“THE HOBBIT”, PETER Jackson’s return to Middle Earth is an extraordinary display of a boundless visual imagination. There are some scenes, especially in the limitless depths of the dwarf kingdom, Erebor, that are quite breath-taking. And even as his camera swoops over the grand lush beauty of New Zealand, plunging into the ever-summer prettiness of Bilbo Baggins’ neighbourhood or tracking the path of the dread Orcs, you marvel at the immersive spectacle of it all. Even his use of 3D, which in lesser hands can be a pain in the ass, provides moments of pure pleasure. At one point, as the fearless team of dwarfs wander through one of the many forests, a bird flitters into view and seemingly hovers in the middle of the cinema.
The story, in a nutshell: Gandalf recruits Bilbo to join a troop of dwarfs who are seeking to recapture their gold-surfeited kingdom, destroyed many decades ago by a fire breathing, gold loving dragon. This is the story of their getting there, or at least, in this first pass, the story of actually getting close enough to see it way off in the hazy blue distance.
As it did in the “Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring”, the movie starts on a tame enough, somewhat boring note. But as soon as Gandalf (Ian McKellen back in the role), Bilbo (Martin Freeman), Thorin (the king of the dwarfs – Richard Armitage) and the troop of dwarfs head off on their picaresque adventure, the action and the adrenaline pick up. And there is a lot of action. Indeed, apart from a few incongruous episodes of silly Disney cartoon-like humor, “The Hobbit” is really one long chase sequence told with such giddy brio that the long running time (almost three hours) zipped along effortlessly. So far, so good.
Mr Jackson devotes so much of his time and energy to creating the tangibly real world of Middle Earth that he seems to have forgotten about character. Freeman struggles along trying to invest Bilbo with a nice balance of awe shucks ordinariness along with some impressive sword play, but Thorin and his band of dwarfs are no really more than a faceless and interchangeable horde of hirsute adventurers. Not unlike the Orcs really, apart from the hair. There’s a sort of crude division for us simple-minded cinema folk. Here be good guys (the dwarfs) who play lots of boyish pranks; and here be bad guys with bad teeth and even worse attitudes (the Orca and Goblins and Wrags).
Only the magnificent Andy Serkis as Gollum lifts the story-line above PS3. The argumentative, schizophrenic, whining, dangerous, sympathetic, nasty creature in possession of “his precious” – the famous ring – actually is the one that introduces the humanity into the film. At one moment as – an invisible – Bilbo raises his sword to kill Gollum, we’re both rooting for his death and hoping that he’s spared.
Not a sentiment I felt about any of the rest of the cast.
That said, it’s a marvelously watchable movie. I just wish Mr. Jackson had a good friend who was an editor, and who could offer him the wise counsel both about cutting down the length (this story isn’t worth six more hours) and framing the action around some sort of central idea. You really do get the feeling that Jackson is simply unfolding a catalog of adventures (being chased by Orcs is one thing, but rocks that fight? Does that have any real bearing on the story?) in search of a heartbeat.