THE BLOG
12/18/2012 02:49 pm ET Updated Feb 17, 2013

The Hobbit : Peter Jackson's Phantom Menace ?

Carry on camping. The Epic 1st Part of This New Tolkien Trilogy.

The Lord of the Rings trilogy. What is there to say about the behemoth of the modern cinematic age, with its awards, its ridiculously long running times and its enormous footprint in the sand of the modern movie epic?

Such is the gangly shadow cast over the industry, that since the release of the original of the three films back in 2001, there has been a greater fondness than ever for the fantasy film adaptation. Sure, some credit also should go to the Harry Potter films (2001-2011), but they were not so consistent and did not arrive so fully formed. It wasn't until the Prisoner of Azkaban in 2004 that they began to operate on all levels and in all demographics. Now, with Harry's wand tucked up and placed in retirement (which seems a bit young considering he is only about 15), and Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy (2005-2012) drawing to a close with the release of the Dark Knight Rises (which was a colossal indulgence, all told, despite a few focused and good moments), there is a Hobbit-sized gap in the schedules for a new trilogy to begin.

This is where Peter Jackson steps in, and step in he did do, after original director Guillermo del Toro pulled out, which allowed him to move from an advisory role to that of fully formed director. Thankfully, he has forgotten none of his knowledge, and from the very opening scenes here, seems to relish revisiting the Shire and all things Tolkien.

Well, first to what's familiar and what's new. The familiar is introduced in the form of the Shire, which is exactly the same as to what we were introduced to in The Fellowship of the Ring. We are even passed over to Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm returning once again) and Frodo (Elijah Wood) before launching into the backstory exposition that provides much of the context for the upcoming tale.

So, now then, to the newcomer.

Martin Freeman, he of The Office fame (UK version), steps into the shoes of the young Bilbo Baggins and is the focus for these features. How does he manage? Well, he is actually very good indeed and wears these Hobbit shoes more like a pair of old slippers, such is the comfort that he exudes. There is a convincing wide-eyed innocence and vulnerability to him, which falls away as he treks through the foothills and mountains of this universe. He balances this in a charming manner and although this is not Al Pacino, Don Corleone growth, it is still nuanced enough that it thoroughly convinces. In fact, all the cast are dependably excellent. Sometimes, this troupe of characters bandy along like truculent and erratic school children on a field trip, hemmed in by a weary and disapproving Gandalf, who stops to take register, making sure all are accounted for and acting in harmonious fashion. There is much affection for this group though, bounding as they do across the land facing different trials and tribulations. Many of the set pieces are expertly handled and curated, propelling a real sense of camaraderie, urgency and danger.

Jackson, arguably a natural successor to George Lucas for helming a detailed and engrossing world of ceaseless imagination and wonder, has followed his lead in issuing a trilogy encapsulating the latter stages of a story before returning to the roots for a prequel trilogy. Where this pair differ, however, is in their grasp of storytelling, dialogue and narrative. Lucas is far from adequate in this field. Jackson has proved his chops to be much more successful and efficient. Nevertheless, there is still a concern that this film could be Jackson's very own Phantom Menace. Put in other words, a complete and utter disaster.

Reassuringly, whereas Lucas allowed his prequel trilogy to become weighed down by exercises in CGI use, to the point where the story served the CGI and not the other way round, Jackson combines CGI with old-fashioned costumes and decent storytelling to provide a satisfying assault on all senses, not just those of the eyes. He is undoubtedly the master of the panning shot. Managing to provide scale and grandeur with the swooping glide of his camera lens, which becomes a powerful tool when a grand classical score comes walloping behind it, which it does. Often.

Where he stumbles, is when there is room to pare matters down. For an epic, there is not enough pauses where Jackson trusts his audience to have invested enough in the characters to endure a lull without any tricks. Even in the subtlest of moments, there is still a lyrical musical passage guiding the audience as to how they should feel. He would do well to let his guard down occasionally.

Also, the villains are not always convincing. Gollum's appearance, although welcome and important, sometimes steers a little too close to parody. The trolls also seem to have been lifted straight out of East London, with their cockney mannerisms and mentions to 'get your laughing gear around this', which is a head-scratching and bizarre tone. Finally, the opening scenes where the group gather together at chez Hobbit is unnecessarily overlong. Patience is required at this particular point.

Aside from those quibbles, this is a zealous and impressive feature that absorbs and engrosses in equal measure. However, if you thought that the original films were a tedious 9-hour-plus cross-terrain walking trip through the New Zealand landscape offering nothing but boredom, chances are you will find this film irritating and possibly even inane. For the faithful, he has done enough not only to avoid sullying his reputation or the original films' legacy, but whet the appetite for the future installments. Shot back-to-back, the next one falls in a year's time. It will feel like a long wait.

They say in life that it is not the destination, but the journey in getting there. Jackson manages to make compulsive evidence that this proposition rings resoundingly true.

****

Dir: Peter Jackson

Duration: 159 mins

(U.S.)