The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is perhaps the most expected journey audiences will go on this year.
We’ve all been madly waiting to venture back to Middle-earth — back to Peter Jackson’s cinematic version of Tolkien’s world. The anticipation, and the hype machine that has been driving that anticipation, has been nearly unbearable.
So here we are, nine years after our last glimpse of the Shire, Rivendell, and the Misty Mountains, all last seen in 2003′s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. That film brought home a dragon’s horde of golden statuettes — perhaps for no better reason than the Academy being impressed by Mr. Jackson’s hubris, getting non-geek audiences to embrace an old-fashioned high fantasy epic, and making gads of money. Or, perhaps, Oscar Inc. was astonished at how a small nation of Kiwis churned out a multi-billion dollar franchise with only gum, wire, pluck and resourcefulness, plus a few swordsmiths and chain mail makers and about 7,000 latex hobbit feet.
So what does this return trip to Middle-earth feel and look like? How does Jackson’s plan for not one, not two, but three Hobbit movies, stretching and morphing Tolkien’s slim and slight 1937 kid’s book into a trilogy, sit with fans, as well as audiences not familiar with the book? Or might we all be a little jaded and/or spoiled for this next trilogy?
Ultimately, these issues may not affect the box office. Even a series of mediocre reviews won’t damage The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Anyone who saw the Rings cycle will want to go on this journey there and back again, no matter how awful it is. With his trademark indulgence in details, and his camera-swooping visual crack, Jackson has hooked us.
Reminder: The Hobbit the book was written before The Lord of the Rings. But in Movieland, this film feels like its prequel. The plot recounts how Bilbo Baggins joined up with 13 dwarves and our favorite irascible wizard, Gandalf, to journey halfway across Middle-earth to face down Smaug the Dragon and help the dwarves reclaim their ancestral homeland. Along the way, Bilbo finds his Tookish mojo, displays his burglar ways and stumbles across a certain ring that, 60 years later, half of Mordor wants for its own.
With that as the prelude, on to the movie review.
[Note: Here be spoilers. Just a few.]
First of all, it’s not awful. But some unexpected twists, and padding, tarnish The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, making it less exuberant and astonishing as The Fellowship of the Ring was for me.
Jackson smartly begins his tale in the Shire, in Bag End, just as in Tolkien’s book, and Hobbiton could not look greener. It almost pains the eyes, so green are the hills and fields. Audiences will let out a collective sigh of relief at how little has changed there. And familiar faces are back, too, including Ian McKellen as Gandalf, Hugo Weaving as Elrond, and Andy Serkis reprising his now landmark performance as Gollum.
Newcomers to the franchise include a 60-years-younger Bilbo, played by Martin Freeman, and the 13 dwarves, who arrive mysteriously on Bilbo’s doorstep, led by Thorin Oakenshield (hunky Viggo-in-waiting Richard Armitage). They tumble through the round green door. After some consternation, Bilbo signs the contract. And the quest is launched.
Some reviewers have complained about the pace — that it takes half an hour just to get out of Bilbo’s door. To me, I was happy to get to know more of Bilbo’s digs, and his character. Rather, the trouble is making each dwarf distinguishable from the next. The designers at Weta Workshop have done a fine job making them each look different. But despite the enormous running time of this first episode — coming in at a whopping 2 hours and 50 minutes — we don’t get to know each dwarf very well. As dwarf-in-chief, Thorin is given a revenge-infused backstory, pulling us back to a sepia-toned flashback sequence about the fall of Erebor and the kingdom of the Lonely Mountain; his pain and motivation to get revenge makes his character meaty. With more lines to speak than the others, the white-bearded Balin (Ken Stott) also feels fully fleshed-out. Otherwise, aside from fat Bombur (Stephen Hunter), a source of comic relief, the other ten seem more or less interchangeable. Perhaps we’ll get to know Dwalin, Kili, Fili, Dori, Nori, Ori, Oin, Gloin, Bifur and Bofur in subsequent films. I missed the days of the Fellowship, where each race was represented and each character had its flaws as well as its destiny to fulfill.
That’s not the director’s fault, but it does point to the difficulty of adapting this book. Does the story’s heart lie with Bilbo, or the dwarves, particularly Thorin’s unresolved past, here made more dark and troubled than perhaps Tolkien had intended? His character arc nearly overshadows Bilbo’s. What about Gandalf and his side-plot to learn more about what is going on at Dol Guldur, the ruined fortress in Mirkwood? The screenwriters have made a bold move here, infusing An Unexpected Journey (and one imagines, the next two installments) with epic-scale Sturm und Drang, rather than keeping it a quaint journey tale of a hobbit finding his courage.
Clearly, by adding more complex and weighty undertones and backstories, the filmmakers intend this to be a bridge to The Lord of the Rings, hence the prologue, or you might say flash-forward sequence, with old Bilbo (Ian Holm) and Frodo (Elijah Wood) at the start. It’s been widely reported how, to extend this short book into trilogy-worthy material, and to make The Hobbit feel part of the same Rings world, tone- and theme-wise, the screenwriters mined notes and appendices from elsewhere in Tolkien’s legendarium.
The risks? The story gets stretched like, as Bilbo says later in life, “like butter scraped over too much bread.” And the film loses some of its hobbity charm.
I found An Unexpected Journey bloated, but in the wrong places. Take Radagast, another of Gandalf’s wizardly compatriots, barely mentioned in the book. Here, he’s his own character, given his own tree house, and his own 15 minutes of fame, including a pointless scene resuscitating a hedgehog and traipsing about in a bunny-driven sleigh (not whimsical, just silly). Likewise, Azog, the orc chief who figures in dwarven flashback of yore, returns as Thorin’s foe. He’s even given cut-away scenes and dialogue of his own. I suppose it’s a move to up the tension, much like the intercutting plots Jackson employed to such good effect in the prior trilogy.
But where as in Rings the cross-cutting made the trilogy’s plot sweep feel more world-girdling, in The Hobbit, the choice felt like a distraction. I wanted to spend more time with Bilbo and Gandalf and the dwarves. Instead, Jackson serves up so many endless cliffhangers, action scene and battle sequences — with trolls, with orcs, with stone giants, with goblins in the recesses of the Misty Mountains — that Bilbo and other characters, as characters, get the short shrift. (I also did not buy some creature’s incarnations as wholly CG beings. Azog seemed more World of Warcraft than World of Tolkien. Same with the wargs, goblins, and Goblin kind. Rubbery, not real. Oddly, still pure pixel, Gollum looks more believable than ever.)
Freeman makes a fine fuss-budget Bilbo — and he looks much like a young Ian Holm (who plays old Bilbo) — but I wanted to know him more. He becomes an action hero more quickly than in the novel, which might upset some readers. As an actor, Freeman seem almost a bit too witty and smart for Bilbo’s own good. He seems one step ahead of his character.
Another plot detour arrives when the Company comes to the Elves’ Hidden Valley Ranch of Rivendell. Here, Jackson and Co. drop the bomb that the Necromancer (aka Sauron) might be lurking in Mirkwood, necessitating a pow-wow of that triumvirate of Middle-earth superheroes. Elrond is joined by Saruman (Christopher Lee, doing his creepy conniving routine) and Galadriel (Cate Blanchett, doing her creepy telepathic thing). I understand how the Sauron-talk will connect all six films as a complete story, but I wanted to stay with Bilbo, Thorin and Company. Let’s care about them more.
My final complaint: As much as I love well-staged chase and fight scenes, I think here, sometimes Jackson goes too far. In The Fellowship, that cave troll/Balin’s Tomb and Balrog sequence works so well because the scale felt more intimate, and therefore the danger real. A few dozen orcs vs. nine heroes. Here, Weta has designed a rat’s nest of a Goblin Town, literally hundreds of yards deep and across, with endless catwalks and shanties, and full of hundreds of foes. The scale is too vast. When Bilbo and the dwarves land in Goblin Town, they don’t just slip through a crack in the cave floor. They tumble down an endless chute worthy of a theme park roller coaster. Their battle against the goblins is amped up with unrealistic falls, collapsing scaffolding and perfectly-timed saves too coincidental to be believable. It’s the Bridge of Khazad-dûm on steroids. Jackson tries to out-do himself, but the effect is overdone, over the top.
As for the new format, 48 frames-per-second, I was distracted by the hyper-real “video” look for the first reel or so, and then I no longer noticed any difference. The jury is still out this. To me, in close up and medium shots I thought the effect was fine, but in wider landscapes and helicopter shots, the footage seemed chintzy. To my mind, 48FPS is less distracting than 3-D (which I do not like). If you’re skeptical of the high frame rate, find a theater where it’s playing in the standard 24 frames format. Or see it first in 24, then try in 48.
On the plus side: The Hobbit is much more about bigger themes: loyalty, heroism, sacrifice, fighting for home and heart. Gandalf gets to deliver some great words of wisdom to Bilbo on the nature of courage. We have always turned to Tolkien for lessons on how to live, and if you can recover from the relentless barrage of action, you will be uplifted. “The world is not in your books and maps — it’s out there,” Gandalf scolds Bilbo early on. Indeed.
The movie rightly slows down to show the Gollum and Bilbo’s riddle game in its entirety — and the audience catches its breath. It’s probably the best sequence of the film. The prologue recounting the dwarves’ backstory is also moving, as is the clever but-not-spoiling evocation of Smaug and his destruction of Dale.
Also hitting the right notes is Howard Shore’s score, such a crucial part to delivering the power in Rings. Astute listeners will recognize many of the same melodies and musical threads, which tie us emotionally to the characters. The dwarf song “Far over the Misty Mountains cold / To dungeons deep and caverns old / We must away, ere break of day / To seek our pale enchanted gold,” where Thorin and Co. begin to sing of their quest to take back the dragon’s gold, is haunting. As they sing, Jackson’s trademark crane shot takes us from the fire, then up inside Bilbo’s chimney and outside to follow the embers floating into the night sky. A beautiful and poetic way to tell the dwarves’ story and infuse the narrative with that sense of urgency and mystery.
Perhaps my overall disappointment with Peter Jackson’s effort here is unavoidable. Like a high school reunion or trip home over the holidays, this return voyage to Middle-earth feels bittersweet. Yes, it’s lovey to see old friends — be they human, elf, hobbit, dwarf, orc or goblin. But there’s something different. The old charms don’t entirely work, the dysfunctions aren’t tempered by time. The wonder is diminished. Something’s changed. Or perhaps it’s that we’ve changed.