Overview: Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) is sent on an adventure with a company of dwarves looking to reclaim their homeland from a dragon. Warner Bros. 2012. Rated PG-13. 169 Minutes.
Store Brand: After seeing The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey three times in theaters (once opening weekend, once to experience Peter Jackson’s ill-advised High Frame Rate 3D experiment, and once with my sister on Christmas), I’d had my fill of the trilogy. I had trouble expressing my dissatisfaction without comparisons to the Lord of the Rings films, so I thought I was being too hard on it. The problem is that everything wrong with An Unexpected Journey comes as a result of the film comparing itself to its predecessors. There’s a lengthy prologue featuring familiar characters from those films, the story drowns under the weight of its callbacks (check that sinister music overtime Saruman (Christopher Lee) is on screen), and Jackson’s direction strains to recapture his elegance and majesty. It’s trying so hard to endear an LOTR-loving audience to it that it fails to make things from The Hobbit endearing. All it does is remind you that you could be watching those other films instead. It feels like a direct-to-DVD ripoff of The Hobbit, and its insistence on cheap-looking CGI doesn’t help its case.
Focus Pulled: As if attempting to compensate for this, Jackson stuffs the film with more plot beats than you can shake a magic staff at. Never before in history has a film needed less to be so long. It hews close to the structure of the book, making one wonder if Jackson saw the success of the extended editions of the LOTR films as a sign that he should make the theatrical Hobbit films as complete as possible. Half the film feels like really cool deleted scenes that accidentally got left in the final cut. How does it serve the story to have the characters watch some giant rock monsters fight each other? Why does Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy) take up so much screentime? Most importantly, why is the titular hobbit barely in the film at all? The camera doesn’t focus on him any more or less than any of the dwarves, who aren’t characterized beyond their appearances and whose names we can hardly remember anyway. If Jackson’s visual style didn’t constantly remind you that you’re watching a Middle Earth film, you’d be forgiven for forgetting what you’re watching halfway through. It is pretty long, after all.
Wrap-Up: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey misuses the sweeping grandeur of its parent trilogy, resulting in a bloated, plasticky epic that feels more like a Lord of the Rings knockoff than its prequel.