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Drawn-out Screen Time

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
★ ★
Starring Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Ian McKellan

CRITTERS FROM THE MIDDLE EARTH: Peter Jackson’s ‘The Hobbit’ brings the old gang back together again yet doesn’t maintain interesting character arcs for any of them. Courtesy photo

CRITTERS FROM THE MIDDLE EARTH: Peter Jackson’s ‘The Hobbit’ brings the old gang back together again yet doesn’t maintain interesting character arcs for any of them. Courtesy photo

There’s a line early into the nearly three-hour, first installment of “The Hobbit” that stuck in my mind as I left the theater. Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellan) is telling Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) some tall tales about his ancestors. When Bilbo disputes the truthfulness of these stories, Gandalf replies, “Every good story needs embellishing.”

On a fundamental level, I have to respectfully disagree with Gandalf; I could easily use “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” as exhibit A for the prosecution. This movie is long. Painfully long. Abusively long. And for no good reason.

The original “Lord of the Rings” trilogy was long—even, still, it felt packed to the brim with happenings. There were multiple narratives, a dozen characters with wildly divergent story arcs and an epic battle of good versus evil. Sometimes it takes three long installments to tell a story as epic as “The Lord of the Rings,” and I have no qualms admitting I was a fan of the originals. I was fortunate enough to be at the first North American screening of “Return of the King” with Peter Jackson in attendance back in 2003. I balked at all the people who declared that the movies were too long and ridiculously indulgent.

“The Hobbit” is lacking in so many areas when compared to the far-superior storytelling of the original trilogy. The characters are dull; the visuals are drenched in special effects and look implausibly unrealistic. The computer-animated creatures that make up Middle Earth feel far less three-dimensional than the actors in makeup that populated the original films. Nothing about “The Hobbit” feels genuine or necessary. The characters are harmless enough, but we never really learn anything about them. We get some basic backstory on Thorin (Richard Armitage), heir to the dwarf throne and the tragedies that have befallen him. This helps explain why he spends the entire movie acting like he has a piece of oak wedged up his ass.

Martin Freeman is a fantastic performer; he does a great job playing Bilbo as the nervous and out-of-his element Hobbit, tasked with helping the dwarves reclaim their homes. He’s the least problematic element of the film and unfortunately spends much of the film as a silent, reactionary witness to this unfolding story.

If scene after scene of dwarves running through the woods being chased by wolves seems appealing, “The Hobbit” may be your pornography. The structure of the film is so insanely repetitive. First, Gandalf and the dwarves get chased by something: trolls, goblins or orcs. Then, Gandalf vanishes for awhile. In his absence, the dwarves are captured and put in harm’s way. Then, just a moment before their inevitable doom Gandalf shows up and saves the day. Every. Single. Time. Maybe that criticism should be reserved for J.R.R. Tolkien.

Still, the predictability detracts from the enjoyment of it all. Comparatively speaking, by the end of the first “Lord of the Rings” film, we had a great deal of character development, two character deaths and a great degree of uncertainty about what the road ahead held for our heroes. “The Hobbit” lacks character and gravitas. For a three-hour movie, that’s a freaking tragedy.

Sitting through it all was difficult; the entire film felt like a labor. And I don’t think I have another six hours in me to sit through the rest of Peter Jackson’s version of “The Hobbit.” This is a filmmaker who is no longer telling a story, but a guy with too many crayons in the box. He’s abandoned the concept of lines and borders. Instead, he’s pissing paint onto a canvas. The audience almost seems irrelevant to the process. There’s 90 minutes of forward momentum and 90 minutes of cinematic masturbation: This is the film equivalent of jerking off. I paid $16 to watch Peter Jackson rub one out.

I didn’t hate “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” but it was a chore watching it.  It was nice returning to this world; Middle Earth is still a visually exciting place. Seeing Ian McKellan as Gandalf brought a smile to my face, as did Gollum (Andy Serkis). The truth is “The Hobbit” was like going to a Rolling Stones concert: It was nice seeing the old gang back together, but the whole affair felt forced. I smiled at the familiarity of it all but I realized it would never be as good as I remembered.

It almost makes me want to go back and re-watch “The Lord of the Rings” movies and remember that stories are better served when audiences are left wanting more instead of drawing something out to painful lengths.

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