Mountaineer George Mallory, when asked why he wanted to climb Everest, is said to have replied simply, “Because it’s there.” This feels like the best way to explain the prevailing attitude and atmosphere of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the first in director Peter Jackson’s three-film adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Over the next few years, Jackson will spend as much screen time on Tolkien’s slender novel as he did on the The Lord of the Rings, the much larger epic that followed it. He was originally going to tell the story of Hobbit in two films, but decided during production to expand to three, covering not just the original novel but narratively concurrent information that Tolkien stuffed into the appendix at the end of Lord of the Rings. What’s more, although An Unexpected Journey already runs close to three hours, the home video version will feature almost half an hour of extra footage. Journey feels every bit the work of a filmmaker who, faced with decisions of what story to tell or how to tell it, decided to say and do everything he could think of all at once. The film is long and arduous, with ungainly slides between genuine excitement and tedious exposition. It’s packed with interchangeable heroes and extra villains and at least four main plot lines. Most of all, it feels sprawling in the worst way: bloated instead of epic, ponderous instead of insightful, hollow instead of honest. There are some good scenes and moments, mind you — the film coheres somewhat in the back half, and there’s a good 30-40 minutes where you can happily lose yourself — but not enough to shake the idea that Jackson has gone back to Middle-earth out of habit. Not because it calls, or because it’s worth going back, but just because it’s there.
The biggest evidence for this is the fact that the film was shot and intended to be seen at 48 frames per second, double the standard 24 that you’re used to watching. Other sources have gone into greater technical detail, and I’ll let them do the heavy lifting, but the main thing to know is that the film has twice the visual information as every other movie you’ve seen, which makes it look smooth and slippery. Think of a soap opera, or that eerie picture-smoothing feature you disabled as soon as you bought your HDTV. Jackson shot in 48 fps in an attempt to capture a more lifelike image, but he’s only succeeded in creating a visually awkward, uncomfortable, detached film designed to please only the technician behind the camera. The higher frame rate has some perks — CG characters appear more solid — but they’re outnumbered by the drawbacks, most notably a queasy smoothness to chase scenes, quick pans, and aerial shots. And here’s the thing: It’s not that the image doesn’t look more lifelike. In many ways, it does. Rather, it’s that such attempts at verisimilitude come at the expense of the natural wonder and power we’ve come to expect from cinema. The sets look cheap, the wigs frayed, the costumes a little too unnaturally distressed. Classical frame rates have a way of hiding these edges and making actual magic, and we lose that with An Unexpected Journey. It feels like a test, an expensive, indulgent trifle. It’s impossible to shake the feeling that Jackson’s showing off instead of telling a story.
In fact, there’s too much story here to tell. An Unexpected Journey kicks off with one of the many exposition-heavy bits of narration and flashback that will periodically show up to clog the action, peppered with names and locations whose peoples and meanings are impossible to keep straight. Soon enough, the central story line kicks in, starting 60 years before the events of Lord of the Rings with a young Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) being recruited by the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) to go on a quest with a band of dwarves to reclaim their stolen homeland. There are 13 dwarves, though the focus is mainly on their leader, Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), banished prince of his kin and the one who’s most determined to lead the band of explorers back to the mountain the dwarves used to call home, where they’ll do battle with a dragon named Smaug that sent them running in the first place. There’s a good story in there, with natural ups and downs, and you can feel why it was so popular when Tolkien published it 75 years ago. Yet Jackson’s not content to tell that tale, or rather, he’s not sure he wants to, so he ornaments it with various backstories and tangents. There’s a long-standing grudge between dwarves and elves; another long-standing grudge between Thorin and a fabled orc warrior from his past (Manu Bennett); the appearance of a dark magician who can raise the dead and calls himself the Necromancer; the Necromancer’s encroachment on the forest overseen by Radagast (Sylvester McCoy), an environmentalist wizard with a bird’s nest in his hair and dung on his face; and various cryptic things said to Gandalf by the elf maiden Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), whose slurred, slowed-down speech pattern falls somewhere between dedicated pothead and David Lynch muse. In other words, a lot happens, much of it tedious or necessary.
Now, Jackson isn’t duty-bound to make a literal adaptation of The Hobbit; his purpose should be to create a compelling film story from the source material. It’s adaptation, not translation. Yet it’s telling that the film is at its weakest when it departs from the general story thread of the novel to galavant through end notes and family trees. It’s been years and years since I read Tolkien’s novel, but cursory research has shown me that the parts of Jackson’s film I found most disappointing — the cyclical exposition, the odd scenes of supporting characters that go nowhere — don’t have much of anything to do with the original story. Jackson hasn’t found a way to make this expanded tale feel organic or real. Galadriel’s appearance here is brief and mostly pointless, and it feels more than anything like ill-planned cross-franchise branding, an attempt to shake bored viewers into excitement by showing the glimpse of someone else they recognize from another movie. It’s a lot like watching a movie and having someone interrupt you to tell you about something else that’s happening in the film’s world, without thought for pacing or narrative flow or whether you should even care. You can practically hear Jackson paging anxiously through Tolkien’s books, unsure of what to cut or leave in, uncertain of where to go or what to do, and therefore committed (or resigned) to capture as much as he can. Jackson’s also apparently too enamored of his greatest hits to cut them out.
It’s not until the second half of the film that the action and pacing start to gel, as Bilbo and company make their way through treacherous mountain passes populated with goblins, beasts, and the withered creature Gollum (Andy Serkis), original owner of the magical ring that will eventually set larger stories in motion. The first meeting between Bilbo and Gollum — a riddle contest for Bilbo’s survival when he’s separated from the dwarves — is wonderfully done, thanks to Freeman’s right mix of nerves and growing bravery and Serkis’s fantastic work as the schizophrenic little fighter. Gollum’s body has a smoothness that’s one of the few noticeable benefits of the higher frame rate, and the scene is tautly paced and pleasingly tense. (At any rate, as tense as a scene can be when you’ve already seen the movie that shows exactly what will happen to these characters, and when.) There’s some nice character work at play when Jackson can be bothered to stop cutting between extraneous plots and generic battles.
So what does it all add up to? It’s hard to say, honestly. There are good ideas here. Jackson — who shares writing credit with Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens of Lord of the Rings, as well as with Guillermo Del Toro — does a good job setting up the basic quest at the heart of the fantasy story, and at giving the dwarves and the hobbit just enough room to grow to trust each other as their journey moves on. His core cast is strong, too, particularly Freeman, whose casual befuddlement and years as the straight man on “The Office” and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy make him a relatable, reluctant hero. But The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is ultimately far too long and ungainly for its own good, more a collection of jammed-up scenes and ideas than anything you could call a movie. It almost feels laughable to use the word “unexpected” in relation to it: Given the success of Jackson’s earlier Tolkien franchise, and his financiers’ desire to keep cashing in on their popularity, it’s little wonder he was turned loose once again on Middle-earth. Yet he was, and there are two more of these films yet to come. We’re in for a very long walk, but I’m not sold on the virtues of going there and back again. This quest isn’t for me.