State of the Arts: The Hobbit: Overlong and overstuffed

LYNDEN — I’ve been a rather vocal critic of Peter Jackson’s decision to split his adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” into three movies rather than the originally planned two-parter.

However, there was a small glimmer of hope in the obvious cash grab. Jackson makes long movies, and I figured this was his chance to give us three lean, two-hour stories that would tie together nicely.

“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” the first film in Jackson’s prequel trilogy, is not a lean two hours. At two hours and 40 minutes, it’s almost as long as “The Fellowship of the Ring,” which was based on the first part of a trilogy tome that exceeds 1,200 pages of printed story. “The Hobbit” clocks in at around 300 pages, depending on the edition you read. Do the math.

Walking out of the new RPX theater at the Barkley Regal early Friday morning, I found myself surrounded by people from Lynden, all of whom seemed to be gushing about what they had just watched. I must have missed something very big, because I didn’t see a good movie that night.

This first “Hobbit” movie follows Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman, playing a young version of Ian Holm’s Bilbo) as he haphazardly joins Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen, reprising his role) and a group of dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) on a quest to reclaim the Lonely Mountain, also known as Erebor, from the dragon Smaug.

The casting here is utterly delightful on almost every count, from Freeman’s wonderfully reluctant Bilbo to the always-great McKellen. Each and every one of the dwarves is perfectly cast as well. Andy Serkis reprises his role as Gollum in the famous “Riddles in the Dark” sequence, in which Bilbo comes upon the Ring for the first time. It’s the best scene in the movie, and the interactions between Bilbo and Gollum rank right up with the best Gollum scenes in “The Lord of the Rings.”

It’s truly a shame that the rest of the movie around that scene can’t stack up. “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” initially suffers from an overlong introduction that made me long for a little action to give us a break from so much exposition. When the action finally did start, however, I longed for it to stop.

Remember the scene in “The Return of the King” in which Legolas climbs a mumak (oliphaunt) and shoots a bunch of Haradrim soldiers off with his bow before taking down the creature itself, sliding down its head and ramping off its trunk as the hulking animal faceplants? It was the most cartoonish scene in the entire trilogy, but it worked quite well as a crowd-pleaser because Jackson had refrained from being that ridiculous elsewhere in the saga.

Almost all of “The Hobbit” action sequences feel like that, and there are many of them. The scenes are pure and utter chaos, with coincidence playing as much of a role as anything else in their outcomes. Watching “The Hobbit” feels like watching its characters run from one action set-piece to the next, with invented conflicts interspersed throughout for good measure.

I understand that “The Hobbit” reads like a children’s book, especially when compared to Tolkien’s larger “Lord of the Rings,” and that this was certainly taken into consideration when crafting this movie. I wasn’t expecting a dark affair, but something this cartoony and ridiculous seems to clash with the greater world in which it is set. Jackson goes out of his way to connect this story with “The Lord of the Rings,” even going so far as to bring back Cate Blanchett and Christopher Lee as Galadriel and Saruman, respectively, to flesh out the coming darkness.

Radagast the Brown shows up here, even though he was only mentioned in the book. He’s an animal-loving wizard who rides a rabbit-sled, and his part in the film is completely unnecessary and also very cheesy. It doesn’t add anything of value to the proceedings, and the movie could have been better and shorter without him.

Also of note is the film’s 48-frames-per-second projection, which I certainly didn’t hate like many other critics did. There’s a bright vibrance about the movie that feels distinctly different from the others in the series, but it didn’t break the experience for me. There are far bigger issues to worry about when taking this “Unexpected Journey.”

Luckily, the upside here is that we have two more films to improve on this formula. “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” is an overstuffed mess. It’s chaotic to watch, though the “Riddles in the Dark” sequence is a standout. The story here does not lend itself well to a single film, but we do have Smaug and the Battle of Five Armies to look forward to in the next two movies.

The Tolkien faithful will no doubt seek out this movie, or already have. Many I talked to found the movie delightful, so perhaps others will too. I didn’t buy into Peter Jackson’s latest, however, and I can only hope that the next two movies can redeem this overstuffed, muddled and chaotic mess.

Brent Lindquist is a reporter at the Lynden Tribune and the Tribune's State of the Arts columnist. Email Brent at Follow the Tribune on Twitter at @LyndenTribune.