By CHRISTOPHER LAWRENCE
Las Vegas Review-Journal
Sure, producers split the final “Harry Potter” novel into two movies. But that book weighed more than many healthy newborns.
And the “Twilight” and “Hunger Games” franchises followed suit. Because, hey, money!
But carving the roughly 300 pages of “The Hobbit” into three movies — the first of which clocks in at a staggering 2 hours and 49 minutes — leaves precious — precious! — little plot to spare.
For “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Cash Grab” — sorry, “An Unexpected Journey” — director Peter Jackson has cobbled together portions of the novel, the “Lord of the Rings” appendices and everything J.R.R. Tolkien ever scribbled on a bar napkin. He’s also used a bit of creative license to work some of “The Lord of the Rings” characters back into the fold. And there’s still not much in the way of action.
But what unfolds looks stunning, thanks to advances in technology in the nine years since Jackson last visited Middle-earth and his decision to shoot in the new High Frame Rate 3-D format.
Taking place 60 years before “The Lord of the Rings,” “The Hobbit” finds the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) seeking out hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) for an adventure. But Bilbo protests. He loves his home and his doilies too much, and an adventure might make him late for dinner.
Years after being kicked out of their kingdom by the gold-loving dragon Smaug, an assortment of dwarves —merchants, miners, tinkers and toymakers - have set out to reclaim their homeland. And not only do hobbits make great burglars, Gandalf attests, their scent is unfamiliar to dragons.
Bilbo’s home is soon overrun by dwarves — 13 in all — eating, drinking, singing, belching and “all but destroy(ing) the plumbing.” The scenes feel like the pilot for a reality show: “The Real Dwarves of Erebor.”
Their leader, Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), stands out. But to keep track of all the other dwarves — Balin, Dwalin, Fili, Kili, Oin, Gloin, Dori, Nori, Ori, Bifur, Bofur and Bombur — you’re going to need to resort to nicknames. Baldo. Whitey. Circle Beard. Ear Trumpet. Silly Hat. Slingshot. Rastafarian Bradley Cooper from “Hit and Run.”
Along those lines, “The Hobbit” is certainly easier to follow than the “Rings” movies. Especially if you have trouble telling your elves from your dwarves, your orcs from your trolls, or don’t know what the heck a warg is.
The leisurely pace means fewer new characters and fewer new realms, all of which, after a while, tend to sound like they were cranked out by the Tolkien Random Syllable Generator.
Along the way, there’s a Necromancer loose in the woods, a mushroom-addled wizard (Sylvester McCoy) and the pale orc Azog (Manu Bennett), who wants Thorin’s head on a platter for having taken his arm in battle.
The travelogue also marks a return to Rivendell before the troupe encounters the Stone Giants, fantastic craggy mountains that come to life and battle each other, Rock ‘Em, Sock ‘Em-style.
But the most captivating scenes, the ones that breathe the most life into “The Hobbit,” involve Bilbo’s introduction to Gollum (Andy Serkis).
That tangle of pitiable rage formerly known as Smeagol has never looked more lifelike. And his game of riddles with Bilbo - if Bilbo wins, Gollum will show him the way out of the cave he’s become lost in; if Bilbo loses, Gollum will eat him whole — is sure to ignite geekgasms across the globe.
If you loved the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy for its characters and their interplay, as well as getting to see the various parts of Middle-earth brought to life, you’re in luck. “The Hobbit” was tailor-made for you.
But if you were mostly there for the battles — every one an Alamo-style siege by something like a billion orcs — you’re going to be in for a long evening.
Well, everybody’s going to be in for a long evening. It’s a nearly three-hour movie. But you get the idea.
For those action junkies, this journey won’t just be unexpected. It probably will be unpleasant as well.
Christopher Lawrence is the film critic for the Las Vegas (NV) Review-Journal. Contact him at email@example.com.