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Visually astounding 'Hobbit' lacks urgency or direction

By Sean Czarnecki, Daily Film Editor
Published January 9, 2013

Conceived in New Zealand’s sweeping country, our generation was introduced to a live-action Middle Earth with the 2001 release of “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. Middle Earth taught us that we could be as kind, wise and brave as we wanted to be. It taught us there were worlds beyond ours, for us to create. Today, “The Lord of the Rings” is a movie memory for the ages. And now we’re to return. With the release of “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” director Peter Jackson is taking audiences back to the birthplace of millennial film fantasy — Middle Earth.

Good luck, bro.

Blame it on the source material or poor screen adaptation, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” is often a meandering adventure lacking any sense of urgency, but stirrupped by strong performances and gorgeous visuals, it almost manages to meet the insurmountable expectations.

Jackson’s latest begins with Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman, “The Pirates! Band of Misfits”) living happily and uneventfully in the Shire, until along comes the troublesome Gandalf (Ian McKellen, “X-Men”) in need of an adventure. That very night, a fellowship of thick-bearded dwarves shows up at his doorstep, raids his food stores and asks him to accompany them on a quest to help reclaim their fallen kingdom from a fearsome dragon.

What follows is a drab example of epic storytelling. Not only does “The Hobbit” bear uncomfortable resemblances to the story arc of “The Fellowship of the Ring,” much-needed dramatic steam was lost due to the decision to make J.R.R. Tolkien’s short children’s novel into a trilogy. Now, what we have are three hours of long encounters with trolls, elves, stone giants and goblins, unable to build on each other in any meaningful way. The pace is slack, dull and fattened full of cumbersome mythology stories best left as footnotes. Ultimately, there’s too much fluff, not enough beard.

But in that winding journey to nothing, Middle Earth has never looked better. The high frame rate, filmed in 3-D, makes the landscape more expansive, more vivid, more real. Armies clash, trolls bellow, waterfalls glisten — Middle Earth/New Zealand breathes. And speaking of groundbreaking visuals, Gollum (Andy Serkis, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”), in all his pallid boniness, is worth the trip back to Middle Earth alone. His wretched entrance garnered applause and laughter from the whole theater.

Serkis wasn’t alone in delivering an expectedly great performance. As always, McKellen, ancient and haggard, is spritely and infinitely wise. Freeman creates the “youthful” Bilbo Baggins we’ve always imagined — fussy and homely as an old man, but amicable. Like all good heroes, he can still surprise us with great deeds of courage.

In “The Lord of the Rings,” Jackson succeeded in telling a tale that enthralled us with adventure, but also made us feel how very much his hobbits yearned for home. In “The Hobbit,” the unexpected party of dwarves that arrived at Bilbo’s doorstep aches for that sense of belonging. You can hear it in their fireside singing. You hope that after all the fighting they do find home. Jackson may falter more than he enthralls, but “The Hobbit,” in some small sense, contains some of that same magic that marshaled a horde of fanboys 11 years ago.