Director Peter Jackson has come down with a nasty case of George Lucas-itis.
Jackson, the maestro behind the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, returns to Middle earth with "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." The film favors fanciful effects, cutting edge film technology and digital wonders over, you know, solid storytelling and memorable characters.
Only the triumphant return of Gollum, the bug-eyed fiend from Jackson's initial trilogy, brings "The Hobbit" temporarily to life.
J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Hobbit" offers thinner dramatic possibilities than the author's "Rings" trilogy. And you can feel the difference in nearly every scene of Jackson's latest adaptation. The director leans on many of the same resources as last time, from his lush New Zealand landscapes to several returning "LOTR" cast members in gussied up cameos.
Jackson's biggest sin is reversing course from his earlier approach. The three "Rings" film balanced digital wizardry with real-life actors and settings. The results were gorgeous and transcendent, a harmonious marriage that culminated in a Best Picture Oscar for the trilogy's final installment.
For "The Hobbit," not only does Jackson overwhelm the screen with computer imagery, he opted to capture it all with double the frame rate of a traditional film format. The result? "The Hobbit" looks cheap, artificial even, exactly what you don't want from a fantasy epic that wants to lure you into a new, never before seen realm.
At least there's no Jar-Jar Binks stand-in to complete the Jackson-Lucas comparison.
"The Hobbit" returns us to the land of dwarfs, trolls and wizards, specifically the elegant magic maker named Gandalf (Ian McKellan, regal as ever) who starts the latest adventure. Gandalf summons an ordinary hobbit named Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) to help him on a mission to restore a dwarf kingdom overrun by a dragon named Smaug.
So, as many a "LOTR" parody will tell you, an immense amount of walking follows. Along the way, Bilbo and co. will battle orcs, trolls and the dwarves' suspicions of the hobbit's mettle.
That's more or less it. You know the journey won't be wrapped up since we still need to sit through two more (likely) massive epic installments. These characters simply aren't as memorable as their predecessors even if cameos by "LOTR" holdovers Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett and Ian Holm. We sorely miss Viggo Mortensen, Elijah Wood (on screen for a few seconds here) and Sean Astin, and none of the new actors can match the old guard's soulful work or their bonds of friendship.
"The Hobbit's" battle sequences, and there are many, occasionally sparkle with Jackson's knack for innovative mayhem. More often they simply exist, like a video game we've paid plenty of quarters to watch. The original trilogy's conservative strain, an unabashed good versus evil template, isn't washed away but it's faded all the same.
Jackson struggles to maintain a uniform tone in "The Hobbit," occasionally bowing to the source material's youthful appeal but always falling back on knuckle breaking combat scenes.
"The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" marks the first of three new features, and if the Lucas comparisons hold true we're in for slighter superior sequels that still can't measure up to the original trilogy.