For this director, Tolkien’s stories often seem little more than backdrops for cinematic experiments with CGI and catapults (or CGI catapults).”

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