For those who simply cannot get enough of Middle Earth, Peter Jacksons The Hobbit promises to be the ultimate Travel New Zealand miniseries. He and his Lord of the Rings team have taken J.R.R. Tolkiens dense but slight and more comical Rings prelude, a simple quest to rob a dragon, and blown it up into a trilogy.
And since the first installment, An Unexpected Journey, clocks in at almost three hours well, you see what lies ahead of us.
The settings are gorgeous. The effects are spectacular. (Well, most of them.) Gollum looks more real than ever.
But in adding a prologue, in transposing characters from the Rings films into the narrative, and in having the luxury of including Hobbit minutia by the bushel basketful, I have to say the bloat shows.
The hardcore faithful wont admit it, but less cynical studios could have told this entire tale in three hours.
Ian Holm, in the days before the party that set The Lord of the Rings in motion, narrates his first great adventure to his nephew Frodo (yes, Elijah Wood). In his youth, he was rousted from his comfy hobbit hole by the great wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen).
And in his youth, he looked an awful lot like Martin Freeman, a bit of inspired casting that pays off right away. Not only does Freeman resemble a younger Holm, the actors quirky Dr. Watson to Benedict Cumberbatchs Sherlock Holmes sensibility (in the latest British TV version of Holmes and Watson) shines through here. No one is better suited to be this reluctant hero.
All the dwarfs want Bilbo for, of course, is his burglar skills. Not that he has any. But Gandalf told the dwarfs, Middle Earths homeless diaspora, that this bookish homebody Bilbo Baggins was just the sneaky fellow to take with them as they try to recover the treasure that the dragon Smaug stole from them when he destroyed and occupied their cavern-city ages ago.
To Bilbo, Gandalf counsels, The world is not in your books and maps. It is out there.
So out there Bilbo goes, on An Unexpected Journey to the land of elves, and into a Middle Earth made increasingly dangerous by the incursions of trolls and goblins. Hes a hobbit (halfling) who acquires an elvish sword, a magical ring, an enemy for life (the fellow whose ring he stole) and the respect of a company of dwarfs along the way.
Jackson has the time to settle on details the moths who fly out of the literally moth-eaten beard of the dwarfs. He can show us, in detail, Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy), Gandalfs nature-loving brother wizard, with a team of rabbits driving his sledge, even if hes barely mentioned in The Hobbit.
Some of this is welcome, but one struggles to find a performance that stands out in this opening exposition-packed chapter.
Its a lighter film, the way the book is a lighter novel. But its quite violent. One villain (voiced by Barry Dame Edna Humphries) even jokes about his manner of death. And theres singing.
Scenes and sequences are rich, but they go on too long, which turns this Hobbit from a brisk stroll into a bit of a slog.
And that lesson screenwriters learn when studying the masters seems utterly forgotten in the headlong march into making this book into a trilogy: Even Shakespeare needs editing.