This Renaissance Faire/Dungeons & Dragons menagerie would be all well and good if Jackson - who won best picture and best director Oscars for the final installment of his Lord of the Rings trilogy in 2004 - had managed to get at the emotional heart of the story. Instead, The Hobbit is concerned with (and sidelined by) its own obsessive technology.
This is not about a reluctant hero drawing courage from some deep personal well. It's not about dread and danger. It's about visual effects.
But there, too, Jackson and his team falter. Shot in 3-D at 48 frames per second (twice a film's normal speed), the "premium experience" version, available in around 500 theaters nationwide, looks like, well . . . more like cheesy, high-def video. Neither the elaborate Middle-earth sets nor the elaborately prostheticized and costumed characters traipsing across the vertiginous ravines and endless rope bridges look "real" in any credible way.
Even the Maxfield Parrish glow of Rivendell - the elf forest where Hugo Weaving and Cate Blanchett hang out in their flowing gowns, pricking their pointy ears in the direction of the babbling brook - is harsh and headache-inducing under the scrutiny of Jackson's fancy-pants cameras and lights. One thing The Hobbit is not is a celebration of the beauty of film. A celebration of video-game realms, perhaps.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey - the first and very long installment in a, yes, Middle-earth trilogy - is the tale of Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman). It is set "long ago" - like 60 years, give or take, before the action of The Lord of the Rings. Gandalf the wizard (Ian McKellen) is back, having chosen this diminutive, pipe-puffing chap to augment the ranks of a baker's dozen of blowhard dwarfs on a zigzaggy tromp to find the dragon Smaug's lair and its cache. Gulping worriedly, Bilbo (uncle to the Lord of the Rings' Frodo) nonetheless throws on his corduroy jacket and leather satchel and joins dwarf prince Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and his troupe, mapping out a route for the Misty Mountains. Ya-da-ya-da, cue the Celtic harps.
There's a prize bit in The Trip, the verite comedy in which British funny guys Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon riff about old movies and movie stars. They dive deliriously into the Hollywood cliche of the hard-trodden warrior girding for the coming day's battle, a bid-you-goodnight moment that typically ends with a "Gentlemen to bed, for we leave at dawn!" Or as Coogan and Brydon devolve it, "For we leave at 9:30 . . . ish."
In The Hobbit, Bilbo, Thorin, and company decide to rise "at first light." Clearly, they have not seen The Trip.
Nor have they seen the hundreds of hoary sword-and-sandal sagas in which a compatriot is run through by the enemy, only to set off an angry roar of " N-O-O-O-O-O!" as the fallen fighter's buddy charges his slayer in bug-eyed, slo-mo revenge.
And speaking of bug eyes, or saucer eyes, or pitiful pools of addled woe, Gollum (the motion-captured Andy Serkis) is introduced (again) in Jackson's Lord of the Rings prequel. In Tolkien's Hobbit, the scene in which Bilbo and Gollum first meet, in the gloomy lake beyond the caves of the goblins' lair, is tense, momentous stuff. This is where Bilbo discovers - and comes to possess - the One Ring, and where a riddle game turns into a volley of excruciating suspense. Freeman and Serkis go through the motions, but little of the book's urgency, or excitement, or fear comes across.
Jackson must have been too busy with his accelerated frames-per-second business to have noticed.
"I do believe the worst is behind us," an exhausted Bilbo declares after he and Gandalf and the dwarfs escape all the orcs and trolls and goblins, and just before Neil Finn starts singing "Song of the Lonely Mountain" and the (endless) credits roll.
Let's hope Bilbo is right, even though we know, of course, that he's wrong.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey ** (out of four stars)
Directed by Peter Jackson. With Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Cate Blanchett, and Andy Serkis. In English, and in Elvish and Orc with subtitles. Distributed by Warner Bros.
Running time: 2 hours, 49 mins.
Parent's guide: PG-13 (violence, adult themes)
Playing at: area theaters
Contact Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or email@example.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at www.philly.com/onmovies.