It was skillful moviemaking that made Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy safe for people not geeked-out on Tolkien. Those films were cinematically romantic, with lush Howard Shore scores playing over sweeping vistas, yet they thrilled us with minutiae, too: beautiful faces and tiny details like the leaves thrown down by Merry to keep Strider hot in pursuit. Of course, there were CGI hellholes and monster hordes, too, and battles created in computers that somehow moved us to cheer Gandalf coming on the first light of the fifth day. But the best part was the storytelling, which Jackson, his spouse Fran Walsh, and writing partner Philippa Boyens brilliantly split into cross-cut adventures that not only mimicked the novel’s style (and sometimes improved it) but fit neatly in the traditions of great Hollywood classics: Assume your audiences are attention-deficit, and you’ll never lose a buck.
Sad to say, The Hobbit squanders every lesson that the Jackson film family seemed to master. Part of the problem comes with the material: Bilbo’s great pre-Frodo quest with dwarves against Smaug the dragon is a straightforward yarn compared to LOTR, though it includes the discovery of the Mount Doom ring. Despite a brilliant cast, The Hobbit only comes to true life in late scenes where Bilbo meets Gollum, while, in another part of the same cave, his pals and Gandalf battle the great goblin. The fights this time aren’t quite so epic and usually end in a rescue. And as the first installment of three, the film feels padded and twee. But maybe better is coming.
Worse, though, was the dumb decision to film in an advanced form of digital 3-D that produces images so clear they feel like closed-circuit video making. They also make the special effects look awkward and cheesy. The Lord of the Rings, which dripped with nostalgia for an age that never existed, was movie magic that made audiences laugh and weep. This one has occasional wonders, but it mostly makes you feel unexpectedly weary.