In an early scene of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Ian McKellan’s Gandalf rumbles good-naturedly that “All good stories deserve embellishing.” Yet it seems director Peter Jackson took this insight too much to heart with his latest venture into J.R.R Tolkien’s Middle Earth.
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The 166 minute prequel to the Lord of the Rings, the first in an (excessive) trilogy, follows the basic formula of its predecessors: A reluctant hobbit leaves his hole in the ground to join a band of misfits on an adventure. The titular furry-footed hobbit in question is Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman). His solitary life of books and crocheted doilies is disrupted when the wizard Gandalf and a group of dwarves invade his home. The company, led by dwarf-prince Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), seeks to reclaim the kingdom Erebor, guarded by the gold-hoarding dragon, Smaug; Bilbo is to be their burglar.
Freeman is wonderfully charming as Bilbo, playing him as an English gentleman with a child’s curiosity and wonder. Yet his character goes silent for much of the second act, which proves a great disservice to the film. For around this same time, the action grows tedious as it relentlessly cycles through trolls, orcs, goblins, and more even orcs for our journeyers to battle or elude.
However, the story redeems itself later with the reappearance the franchise’s quasi-mascot, Gollum. His and Bilbo’s game of riddles is not only the most devilishly fun sequence in the film, with Gollum vacillating between his Jekyll and Hyde personas, it’s also the most technically masterful. The light dancing in Gollum’s eyes alone demonstrates the immense advancement made in motion-capture technology since his last appearance on-screen. Andy Serkis, who portrays Gollum, is just as emotive and nuanced as any actor sans CGI makeover and easily steals the show from his live action counterparts.
Fans of the Lord of the Rings will delight in seeing other familiar faces like Hugo Weaving’s Elrond and Cate Blanchett’s ethereal Galadriel and Jackson cleverly frames the story to allow even more memorable characters to return in subsequent films. But perhaps this is part of the film’s weakness: the nostalgia it evokes for the films that came before The Hobbit or rather the stories that come after. Jackson found cinematic magic once before, but unfortunately it seems that getting there once doesn't always mean you can go back again.