About a half hour into “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey”—or at least, I think a half hour, since the film’s running time moves like a snail navigating through molasses—the titular hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) runs away from his peaceful shire yelling at the top of his lungs, “I am going on an adventure!”
The only problem here is that Bilbo seems to leave the rest of us behind.
What “The Hobbit” represents is most certainly not an adventure. It is rather a sluggish trek, a grueling experience, an exhausting ordeal that never seems to end and feels completely satisfied leaving its audience with essentially nothing in terms of story.
Makes sense this comes from director Peter Jackson, who once again helms the rights to Middle Earth and travels back to the familiar territory seen in his “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. While these are films that I didn’t necessarily dislike but am hardly a fan of, I never remember any of Jackson’s previous three movies being as simultaneously overstuffed and empty, an arduous combo that makes “The Hobbit” feel like it is being delivered straight from obligatory franchise hell.
More similar to Jackson’s last film, his unbelievably awful adaptation of the wonderful source material for “The Lovely Bones,” “The Hobbit” is a terrible crack at storytelling showered in ambitious visuals that never quite work with their given material. ‘Bones’ very much seemed to imply that when you’re a young girl raped and murdered at age 14, the rest of your days will be spent in an over-stylized CGI playground version of heaven.
“The Hobbit” equally sacrifices the basis of its story in order to show whatever new toys Jackson has tucked away within his mammoth-sized, misdirected ambition (him and James Cameron just need to bust out the rulers already and finish this dick-measuring contest once and for all, because we all lose because of it). One of these toys specifically is the decision to shoot “The Hobbit” in 48 frames-per-second and to display this version on approximately 200 screens in the country. Thank goodness this isn’t happening everywhere, because it’s safe to say this experiment has failed. If I ever see another movie projected this way again, it will be too soon.
To summarize the unnatural ugliness of 48fps is recollecting one of the biggest headaches I have had in theaters this year. Yes, it makes images crisper and clearer, but this is often only the case when both the camera and the images are static. Still shots of landscapes look lovely; everything else made me want to scoop my eyes out with a melon baller.
Whenever the camera or characters move, the result is a hideous blend of abnormal fluid motion and sped-up visuals. Much of the film looks like an overly adjusted, cranked-to-the-max HDTV on display at department stores showcasing the latest video game, looking like a soap opera starring people in silly costumes and being played in fast forward. Every action scene feels like it is missing the “Benny Hill” theme playing over the soundtrack.
It is a technique that I could never get used to, and scarily demonstrates a future in filmmaking aesthetics that I pray comes to a screeching halt here. About an hour in, I witnessed two people tear the 3D glasses off their face and storm out the theater. I wish I could have joined them. A colleague of mine left mid-movie to vomit. Trust me, I was almost at that point as well.
As I mentioned, this “revolution” is mercifully only in select theaters, so the majority of audiences will be able to spare themselves the eye-watering misery of 48fps, but this is a movie not even worth seeking out in normal presentation. How could a story where the images move so fast, move so slow in its narrative that the story virtually just sits there? And for just short of three hours, nonetheless.
Padded out to ridiculous lengths, “An Unexpected Journey” is only the first film in yet another trilogy planned, this time for a book that runs about 320 pages. In order to make this work, Jackson fills the story with unnecessary additions—with constant winking nudges at the past films, even though this is intended to be a prequel.
The wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) returns in a role where his powers are only selective to when the plot requires them. In one scene, he, Bilbo, and a gathering of dwarves run for their lives from a small army of Orcs (you know, those ugly things), yet in another scene Gandalf rescues the entire crew from goblins by simply slamming his staff into the ground. The source of his amazing powers seems to be that of screenwriting convenience.
The only plus I would grant the movie is seeing the origin tale of Bilbo and the schizophrenic creature Gollum brought to life, giving the movie its few moments of interesting vitality. Unfortunately this happens about two hours in, and then is followed by the film concluding essentially where the action of any other movie would begin picking up momentum. And at this, Bilbo looks to the distance and delivers the ironically appropriate final line, “I believe the worst is behind us.”
God, I hope so.
Greg Vellante is a film critic for The Eagle Tribune.