There was for a long time no doubt that, were Peter Jackson to return to the oeuvre of J. R. R. Tolkien and render The Hobbit on-screen with as much love and care as he put towards The Lord of the Rings, the results would be outstanding. Well, the proof is in the pudding, as is often said, and sad to report, this particular pudding, marking Mr. Jackson's pickup of the project he was initially to produce only after Guillermo del Toro stepped down from the directing chair due to MGM's long-standing financial problems, is over-egged.

     And it's over-egged by the need to rise to the expectations raised by the artistic, critical and commercial success of the three Lord of the Rings films. The Hobbit - wherein the peaceable hobbit Bilbo Baggins is convinced by the wizard Gandalf to accompany a company of dwarves seeking to reclaim their lost city - is much lighter and slighter in nature. And by wanting to match those expectations rather than deflate them, the Kiwi director risks burdening the tale with far too much back-story and pressure it may not be able to hold, a burden clearly visible in the decision to draw three films out of a much slimmer book. An Unexpected Journey, the first of the three planned Hobbit films (and a nearly three-hour behemoth at that), only covers, in full detail, about a third of the 300-page book, whereas the three Rings films covered one thousand pages of writing in all.

     Ultimately, though, it's not the utter fidelity and respect to the book and Tolkien's universe that explains why this first Hobbit film fails to reach the giddy heights of the earlier trilogy; neither is it the lush visual effects that occasionally give it too much of a video-game sheen, nor the revolutionary 48 frames-per-second shooting technology supposed to render the images more lifelike (for the record, the print screened for the press was in standard 24-fps). You could feel in the three Lord of the Rings films a "do-or-die" attitude, the realisation that this was a labour of love pored over in manic, obsessive detail by a filmmaker willing to do anything to make sure his vision was on screen. You were seeing the book done right and the director doing right by the book, without ever forgetting it needed to make sense in a different medium than the printed word, and in the process giving the viewer a breathtaking, wondrous glimpse into a universe the likes of which had never been visualized in this way. When you sat down for The Fellowship of the Ring, you had no idea what you were letting yourself in for — such was the momentous sense of occasion the film conjured magically.

     Not anymore: not just because there can no longer be a surprise effect, but because all sense of spontaneity, passion, drive has been ejected from The Hobbit, with that obsessive attention to minutiae seeming to exist strictly out of duty and professionalism rather than out of passion. There is nothing spontaneous, unexpected, exciting — and not even bad — about the new film; only a dazzling technical and artistic achievement that behaves exactly as you expected it to but that somehow rings hollow. It's not even surprising that Mr. Jackson, taking over from Mr. del Toro (who remains credited as co-writer and creative consultant), chose to go back to Tolkien after a spotty post-Rings track record with the remarkable King Kong and the much-criticised The Lovely Bones. What is surprising is that, even despite the return of nearly all the creative, technical and artistic team from the original trilogy (key newcomers here are Martin Freeman as Bilbo and Richard Armitage as Thorin, the head of the company of dwarves), the end result feels somewhat rote and bland. Yes, there are remarkable moments, but they're fewer and much more far between than in any of the nearly ten hours of The Lord of the Rings — suggesting that this three-episode telling of The Hobbit may end up a much longer tale than anyone would care to hear told.

Cast: Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, James Nesbitt, Ken Stott, Sylvester McCoy, Barry Humphries, Cate Blanchett, Ian Holm, Christopher Lee, Hugo Weaving, Elijah Wood, Andy Serkis

Director: Peter Jackson
Screenplay: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Mr. Jackson, Guillermo del Toro, from the novel The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien
Cinematography: Andrew Lesnie (colour, processing by Park Road Post Production, widescreen)
Music: Howard Shore
Designer: Dan Hennah
Costumes: Ann Maskray, Richard Taylor, Bob Buck
Visual, make-up and creature design: Mr. Taylor
Visual effects: Joe Letteri, Eric Saindon, David Clayton
Editor: Jabez Olssen
Producers: Carolynne Cunningham, Zane Wiener, Ms. Walsh, Mr. Jackson (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures, New Line Cinema, Wingnut Films)
USA/New Zealand, 2012, 169 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Alvaláxia 4 (Lisbon), December 11th 2012


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