It's been well over a decade since director Peter Jackson & Co. took on the monumental task of creating a film version of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, succeeding against some truly impressive odds. Jackson and co-screenwriters Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh somehow managed to tread a rather fine and ever-shifting line, displaying both fidelity to the beloved source material and a willingness to futz with it when necessary — a nip and tuck here, an excised character there, a transported battle scene here, an added love story there.
Now, joined by screenwriter (and initial director) Guillermo del Toro, they've turned The Hobbit, Tolkien's earlier, slim, decidedly more lighthearted volume about the original adventures of Bilbo Baggins, into a similarly sprawling trilogy of what are likely to be two-hour-plus films. As such, they've taken decidedly greater liberties this time around with the events that brought Bilbo into possession of the One Ring, the obscure object of desire that fuels the later, darker trilogy. As a great admirer of Jackson's work and the Lord of the Rings films, I wish I could tell you they've succeeded once again. But The Hobbit — at least this first installment — is a calamitous misfire.
Where to start? Jackson and his writers know the Tolkien universe as well as anybody — they were longtime fans before tackling the Rings films. In trying to create something that matches the scope of the original trilogy, they've larded up the narrative with digressions and flashbacks and pitstops into the rest of the Middle Earth Universe, including borrowings from additional Tolkien writings. But the Rings films, for all their sprawl, were held together by the urgency of the narrative and the unthinkable evil of the chief villain, Sauron: Our heroes were essentially in a race against time from the get-go. Here, there's little such immediacy.
The plot, such as it is, involves the young Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman, whose usual perplexed demeanor initially suits this character, but then wears thin after a while) getting enlisted by the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) to help a gathering of dwarves journey back and reclaim their mountain home, which has been taken over by a dragon. Gone are the tense inter-character dynamics of the original series, which maintained interest and helped delineate characters. The scenes with the mini-army of dwarves degenerate into a mess of gags and dialogue, with very little to tell them apart or hold our attention. Worse, there's about an hour of this stuff — talking, flashbacks, digressions, a song, etc. — before they even get started. The results are tedious when they're not outright confusing.
Possibly adding to the sense of dislocation might be that The Hobbit is being presented in many theaters in a state-of-the-art 48 frames-per-second 3D video format. It's a trippy technology, to be sure — it makes everything seem like it's unfolding before your eyes through goggles of hyper-clarity — but it also has the odd effect of diminishing the fantasy. It sacrifices beauty for immersion: Fun for NFL games, but maybe not so much for movies.
Beyond the fancy-pants technology, though, The Hobbit has bigger problems. The eventual action sequences, when they do come, don't seem to have much at stake. They're just slightly more technically advanced retreads of beloved battles from the original trilogy, and you start to feel cheated. It doesn't help that the story's chief antagonist — Smaug, the dragon — is seen only very briefly. There's portent to spare, but nothing of any consequence — a problem if you're setting up a trilogy of nearly three-hour films.
It was always going to be a challenge to reconcile the tonally more effervescent story of The Hobbit with the dark sprawl of the Rings epic. Sure enough, this lighter, less substantial story cannot support the monumental bombast Jackson brings to it. As a result, you're tired before the first film even gets to its halfway point. By the end, you may feel as if you'd made it through Jackson's entire Ring cycle, and Wagner's too. And just think, there's something like another six hours to go in this slow-motion catastrophe. Where's Sauron when you need him?