Contrary to the title, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” is entirely an expected journey.
Filmgoers who saw director Peter Jackson’s previous trilogy, “The Lord of the Rings,” may feel as if they’re watching those films again, only with characters who are less distinctive this time out and, if it’s possible, even more sword-swinging battle scenes.
While Jackson yet again demonstrates his ability with “The Hobbit” to make a film that is ambitiously epic and visually inventive, it’s neither as engrossing nor exhilarating as the first time around with “Rings.” Maybe you just can’t go home to Middle-earth again.
Let me hasten to say that rabid fans of the “Rings” movies and Tolkien’s books will no doubt love this movie. And I’m happy for them.
It’s just that everyone else, at least if they’re of voting age or older and not a fantasy fan, will find themselves checking their watch — the movie has a nearly three-hour running time — and shifting in their seats as the “Hobbit’s” diminutive heroes rush into yet another battle with one monstrous foe after another.
Like “Rings,” “Hobbit” is based on a book by J.R.R. Tolkien. The new film (and the two more to follow) is a prequel of sorts to the “Rings” trilogy, with its events taking place 60 years before but featuring a handful of characters familiar from the “Rings” cycle.
We are once again deep in a fantasy world inhabited by Hobbits, who are short of stature and walk about barefoot on oversized, hairy feet; ornery, bearded Dwarfs; magical Wizards; aristocratic Elves, and various specious of vile, combative creatures such as Trolls, Orcs, Goblins and more.
The movie’s plot, which takes its time revving up, has Gandalf (Ian McKellen), the wizard familiar from “Rings,” recruiting Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman, with Ian Holm playing an aged Bilbo in a prologue), a young Hobbit, for a mission. He wants Bilbo to join him and a baker’s dozen of Dwarfs in their quest to recapture a mountain kingdom where the Dwarfs once lived. They were forced to flee from it long ago when a dragon moved in.
As this ragtag group journeys toward the long lost kingdom, they encounter all manner of CGI-generated foe, all of whom seem to share a propensity for bad dental care that has resulted in multiple missing and rotten teeth. Other than their shared desperate need to visit a dentist pronto, none of these villains is particularly witty or memorable.
Did I mention that there’s only one female character in the entire movie? That would be Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), the Elf queen who also popped up in “Rings.” Here, she again is able to communicate telepathically with Gandalf. (To be scrupulously fair, a few female Dwarf and Hobbit villagers, essentially extras, are glimpsed early on.)
The film, shot in 3D, is being shown at 48 frames per second, twice the usual rate. It is a much-ballyhooed technological advancement that results in a look so hyper-realistic that it is both jarring and, ironically, serves to make scenes look fake. This is particularly true of those shot on sets rather than outdoors. The giant castle walls and parapets looks as patently false, though less charmingly so, than any of the painted backdrops and the faux yellow brick road in 1939’s “The Wizard of Oz.”
As Bilbo, Freeman is ingratiating and at least seems to be attempting to build a character. As the Dwarf warrior Thorin, Richard Armitage is handsomely gruff. McKellen, hirsute with flowing locks and a long beard, mostly acts with his eyes and his voice, once again making Gandalf the movie’s most resonant character.
“The Hobbit” ends — warning: unsurprising spoiler coming — with our heroes only partway toward their destination and with enough adventures ahead of them presumably to fill two more movies.
For those of us, though, who’ve already had our fill of Middle-earth and long for three-dimensional, human characters rather than yet another gruff, bearded, interchangeable Dwarf or snarling, drooling CGI monster, it’s going to be a long slog.