“I feel thin, like butter scraped across too much bread.” That line, and the way Ian Holm delivered it, was the moment I realized that The Fellowship of the Ring was going to be a lot better than I expected, back in 2001. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the first installment of Peter Jackson’s new Middle-earth epic, brought that line to mind again, but not in a good way.
I was actually pleased to hear that Jackson and his writers would be expanding their planned two-part adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s 1937 novel to three full-length features. After all, in their adaptation of The Lord of the Rings the same team had shrewdly brought forward story elements Tolkien left buried in the back matter of The Return of the King.
But for all the talent on display here — and there is a great deal that’s likeable about this film — this initial Hobbit feels like 90 minutes of story rattling around in a nearly three-hour shell. Of course the story doesn’t have the same emotional weight as The Lord of the Rings, but still. The pacing is off. There are long stretches of wheel spinning, and an extended visit to Rivendell that only adds to the sense that the filmmakers are twiddling their thumbs instead of getting on with the real business. Jackson’s lavish take on King Kong had the same problem — he took too long getting started, and then didn’t know when to stop.
On the plus side, however, Jackson hasn’t repeated his biggest casting mistake from King Kong. Jack Black was never for a moment believable as a charismatically roguish filmmaker, but Martin Freeman is the distilled essence of Bilbo Baggins, and even when The Hobbit was at its logiest I kept watching just to see what subtle character touch was coming from him. The film picks up considerable steam at the halfway mark, and the “Riddles in the Dark” sequence with Gollum — more convincing than ever, thanks to improved special effects, and more affecting than ever, thanks to the consistently remarkable Andy Serkis — moved from comedy to menace to pathos with complete mastery. The genuinely emotional finale ended the movie on an undeniable high note. I still wish Jackson and company had stuck to the idea of making two films, but reservations aside, I’m on board for three.