As the second in the Hobbit trilogy is about to be released, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Extended Edition). Director Peter Jackson returns to J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth for this “Lord of the Rings” prequel, the adventure of young Bilbo Baggins, the hobbit we meet in the LoTR trilogy as the middle-aged uncle of the heroic Frodo. We see many familiar faces, especially Ian McKellan as the wizard Gandalf, the sepulchral Christopher Lee as Saruman, Cate Blanchett as the ethereal Galandriel, Hugo Weaving as the regally gracious Elrond, and Andy Serkis plus CGI as Gollum, and the now-familiar but still marvelously eye-filling New Zealand locations.What is most different here is that Jackson has doubled the frames-per-second for a new hyper-clarity. The 24 frames per second standard that has been in effect since the beginning of the sound era has been upped to 48, giving the film a depth of detail that is so fresh it can be a little unsettling. We subconsciously associate the quality of light and focus with the video used for news programs and lower-budget sitcoms (think of the difference between the indoor and outdoor scenes in the old “Monty Python” episodes), so it can take a while to get used to it in a richly imagined fantasy, especially when close-ups reveal the pores of a character’s skin like a magnifying mirror at a department store makeup counter and the quality of light seems chillier and more sterile. We get so much visual information that it takes a while to re-calibrate our ability to separate the meaningful from the superfluous.
It does not help that Jackson himself seems to miss the forest of the story for the literal trees. Blowing out the shortest and most accessible of the books to a projected trilogy of nearly nine hours suggests that Jackson has fallen so in love with the project that he has lost touch with what it feels like not to be completely obsessed with it. Of course, he is enabled by the intensity of the fans, who are famously dedicated to every leaf, twig, and Elvish declension. But he seems to have lost track of the thread of the story and dulled his sense of how to communicate with those who are not as deeply involved with the story as he is. He glosses over the important discussion of Bilbo’s two competing heritages, one open to adventure, one devoted to home and hearth, which makes it hard to understand why he changes his mind about accepting Gandalf’s challenge. Since it is a prequel, we are all familiar with the destructive power of the One Ring to Rule Them All, which makes it confusing when we see it 60 years earlier as a simple and benign invisibility ring. Meanwhile, it takes all of 40 minutes before Bilbo leaves his house as what should have been a 10-minute scene about the unexpected arrival of a bunch of rowdy dwarves is expanded to include two different musical numbers. And yet, it still does not give us enough of a sense of who the individual dwarves are.
The action scenes are filled with vitality and dynamically staged, but the film assumes a commitment and understanding on our part that it has not earned. In a story about a quest of honor, that is an unexpected disappointment.
Parents should know that this film includes many battle sequences and scenes of peril, scary monsters, characters injured and killed, some disturbing images, smoking, drinking, and some potty humor.
Family discussion: Why did Bilbo decide to join the adventure? Why did Gandalf pick him? Why didn’t Gandalf use his powers to help the dwarves sooner?
If you like this, try: The book by J.R.R. Tolkien and the “Lord of the Rings” films