Perhaps the most exciting thing about Peter Jackson's landmark, blockbuster Lord of the Rings films was that they made fans, through a combination of stunning landscapes and intricate special effects and soaring music and dramatic spectacle, feel as though we were seeing an almost impossible elevation of the potential size and scope of movies. Here was a rich, dense, sprawling series of films that thundered like myths, that were breathtaking in their realization of some pretty huge ambitions. Sure, they were massive corporate projects that earned lots of people millions of dollars, but to the regular moviegoer they were feats that proved the majesty of the movies, the potential to tell enthralling stories that also played like art. And so it's hugely disappointing, if not all that surprising, that Jackson's first foray back into the land of Middle Earth, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, is such a sullenly, basely commercial and junky affair, a movie that feels not crafted with Jackson's seemingly divine inspiration but by the hands of studio executives. Perhaps the reason that Warner Bros. is forgoing the usual console video-game tie-ins for simple mobile games is because the damn movie already looks like a video game, and not a very fun one at that.
The Lord of the Rings series succeeded aesthetically because it was such an elegant, painting-like wonder to behold. The textures and palettes all had the look of a particularly vibrant illustrated story book, the kind of immersive vision that exists somewhere between imagination and the real world. For The Hobbit, though, Jackson chose to film at a high frame rate and with Real 3D technology in mind — because 3D movies are doing well these days and, hell, doesn't hurt that the tickets cost more — and the results are frequently hideous. Those among us who have bought fancy new flatscreen TVs over the past few years are likely familiar with the dreaded "Soap Opera Effect," which turns what should be stunning, glossy images into cheap-looking messes, all strange movement and lighting, like any network soap or British sci-fi show. (Think Children of Men looking like Torchwood.) It's the problem of technology over-thinking or over-performing, and it is on startling, gruesome display in The Hobbit. When you're wearing the 3D glasses (and admittedly sitting a little off to the side), this hugely expensive movie looks like it was shot on a handheld digital camera. Actors stand in strange contrast to the digital backgrounds behind them, motion looks too slick or unnatural. Gone are the somber vistas and rugged terrain, replaced by eye-aching shine and plastic-y smoothness. The most special effects-heavy sequences look very much like the non-playable parts of modern video games — the exposition bits that can amp up the graphics because they don't have to worry about the randomness of play, the stuff you see in the commercials, right before the "rated T for teen" part. I don't know if I just had a bad projector or what, but I spent the bulk of this long movie distracted by how dreadful everything looked. With a few small exceptions — The Shire glows with heavenly green, a mountain cave fight/chase sequence is bracingly rich — this is a dismally unattractive movie, featuring too many shots that I'm sure were lovely at some point but are now ruined and chintzified by the terrible technology monster.
So on its aesthetic merits, The Hobbit comes up more than short. The trouble is, it's not rescued by many narrative successes. Jackson has taken largely from the first third of J.R.R. Tolkien's novel — about an expedition to reclaim a lost dwarf kingdom from a dragon — but he's also added in some elements found in appendices detailing an expanded universe that Tolkien included in an edition of The Lord of the Rings. This is partly to flesh out the story as Jackson believes Tolkien meant it to be, but it's also meant to satisfy the needs of a supersize film trilogy based on one mere book. And so we get several pointless and uninteresting diversions, mostly about dwarves and their bitter enemies the orcs, that read exactly like the filler they are. Jackson is trying to get us interested in dwarf mythology, because we spend so much of our time with these little guys, but it feels tediously synthetic, as if there are two movies competing for attention with neither one getting its due. We go to the goblin caves of The Hobbit and then, upon deliverance from that dark place, are thrust right into some kind of honor-and-revenge-based conflict with a giant, one-armed orc. It's all very crowded and strangely hurried for a movie that, all told, takes its sweet time.
I suspect that another of Jackson's reasons for including all this extra dramatic battling is that, on its own, The Hobbit is something of a children's book. We've got wacky, food-crazed dwarves, a mean old dragon, and a funny little guy to take us along on the journey. Jackson doesn't deny his movie the kiddie flourishes — there's snot humor and butt jokes and lots of other goofy stuff involving some trolls, plus two little musical numbers involving all the dwarves — but he then tries to complement them with the big, booming faith and honor stuff and it never properly congeals. One moment we're on a sprightly children's adventure, the next we're talking in big fashion about all that warlike serious business. It's a discordant mix, and I'd imagine it will leave both kids and adults out in the cold.
The film is not without its bright spots, rare as they may be. Ian McKellen is a feisty, spirited, mysterious Gandalf as ever before, and Martin Freeman nicely and genially projects everyday hobbit-ness, even if he's a tad underused in the film. (Yeah, in the movie called The Hobbit, there's barely any time to focus on the darn Hobbit.) Cate Blanchett turns up once more as the ethereal elf Galadriel, lending the movie a cool classiness and a welcome dose of feminine energy. And, of course, we're back, for one mesmerizing scene, with our beloved Gollum, so winningly and creepily played by Andy Serkis, and here yet another marvel of computer innovation. In some ways Gollum's innate cartoonishness works better now than it did in the original trilogy, which is probably the only time that can be said of this movie. There are one or two moments in Gollum's pivotal scene where he's given a bit too much modern humor to play, but all told he's the most welcome sight in the film. Maybe that's just the newfound purist in me, yearning for the old days, but I suspect it has more to do with Gollum being the only genuinely realized character we've so far encountered in this new trio of films. Everyone else is a snoozy lesser version of someone else, especially the ridiculous bloodthirsty orc leader, who snarls and growls like something out of the Underworld movies. Sometimes, in the jumble of the The Hobbit's many cluttered and dull action scenes, the frantic blur looks like any sequence from one of those schlocky '00s B-movies; all roughly hewn CGI clashing around nonsensically, with this orc fellow leading the charge.
Despite all the technical advancements, if we can call them that, most moments in The Hobbit feel like Peter Jackson is sadly trying to make all those familiar LOTR elements work for him once more, without ever really being able to reignite the old flame. The supposedly awe-inducing visit to the elf city of Rivendell is a ho-hum experience in this new frame-rate-ruined world. A silly battle sequence involving a wizard, silly Radagast the Brown, riding around pell-mell on a rabbit-drawn sled looks like an interstitial from late-era Super Mario. Even Elijah Wood, appearing briefly as Frodo, looks strange — a pale ghost of himself, as if stitched in from another movie by some forlorn and desperate hand. The film is inevitably resonant with memories of the original trilogy, and little about it can hold up to the comparison. There's too much effort in the wrong places — action instead of story, technical tricks instead of actual design — and the constant rhythm of arbitrary event after arbitrary event becomes tiresome well before the film's two hours and forty minutes have lurched to a halt. I'm sure there are kids who will like this wan, distracted effort — they might not yet have anything else to compare it to, depending on their age — but as a human who remembers what came before, I'm afraid The Hobbit left me nothing but frustrated, sad, and tired. Frustrated that these big-budget visionaries seem to consistently feel they have to taint their earlier masterpieces with techno-junk followups, sad that once magical lands now flicker cheap and garish in my head, and tired at the prospect of two more of these things. I exited the theater trying to remind myself that Attack of the Clones was way better than Phantom Menace and that Revenge of the Sith was better still. I then realized how depressing it was that I was making that comparison. Oh, Middle Earth. What have they done to you?