Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy transports us to a mythic land haunted by gruesome ghoulies and gripped by seemingly endless warfare, allowing us to recognize something of ourselves, our modern-day triumphs and follies, in the remarkably staged skirmishes and the negotiations made and alliances formed leading up to them. Even disbelievers will attest to the movie franchise's breathless wonder. And today, nearly 10 years after the release of The Return of the King, there's still a sense that these pinnacles of Hollywood filmmaking, symbolism-rich action spectacles about the nature of fellowship, could never have been as emotionally rich as they are if it weren't for advances in special effects that still feel state of the art, never employed by Jackson at the expense of his unmistakably classicist style.
Behold, now, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the first of an arguably gratuitous three-part cine-extravaganza adapted from J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit, or There and Back Again. The slender precursor to Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy is, at heart, the story of a hobbit's coming of age, and its kid-lit quality is one that Jackson embraces, amplifying it with his dubious decision to shoot the films using 48fps digital cinematography. Because Tolkien's The Hobbit is a less foreboding work than his Lord of the Rings trilogy, the goofily lighthearted tenor and bouncy fleetness of the film isn't unexpected or unfortunate for bringing to mind, for better and for worse, Disney's Alice in Wonderland and The Adventures of the Gummi Bears.
But while Jackson has transported us to Middle-earth before, the place seems almost foreign now, presented anew through a lens that gives faces and landscapes, albeit strikingly detailed, an unmistakably televisual quality. Jackson's Shire was always a bit Lucky Charmed, though now it seems undistinguishable from the land Tinky Winky calls home, or the bucolic set used for part of the opening ceremony at this year's Olympic Games. The film's almost herky-jerky images seem as if they're always trying to catch up to themselves and the effect is jarring and unpleasant. There's no question that this is a revolutionary technology, as the stunning use of 3D and dazzling integration of live-action footage and special effects make it seem as if the sprawling action of the film is actually happening before our eyes, like live theater, though you may wonder once it's all done if this is how movies are supposed to behave.
It seems odd to begrudge a film for making the fantastically impossible seem almost possible, but Jackson's new toy camera scales back Middle-earth's grandeur, flattening it even as it presents it to us in three dimensions. Movies don't have to be escape routes from the drudgery of our ordinary lives, transporting us to wild and unlikely places across time and space so that we may forget for a spell the banalities and preoccupations of our present moment, but there's something almost counterproductive about a technology that takes the fantasy out of a fantasy. The Middle-earth of Jackson's An Unexpected Journey is no longer a place that seems out of reach, but one that exists right outside our doors, practically a virtual reality.
And yet, I'm still glad to be here. The much maligned opening stretch of the film, a long-winded sojourn at the Shire, wherein Gandalf (Ian McKellen) tries to enlist a young Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) as a “burglar” in order to reclaim the Lonely Mountain for the Dwarves, builds nicely to a rather startling moment of emotional realization. Frazzled by what amounts to a home invasion by Gandalf and 13 dwarves, who unceremoniously take over his meticulously organized space and eat all of his food, Bilbo rejects Gandalf's offer to travel with the clan toward the lost dwarf kingdom of Erebor only to feel a crippling sense of emptiness after they've gone. This image of Bilbo, caught from behind in long take, succinctly articulates the essence of Tolkien's book as a testament to the wonders of leaving one's comfort zone.
The rest of the film is essentially a series of exemplary set pieces, strung together with the same ravishing sweep and eye for coherent narrative brinkmanship that Jackson bought to his Lord of the Rings trilogy. We're teased with dangers unseen in Tolkien's The Hobbit, such as the Necromancer, though most run-ins—with trolls, goblins, and orcs—are familiar ones. A battle between monsters made from the very mountain Bilbo, Gandalf, and the dwarfs traverse (shades of the Wii's Xenoblade Chronicles) is a dazzling display of sound and fury, though it can't hold a candle to the immaculately sustained dread, humor, and sadness of Bilbo's encounter with Gollum (Andy Serkis). Bilbo, even at his most courageous, remains a closed book by film's end, having grappled with nothing more profound than the panic of not wanting to seem inconsequential to a journey on behalf of the dwarfs. But in his heartfelt declaration that he wishes to restore for them the same sense of home he feels back at the Shire and so clearly has taken for granted, the film, still only clearing its throat, hints at a wellspring of emotional riches to come.