In the beginning, there was writer-director Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings series, and it was good. There was Middle Earth, a magical world of elves, wizards, hobbits, dwarves and men. Even those who were not fans of the books on which those movies are based find themselves settling in to watch The Return of the King on a Sunday afternoon.
Now, after much brouhaha, there is The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. You may have heard that there are three films in the Hobbit series. That is correct.
There are three movies based on one slim volume.
That means that each film—and if An Unexpected Journey is any benchmark, they'll all be roughly three hours long—tells about 100 pages of story, provided it sticks to the events contained within those pages.
Before we get any more meta, I'll be straight: I don't like The Hobbit as a book. In fairness, I read it a bajillion years ago, but I didn't like it. That much I remember.
I did, however, enjoy The Fellowship of the Ring, and that film is my favorite in the Lord of the Rings series. The Hobbit, on the other hand, is just irritating. Take that for what it's worth, which probably isn't much.
Remember Gimli from the Ring's film series? He's a dwarf who's used, in the films, primarily for comic relief. Now, imagine there is a movie starring 13 Gimlis. That's The Hobbit without actor John Rhys-Davies' expert performance. Want barfing, snarfing and belching? You got it.
Right off the bat, The Hobbit suffers from a serious case of the cutes. Sure, the book is considered a children's story, but for some reason—maybe because of the out-and-out seriousness of Jackson's Lord of the Rings—I didn't expect the cutes. Gimli, Pippin and Merry from LOTR have more weight than any character in Jackson's screen version of The Hobbit.
Even the elves are cute. Hugo Weaving, the master of the straight face, again shows up as Elrond, and the first thing we see on his face is a big, dumb smirk.
Then there are the logic gaps in The Hobbit that seem more egregious than any logic gap in the other stories. Whether this particular scene appears in the book I don't remember, but there's a moment when Gandalf the wizard (Ian McKellen, again in fine form), the 13 dwarves and our hobbit hero, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), are literally up a tree to hide from the orcs who are out to kill them. Gandalf sends for help, via butterfly, to some giant eagles. The eagles swoop in, gather up our heroes, kill some orcs and save the day.
So why not have some giant eagles pick everyone up at the story's start, take the group to Rivendell (where the elves live) to have a map translated (a plot point), and then pick them up and fly them to the Lonely Mountain (another plot point)? That breakdown is surely too literal, but when one takes the fantastic on the page and turns it into the literal on the screen, things get lost in the transfer.
For those who care about plot—it really doesn't matter, because this movie, unlike Lord of the Rings, feels like an exercise in technology more than it does a story we're supposed to enjoy—it's basically this: The dwarves have been burned out of their home by Smaug, the dragon. Thirteen of them, along with Bilbo and Gandalf, set out to win their home back from the dragon.
Along the way, Bilbo finds a ring.
About that technology. By now, the stories of Jackson's use of High Frame Rate 3D is widespread. In short, HFR 3D looks terrible. Those grand images you see on your HDTV at home? In a theater, through 3D glasses, they look like a BBC sci-fi series from the late 1970s (bad), or a Sony Bravia TV with the Motion Flow technology turned on. It's unnatural and distracting.
There are people out there who will no doubt find this review nitpicky and stupid. Fair enough. Enjoy The Hobbit for the next three Christmases. But when a movie gives me this much to think about as I'm watching it, it just doesn't work.