The Return of the King is the only best picture winner in the last two decades I have not watched a single frame of. I gave up on Peter Jackson’s original series about 15 minutes into The Two Towers, having conclusively determined that his butt-numbing, gout-footed adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien was just never going to hold my interest.
Because of that, the prospect of returning to Middle Earth for another trilogy — this time centering around the precursor to Lord of the Rings — was a dreadful proposition. That Jackson intended to stretch out The Hobbit — at 300 pages a mere pamphlet next to the LOTR tomes — over three three-hour films when his direction felt bloated condensing five times that much material into a similar length didn’t exactly portend a newfound concision on his part.
The early reviews weren’t exactly bolstering my enthusiasm.
Add to that the gimmick of presenting the new films in 48 frames per second (which, in layman’s terms, means twice as many individual frames of action than a normal 24-fps feature film) and you may as well have stuck me and a boulder in front of Mount Everest.
OK, now that roughly 98 percent of anyone who clicked on this review has either left or made a beeline to the comments section, let me hasten to add that no one could’ve been more surprised than me to come away from An Unexpected Journey unexpectedly anticipating what might come next.
Not bad considering the number of visits I received from Mr. Sandman during the movie’s first hour, in which moon-faced Frodo’s fourth cousin a hundred times removed Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) gets recruited by Gandolf (a still game Ian McKellan) to join a band of 13 overweight, undertall dwarfs in a quest to return Lonely Mountain as their rightful home.
The dwarfs, led by Thorin Oakenshield (heir to a throne that was denied him by the dragon Smaug and the ripped Orc warrior Azog, oh God I’m getting sleepy just typing it all out!), crash Bilbo’s seemingly spacious hobbit abode, scarf down his food supplies, tell stories, sing songs, saw logs, and probably play a few rounds of Risk in there somewhere too. Eventually they venture out on the long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long road to Rivendell, where elven sages and LOTR fan favorites Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), Saruman (Christopher Lee) and Elrond (Hugo Weaving) offer words of encouragement with Gandalf and exchange recipes.
Clairvoyant though she may be, Galadriel apparently can’t prevent the motley band of mustachioed proto-locavores from walking headlong into the massive goblin hidey-hole inside Misty Mountains, where Bilbo is separated from the group and spends most of the remainder of the film trading riddles with the jaundiced, amphibian-like creature Gollum, who battles dissociative identity disorder and covets the “Precious” ring as humorously as ever.
Other things happen, of course. In fact, the movie sometimes gives off the impression that there aren’t too many things that don’t happen and aren’t covered. And you walk out feeling like the keys have only just been put in the ignition.
But paradoxically, Jackson’s strain to pad out the running time for both fun and profit results in an atmosphere of devil-may-care digressions and “tell me a story” improvisation that was missing from his Middle Earth the first time around. The sense of gear-grinding inevitability and total acquiescence to narrative that marked the LOTR trilogy seems to have evaporated here. It feels like anything can happen, probably because, thanks to the mandated expansion, anything has to happen. It doesn’t make the film any better, per se, but at least gives it a dose of badly needed spontaneity.
I’m not entirely sure whether that will please or exasperate the previous series’ legion of fans. Up until I saw the first round of reviews, I would’ve presumed that anyone who owns the extended cuts of earlier films would by design believe more is more. It could be that The Hobbit will seem to them like child’s play, but it’s the reverence for the earlier movies that continues to make me wish the world would just grow up.