Although the first installment of Peter Jackson's three-film adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy novel "The Hobbit" carries the subtitle "An Unexpected Journey," it wasn't entirely unexpected that the director would revisit Middle-earth after the worldwide success of his "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy.
This time around, however, Jackson may have gotten off on the wrong foot. Early reviews of "The Hobbit" were lukewarm on the padded story and the new high-frame-rate technology being used to project the film in some theaters, and many top critics are now chiming in with similar opinions.
The Times' Kenneth Turan writes that the success of the "Rings" films has led to an attempt to turn "The Hobbit" into an epic on the same scale, which is counter to its nature as a shorter, simpler story intended for young audiences. Turan says it is "inevitable that the new effort would be overshadowed by its more rewarding predecessor. Films as majestic and enthralling as the trilogy are not going to come from a book with 'The Hobbit's' straightforward plot and streak of goofy humor."
He adds, "The result is a film that is solid and acceptable instead of soaring and exceptional, one unnecessarily hampered in its quest to reach the magical heights of the trilogy."
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The New York Times' A.O. Scott agrees that "This voyage, which takes place 60 years before Frodo’s great quest [in "The Lord of the Rings"], is not nearly as captivating." Scott adds that "Part of this has to do with tone" and says another factor is that "'The Hobbit' is just one book, and its expansion into three movies feels arbitrary and mercenary." The highlight of the film for Scott is the appearance of "the incomparable Gollum, once again incarnated by Andy Serkis in what remains an unmatched feat of computer-assisted performance."
The Wall Street Journal's Joe Morgenstern similarly writes, "Coming after 'The Lord of the Rings' trilogy, this adaptation of the J.R.R. Tolkien children's classic suffers by comparison in the sterner shire of showmanship, and the rewards of its new-tech projection system are peculiarly mixed." Morgenstern, however, does appreciate the work of both Serkis and leading man Martin Freeman, who "makes an endearing Bilbo, fearful and fey yet clearly up for a call to perilous action." The film also offers "peerless visuals," as "several set pieces fill the screen with a wealth of detail that would have left Tolkien reeling in astonishment."
If it's a mixed bag, Morgenstern says, at least "the good stuff in 'The Hobbit' is amazingly good."
Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle cautions that Jackson's second trilogy could end up like the "Star Wars" prequels and says "The Hobbit" "is exactly one Jar Jar Binks away from being as bad as 'The Phantom Menace.'" There's a surfeit of battle scenes that aren't particularly engaging, LaSalle says, and "most of 'The Hobbit' is like looking over Peter Jackson's shoulder to watch a computer screen."
On the plus side, "Freeman was born to be a hobbit" and is largely responsible for the moments when "the movie really springs to life."
Jackson does have two more films, presumably six hours or so of screen time, to work things out. Whether that's enough time — or perhaps too much — remains to be seen.