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Peter Jackson’s bloated Hobbit sucks the magic from Middle Earth

 

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THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY. My paperback copy of The Hobbit, circa 1989, runs to 304 pages all told. This movie (part one of three!) clocks in at an astonishing, almost unbelievably protracted 169 minutes. Right: just shy of three hours, and we don't even get to the dragon or the giant spiders.

To the Peter Jackson faithful, this criticism will likely be dismissed as pedantic and impatient, and I get that. For them, the more time basking in the computer-generated splendor of Middle Earth the better. But Jackson's vision of Tolkien's world didn't draw me in the first time around, and now, with the novelty of that vision gone like Bilbo's second breakfast, there is only the story to sustain me.

To Tolkien's credit, The Hobbit remains concise yet richly detailed, heartfelt, suspenseful and yes, a little bit magical. By blowing out the proportions of his novel as they have, Jackson and Co. have somehow reduced the saga to far less than the sum of its parts.

For the handful who don't know, The Hobbit is a sort-of prequel to The Lord of the Rings saga. Decades before the events of that story, a young Bilbo Baggins (played here by an excellent Martin Freeman) is persuaded by gray wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) to help a bunch of dwarves steal back their gold (and their ancestral lair) from a dragon. The adventure is -- no spoiler -- fraught with peril and orcs and many, many beards. Along the way, Bilbo discovers his inner hero but also confronts the darker aspects of hobbit nature when he stumbles upon and steals The One Ring.

It's been decades since I read the novel, but I still have sense memories of the delicious detail and rousing action. I can only assume that Jackson had a different reaction to the book, as he seems to have found more impact in the vastness of Tolkien's imagined world than in the authenticity and nuance of his characters, or the taut thread of plot tying everything together. In Jackson's version, the action moves lazily from long, dull dialog sequences to frenetic, gigantic, almost indigestible battles and back again. Much walking takes place. The villains, though terrifically ugly and thus obviously very bad, fail to make much of an impression.

The baker's dozen of dwarves, whose story is really being told here, are nearly indistinguishable from one another. Aside from slight variations in their beard hair and appetites, they could be interchanged, scene to scene, with no one the wiser.

As I mentioned above, Freeman makes as much as he can of Bilbo with an affably frustrating blend of hesitation and hard-headedness. McKellen does what you'd expect, which is generally pleasant and satisfying. But regardless of charm or talent, neither actor could ease the oppressive itch of boredom that set in at around hour two, maybe before.

As in the LOTR movies, Jackson has created a vast, pretty and complex world. But he seems too pleased with his own creation, and misguidedly content to let the characters just wander around in it. The story can't sustain the scale he envisions for it. The characters, the vital subtleties, the tension and emotion dissipate against the backdrop and all but disappear. PG13. 169m.

--John J. Bennett

Previews

THIS IS 40. From writer-director Judd Apatow comes this sequel to/spin-off of Knocked Up, in which the great Paul Rudd and Apatow's real-life wife, Leslie Mann, star as a married couple dealing with the warts-and-all nature of marriage and parenting on the cusp of middle age. R. 134m.

JACK REACHER. That sniggering you hear is from fans of the Jack Reacher novels, which describe the character -- a former Army major turned vigilante drifter -- as a 6-foot-5-inch blonde with a 50-inch chest and lethal fighting skills. Here he's portrayed by wee Scientologist Tom Cruise. Snigger. PG13. 130m.

DJANGO UNCHAINED. Merry Christmas, lovers of cinematic badassery. The incomparable Quentin Tarantino brings his grindhouse aesthetic to this tale of slavery and revenge set in the antebellum south, starring Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson. R. 165m.

LES MISÉRABLES. Merry Christmas, lovers of musicals based on French historical novels. Director Tom Hooper (The King's Speech) brings the Broadway fixture to the silver screen with songbirding from Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway and Russell Crowe. PG13. 157m.

PARENTAL GUIDANCE. Merry Christmas, lovers of Billy Crystal and Bette Midler. They star as grandparents using old-school discipline on their wacky, 21st century grandkids in this comedy from director Andy Fickman, best known for directing movies starring The Rock. PG. 104m.

The Arcata Theatre Lounge is kind of like your cool friend with good taste in movies, so when it schedules one of your personal faves, it feels like a validation. Such is the case with The Truman Show (1998), director Peter Weir's subversive and resonant comedy about a guileless man named Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey, never better) who gradually becomes aware that he was born and raised on a soundstage, surrounded by actors and hidden cameras, the unwitting star of his own 24-hour reality program. Saturday, 8 p.m. Sunday sees the arrival of The Polar Express (2004), Robert Zemeckis' motion-capture holiday flick starring the voice of Tom Hanks in half a dozen roles. 6 p.m.

Continuing

THE GUILT TRIP. Odd couple road comedy starring Seth Rogen as The Seth Rogen Character and Barbra Streisand as his embarrassing Jewish mother. PG13. 95m.

LIFE OF PI. Ang Lee's adaptation of the bestselling book by Yann Martel is a visual feast, a technological marvel and a glib homily about spirituality. PG. 127m.

LINCOLN. Daniel Day-Lewis delivers a bravura performance in Steven Spielberg's handsome and rousing biopic, which portrays the deft political wrangling of our 16th president. PG13. 149m.

MONSTERS, INC. 3D.  See, there's a prequel coming out next summer called Monsters University, so obviously you should take the kids to see the original in 3D. G. 92m.

RED DAWN. Yes, they remade that Patrick Swayze movie from the ‘80s. This time it's the North Koreans invading small-town America. PG13. 114m.

RISE OF THE GUARDIANS. Santa, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy and Jack Frost team up to make kids believe in them again. PG. 97m.

SKYFALL. James Bond battles his Freudian demons and a swishy-sinister Javier Bardem in one of the most satisfying 007 films to date. PG13. 143m.

WRECK-IT RALPH. A video game bad guy with a good heart sets out on an existential quest across the pixilated landscapes of Pac-Man, Street Fighter and the like. PG. 108m.

-- Ryan Burns

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John J. Bennett

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