I always use to joke that Nancy Sinatra's catchy and now decades old song "These Boots Are Made for Walking" should have been the go-to tune during the many walking scenes found in the three "The Lord of the Rings" movies. And that's because the many characters in director Peter Jackson's three-installment adaption of J.R.R. Tolkien's classic tale did just that. They walked. They talked. They fought enemies and monsters. And then they walked some more.
Granted, only someone like Quentin Tarantino could have somehow made the song from ol' blue eyes' daughter work in any of the LOTR films, be that 2001's "The Fellowship of the Ring," "The Two Towers" the following year or "The Return of the King" that rounded out the trilogy a year later. Wildly popular among the masses (the three films grossed north of $3 billion -- unadjusted for inflation -- at the worldwide box office) as well as Oscar voters (they won 17 out of their 30 total nominations, including 11 wins for the final film), the flicks didn't overly impress me.
Yes, they had tremendous moments at times (mostly revolving around the special effects, including Andy Serkis' work as the creepy Gollum), but not being a Tolkien fan boy, I found them increasingly redundant and repetitive. In short, they could have been fairly truncated and probably not lost much power. I have a feeling I'm going to react the same way to the totality of "The Hobbit" trilogy that now kicks off its three film spree with "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey."
Once again helmed by Jackson -- who continues his Middle Earth collaboration with screenwriters Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens (along with filmmaker Guillermo del Toro) -- the film is long (at just under three hours), returns a bunch of characters from the LOTR series (including those played by Andy Serkis, Ian McKellen, Cate Blanchett, Christopher Lee, Hugo Weaving and brief appearances by Ian Holm and Elijah Wood), and features many scenes of fighting, talking and -- yes, you guessed it -- walking.
While we cue up Nancy once more, I have to point out that while the three LOTR's novels totaled more than 1,000 pages (and thus could justify three films), the page count for Tolkien's "Hobbit" totals 400 or less (depending on its physical format). Accordingly, one would need to do a lot of padding to turn that into three films (and longs ones at that), and this first installment feels bloated. Not to mention exceedingly similar to its cinematic predecessors, including a group quest to get to a certain faraway mountain while dealing with all sorts of obstacles and setbacks along the way. Heck, there's even a certain and very familiar ring involved.
None of which is meant to imply that it's bad, as it does have some terrific sequences (most notably, once again, from Serkis playing his motion capture character to ultimate perfection in a creepy but mesmerizing interaction with the title character), some decent action, and solid performances from its cast, including Martin Freeman in the lead role.
The plot is fairly simple and straightforward. Set sixty years before the LOTR stories, our protagonist (Freeman) finds himself chosen by an old and wise wizard (McKellen) to help thirteen dwarves return to their former kingdom and attempt to reclaim that from a nasty dragon who kicked them out years ago for their bountiful gold. Unfortunately, most of those dwarves are near indistinguishable from each other (save for their bountiful or exotic facial hair), and non-Tolkien diehards would be hard-pressed to name any of them after the nearly three hours spent in their company. That is, except for their leader, played by Richard Armitage who takes over the hunky warrior post abandoned by Viggo Mortensen.
LOTR fans will enjoy the various story and thematic tie-ins presented here back to the earlier films, but for the rest of us this will feel just like more of the same old, same old, with repeated occurrences of walking, talking and fighting. That said, tech buffs might be enticed by the way in which Jackson shot the film and how it will play in certain theaters.
For as long as anyone can remember, film has been shot at the rate of 24 frames per second, something that's a bit slower than how the human eye perceives reality. As a result, watching a movie had something of a magical sensation in that our minds then filled in the gaps between the frames, thus making us something of an unexpected participant in the process. But that frame rate also created problems with quick camera pans, making the resultant shots not as fluid and seamless as desired.
So, Jackson and cinematographer Andrew Lesnie opted to shot this film at 48 frames per second, which eliminates that camera motion issue and makes the picture awfully vivid and hyper realistic in appearance. But it also introduces an artifact known to some HDTV users as the "soap opera effect" where it makes filmed scenes visually appear with the same "you are there" quality as live news and sports broadcasting.
When shown that way and presented in 3D (only in theaters, this won't be an issue on DVD or Blu-ray unless one's HDTV creates the effect), one feels as if they're really inside Bilbo Baggins' home. Or, more accurately, the set that's standing in for that as everything looks, well, fake. Even the hobbit's super-long feet, that appeared real in the LOTR films, look like rubber slip-ons, and other such props similarly stand out. In short, while it might make the picture pop more than usual, it destroys the storytelling illusion, especially when such scenes are juxtaposed against footage shot outdoors.
Of course, you can still see the film in standard 24 fps, but even that won't disguise that the overall presentation feels padded and like something we've seen before in -- oh, I don't know -- 2001, 2002 and 2003. Okay but nothing spectacular as a whole and certainly not unique, "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" rates as a 5 out of 10.