Out of This World
by Max Nelson

The Hobbit
Dir. Peter Jackson, United States, New Line Cinema

For all its orcs and fire-monsters, giant spiders and talking trees, Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy always had an unerring sense of realism. One got the feeling that even the most impossible set pieces had played themselves out before the camera in real time—that every city, mine, and palace had been built from the ground up, at least in miniature, that the chain-mail was hand-stitched, and that though the goblin masks might have been prosthetic, they had substance, texture, and weight. However effects-driven, Gandalf’s triumphant charge to the besieged fortress of Helm’s Deep in The Two Towers had similar tangible physical properties to the image of the four horsemen of the apocalypse galloping across the sky in Murnau’s Faust: they both give the sense that what we’re watching, however fantastic, may have existed at one point in the physical world.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the first part of Jackson’s prequel trilogy, relies either too heavily or too obviously on CGI to replicate its predecessors’ magic act. Too weightless, too sleek, too immaterial, it tends to suggest the impossible approximated rather than made possible. Jackson is clearly having a blast letting his camera weave and glide effortlessly through The Hobbit’s chaotic battle scenes, but the resulting footage exhilarates without ever making us feel threatened.

Perhaps that’s to be expected. The words with which elf-queen Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) opened The Fellowship of the Ring—“the world is changed”—apply doubly to The Hobbit. In the nine years separating this trilogy from the last, blockbuster technology has changed, for the more spectacular but also the less concrete: if the movies are capable of creating more varied and imaginative worlds now than ever before, it’s because they build them out of pixels, not out of wood and clay. Jackson too has changed, from a virtuosic newcomer to a seasoned professional. What’s remarkable, then, is just how much this film clings to the spirit of its predecessors. It may lack Rings’ rounded, three-dimensional contours, but it still gives us the impression that we’re inhabiting the unfamiliar world of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, a place with its own laws of physics, its own history, languages, and social rituals.

We’re inducted into that world through uppity, big-hearted Bilbo (Martin Freeman). He’s a short, stocky, peace-and-tobacco-loving fellow with hairy feet and an allergy to any excitement—until mischievous wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) comes to dinner with a dozen rowdy dwarves and the promise of adventure. Under the leadership of the bold and brooding Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), the dwarves are on a mission to reclaim their ancestral homeland from squatting dragon Smaug, and need a quick-footed hobbit to break into his lair. The first leg of the band’s journey includes run-ins with revenge-bent orcs, pea-brained trolls and animal-loving wizards, goblin miners and haughtily beautiful elves—plus, for Bilbo, a game of riddles with deformed ex-hobbit Gollum (Andy Serkis), whose one treasured possession is a mysterious ring.

The Hobbit is long—close to three hours—and takes its time. We spend close to an hour dining in Bilbo’s well-furnished underground cottage with a gang of largely undifferentiated dwarves, tossing plates around and belting out folk songs. Even after hitting the road, we’re allowed lengthy diversions into ancient Middle-Earth history, not to mention a couple of colorful subplots with little apparent relevance to the dwarves’ quest. It plays like an already extended special edition, which in some sense it is—a three-hour film spun out of the first hundred pages of Tolkien’s source text.

That might not be a bad thing. The Lord of the Rings films had great multi-plot narratives, with more nooks and crannies than could fit in The Hobbit’s comparatively slight frame, but even they tended to value context over action, immersion over forward momentum. They weren’t static films, and neither is The Hobbit—which often feels like a series of set pieces strung together in leisurely but reliable succession. Still, they were as devoted to building worlds as telling stories. The Hobbit begins with its storyteller—Bilbo himself, sixty years later—committing his youthful adventures to the page, glancing periodically out of his window at the Shire’s bustling green hills. It’s suggested that the film’s story exists within a world uncaused by it and independent of it—a world that’s fully functional, self-sufficient, and largely inaccessible.

If The Hobbit does give us that impression, it’s thanks to Jackson’s meticulous eye for detail, be it architectural (the rounded doorframes of Bilbo’s hobbit-hole, the twirled spires of elf-haven Rivendell), environmental (the Escher-like scaffolding of the goblin mines, Bilbo’s collection of weathered maps, the ancestral statues scattered throughout Rivendell), or linguistic (most of Tolkien’s imagined races lapse occasionally into their own languages, often subtitled, sometimes not). Foreign names and titles are tossed around without ever being contextualized; mythic historical events cited as if they’re common knowledge. Every detail and proper noun seems to point outside of the borders of the film, or rather, to situate the film within a much larger universe—one that, unless we’ve pored over the extensive appendices to Tolkien’s original texts, will likely stay foreign to us.

Self-indulgent Tolkien fanaticism? Maybe. For whatever reasons, The Hobbit has the nerve not to invite us fully into its world. It doesn’t always persuade that its languages, customs, and place-names are relevant to us; it also doesn’t seem to think it needs to. Jackson isn’t interested in Tolkien’s universe as a warped reflection of our own; if anything, he’s drawn to fantasy for its ability to draw us out of our own world and make us inhabit a new one altogether. It sounds awfully like escapism; Jackson would probably rather call it dual citizenship.

Is The Hobbit a good movie? It’s dramatically lacking, even when considered as the first part of a trilogy. Eleven of its fourteen primary characters—Thorin’s gang of dwarves—come off as one homogenous mass. It’s not really about human relationships, and if it is, it tends to focus on those that don’t make for very thrilling films: mutual affection rather than love, camaraderie and teamwork rather than friendship. Its dialogue is trapped halfway between colloquialisms and wonderfully stilted Tolkien-speak, with its needless inversions and florid embellishments. The Lord of the Rings films functioned both as small, partially obscured windows into the wide world of Middle-Earth and as traditional narrative feature films: self-contained dramas about human behavior and relationships. The Hobbit aims at a similar combination of environmental detail and human drama and often achieves only the former with much success, begging the question: is it enough for a feature film to just focus on the details and character of Middle-Earth? When it’s a film as imaginative as The Hobbit, so full of grotesque and lively creations (bumbling forest-dweller Radagast, with his bird-dropping stained beard and bunny-drawn sleigh; a boil-ridden, fleshy-chinned goblin king; an albino orc with a skewer in place of one arm; a dwarf wider than he is tall), so rich in its sense of history and place, I’m inclined to answer with a confident nod.

Late in the film, a silent confrontation takes place between a hidden Bilbo and pitiful Gollum, frantically in search of the ring that reduced him to a schizophrenic wreck—the same ring now wrapped around Bilbo’s finger. Bilbo, who has to slip by this creature into daylight and safety, lifts his sword to kill. He stares into Gollum’s wide, desperate, computer-generated eyes, and Jackson holds the shot for a brief moment that seems an eternity. The act of mercy that follows is the film’s moral and emotional hinge, the moment when The Hobbit ceases only to be about a world and becomes, if only for a second, about people. Jackson has two more tries at recapturing the near-miraculous synthesis he struck in all three Lord of the Rings films between humanism and fandom, between the imagination and the heart, and those few seconds of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey are reason enough to hope for the best.