Summary: Sixty years before The Lord of the Rings, in a hole in the ground there lives a hobbit. That perfectly ordinary hobbit soon has his pastoral life upended by a kooky wizard and a company of dwarves. They are on a quest to retake their kingdom from the dragon Smaug. Joining them as their fourteenth member and burglar, Bilbo Baggins embarks on a most extraordinary adventure.
It’s difficult to judge a movie like this too fiercely when all the effort put into it is so visible on the screen. Filmic issues could be marginalized by director Peter Jackson’s craftsmanship. If there are flaws, New Zealand’s scenery never fails to impress. If there is one monstrous flaw, isn’t it nice just to be back in Middle-Earth again? Well, yes. But that doesn’t excuse poor pacing.
J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, published in 1937, is the much lighter and more whimsical prelude to his epic, The Lord of the Rings (1954). Jackson adapted Rings in 2001, and after its immense box office success and awards sweep, a Hobbit adaptation was expected. After some studio wrangling (and director wrangling), it was announced that The Hobbit would be released in two parts: An Unexpected Journey and There and Back Again. It did not seem excessive, given Jackson’s penchant for detail (and hours of extra DVD footage). But then we found out instead of two films we would be getting three. The Hobbit, a 300 page novel, is now a trilogy. Even fans cry foul.
I was surprised at the lack of outcry from fans of the Harry Potter and Twilight series when their finales were split in twain. Movie tickets are not cheap, after all. The studios’ explanation for these splits is always the same: staying true to the novels. But that is preposterous. The most authentic way to adapt a novel is to record someone reading a book in silence until they finish, including the times they get up to get crackers or use the bathroom.
And yet, if The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey had been a delight throughout, this argument might be waived. It is delightful, I admit, but it is a sterling example of how not to edit a film.
The Hobbit progresses episodically without the least sense of purpose that underlay the formidable Fellowship of the Ring, taking wide divergences from the real plot and leaving the audience feeling like voyeurs to a director’s cut that seems to have forgotten how. To weld the two trilogies together, Jackson thought that beginning his movie with ten minutes of Ian Holm and Elijah Wood reprising their roles from Rings was necessary. But unless this frame will include some heretofore unguessed parallel and wholly necessary action in Rings that could not be included in that trilogy, the film would rather have benefited from beginning at the beginning, instead of beginning at the beginning of Fellowship to tell us about what happened before the beginning of The Hobbit. Yes, even the Erebor prologue, since we know we won’t get to see the dragon Smaug until the next film, could have been trimmed or moved to the middle of the interminable dinner sequence. It’s beautiful. But it hurts. Also not helping the story find a decent pacing:
- The running gag of dwarves showing up at Bilbo’s house is old by the time the second one shows up. There are thirteen of them.
- Radagast the brown, ladies and gentlemen. Birds shit in his hair.
- Rivendell’s population averages 400 years old and older. These are not people pressed for time.
- The mountain giants’ battle is so inconsequential to the plot and so long that one has time to wonder why the mountains are fighting, what mountain politics are like, what the mountains are doing while Sauron’s armies are marching all over them 60 years hence, and how a colony of mountain goblins could build their kingdom in such capricious geologic conditions.
The film’s dual protagonists are Bilbo Baggins and Thorin Oakenshield, and both actors do give us reason to keep watching. Martin Freeman plays Bilbo with a fussy charm, but this first installment has a bad habit of swallowing him up. Not until his game of riddles with Gollum (Andy Serkis) does he truly get a chance to do anything. Meanwhile Richard Armitage is a convincing king without a kingdom. And of course there is Sir Ian McKellen as Gandalf the grey (the actor’s preferred incarnation of the character). Here he is much more uncertain of himself than he will be in future, but he continues to be the series’ beloved anchor.
There is fun to be had in An Unexpected Journey but the action plays like butter spread over too much bread. The film has both humor and heart but it’s disappointing that a director with as keen an eye as Jackson would drag out his narrative this way.
Based on the novel The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Directed by Peter Jackson
Warner Bros. Pictures
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