“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” is not the worst film of the year, but it may be the most disappointing. Given the scope and grandeur of Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” epics, we enter the theater justifiably expecting his new Tolkien adventure to thrill our socks off. Instead, you endure this monstrously overproduced misfire with the numb apathy of a prisoner slowly throwing a ball against a cell wall.
It’s a husk with the superficial features of a “Rings” movie but none of the energy and heart and wit — an unexpected journey, indeed. Like Ridley Scott before him with “Prometheus,” Jackson has caught George Lucas Disease, the compulsion to revisit beloved franchises and louse them up with maddening prequels.
Just as “The Return of the King” took f-o-r-e-v-e-r to depart its myriad characters and conclude, “The Hobbit” doesn’t shift out of low gear until the last of its three hours. The story, a pastiche assembled from Tolkien’s novel plus scraps and oddments, unfolds 60 years before Frodo’s quest. The Baggins in focus here is young Bilbo (Martin Freeman), a milquetoast stay-at-home impelled into a dangerous quest when Gandalf (Ian McKellen) misrepresents him to a troop of warrior dwarves as a burglar in need of work. The pint-sized platoon needs a skilled thief to win back their kingdom, now occupied by the fearsome dragon Smaug.
Before the adventure can begin, however, Jackson feels we need a slow, labored reintroduction to Middle Earth.
He lingers over stale shots of the Shire, Bag End and Old Bilbo (Ian Holm) taking up his quill to write the memoir whose events the film shows us. The fantastically hirsute dwarves turn Bilbo’s tidy home into a chaos of feasting, roistering, belching (all jokey, which is the opposite of funny) and agonizing folk songs. Elf royalty (Cate Blanchett and Hugo Weaving) are reintroduced.
Saruman (Christopher Lee, looking embalmed) offers a long expository conversation to explain the plot to us. An alert editor could whack 90 minutes of slack from this misassembled setup. When the payoff finally arrives, trolls and orcs and goblins are killed, but mostly the film kills your time.
Aside from pacing, the main problem is that “The Hobbit’s” characters lack the crispness that makes for inspiring adventure. Freeman’s finger-fidgeting Bilbo is a fussbudget creature, frustrated, prissy and befuddled. His personality takes a darker, more determined hue when he encounters Gollum (Andy Serkis, digitally transformed) and slips on the Ring of power and bad vibes, but that evolution comes very late in the game. His dwarf commandos are characterized mostly by their facial hair, which is sculpted like topiary. The mustache budget on this thing must have topped “Lincoln’s.” The most memorable character is the Great Goblin (nicely voiced by Australian comic Barry Humphries, aka Dame Edna), a computer beast that apparently was grown from an especially ugly potato.
Jackson, with his writing partners Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro (who at one point was slated to direct, alas for what might have been) struggle to find a tone balancing the light, child-friendly character of “The Hobbit” and the yowling berserker chase-and-stab of the “Rings” dramas.
The proper look for the film also eludes them. The 3-D film will be presented in select theaters at a 48-frames-per-second rate, an innovation that renders images as unnaturally crisp and clear as an over-amped hi-def LED screen. Instead of the romantic illusion of film, we see the sets and makeup for what they are. The effect is like stepping into a diorama alongside the actors, which is not as pleasant as it might sound. I wouldn’t go so far as to call this experiment a technological dead end. Never bet against innovation, but this debut does not promise great things to come. Let’s cross our fingers that the next two chapters in this trilogy use the gimmick to better effect.
The finale’s arrival is welcome both for the relief it grants and a line of dialogue that shall forever be enshrined in the Unintentional Irony Hall of Fame. Their trials done for the moment, Bilbo chirps, “I do believe the worst is behind us.” Here’s hoping.