“That seems a bit excessive, doesn't it?” Bilbo Baggins mentions to a particularly rotund dwarf carrying several large wheels of cheese through a snug hobbit hole. It's a throwaway sight gag that plays for a quick chuckle in the first third of the first third (not a typo) of Peter Jackson's The Hobbit, but this insignificant moment perfectly sums up my thoughts on the matter: a 2-hour and fifty-minute movie just for the first 100 pages of a childrens novel? Doesn't this whole enterprise seem a bit excessive?
Preceding the Middle Earth events depicted in Jackson's gargantuan Lord of the Rings trilogy by a good sixty years, The Hobbit takes its excruciating time in setting us up for the adventures of young Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman, excellent in a mostly passive role), a quiet hobbit with no desire to stray from the cozy confines of his beloved Shire. When the meddling but unquestionably good wizard Gandalf the Grey (commanded once again by Sir Ian McKellan) signs Bilbo up to join a company of raucous dwarfs on their quest to recapture their home from a marauding dragon, he is naturally reluctant. But he is finally persuaded, and the unexpected journey begins (a good forty minutes into the film, mind you).
As easy as it is to deride Jackson and co. for the decision to glorify Tolkien's comparatively slim prequel into a three part epic, it wouldn't be an entirely fair assessment of the film itself. Yes, there's lots of fat to trim, but at least it's tasty fat. Rather than take the opportunity to excise the needlessly detailed backstories and footnotes for which Tolkien is famous/infamous (depending on your own literary opinion), Jackson embraces them with aplomb, delivering loads of thrilling action set pieces, flash backs, and side quests, however unnecessary they may be.
So yes, the film runs long and all over the place. Far longer than it has any business running (and we're not even halfway to the end yet), but it's hard to be completely bored when beholding the magic of Jackson's Weta Workshop, be it in the form Peter King's whimsical prosthetic makeup designs that shape the dwarfs, orcs, and goblins, or Joe Letteri's pixelated renderings of the wargs, trolls, and other creatures. Even Gollum (Andy Serkis) gets to make an appearance in the film's best scene, proposing a high-stakes game of riddles with Bilbo. To many, Jackson's vision of Middle Earth will inevitably feel old hat, but that shouldn't diminish the technical achievement of it.
**1/2 out of ****