Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, attempts a rare trick, inflating the narrative of a relatively short novel to accommodate a studio’s need for a franchise. By revisiting his earlier Lord of the Rings movies, plumbing the depths of other Tolkien works, meandering, as The Fellowship of the Ring did, in the Shire, and through invention, Jackson has succeeded in his task—J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, as interpreted by Jackson, Guillermo del Toro, and an army of writers, producers, actors, extras, and digital effects artists, will indeed fill the overlarge frame it’s been mandated. The question going into The Hobbit, and this is of particular importance following the bloat of the underrated King Kong and the nigh unforgivable The Lovely Bones, is whether or not Jackson would be able to pull back on his particular brand of bombast long enough to tell a good, engaging story about a band of outsiders questing to rid a mountain of a gold-loving dragon.
Yes and no. At times, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey manages to recall the highest points of Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. The characters are warm, the landscapes vast and pristine, the CGI mostly an enhancement. In adapting a beloved book as a prequel to a beloved film franchise, Jackson invites nostalgia from the film’s opening moments, as Bilbo Baggins (played as an older hobbit by Ian Holm, and for the majority of the film by Martin Freeman) is shown writing an account of his life for the benefit of his nephew Frodo (Elijah Wood), himself a future adventurer. Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen), Elrond (Hugo Weaving), Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), Saruman (Christopher Lee), and Gollum (Andy Serkis) appear throughout, if not to propel the plot, then to gently remind viewers of the elements shared by this trilogy and the one from the recent past.
The bulk of this chapter deals with the preparations made by Bilbo, Gandalf, and a company of dwarves—led by the brooding, kingly Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage)—before attempting to infiltrate the former dwarven homeland, now occupied by a dragon named Smaug. Much has been made of how slowly the first hour of The Hobbit slogs through these details, and that’s true; however clever it seems to have the old Bilbo coyly writing his memoirs as Frodo waits for the arrival of Gandalf with his fireworks, one can’t help but feel cooped up in Bilbo’s den, especially when entering the film with the knowledge that Bilbo sets off on an adventure, finds a ring, gains the respect of his company, and so on. This is an inferiority complex unique to prequels, one that has damned many such efforts in the past, but once Jackson sets his company out into Middle Earth, things pick up considerably.
The Hobbit also suffers from some of Jackson’s penchant for self-indulgence. I saw the movie in 2D, and while the vistas of New Zealand and its populace of CGI orcs, mountain trolls, and giant eagles looked mostly good, there were times, when panning through the goblin kingdom or over a vast mountain, when the visuals were noticeably less crisp than in any recent Jackson film, as if I were being punished for choosing not to see the film in 3D and at a higher framerate. In one of the film’s huge battle sequences, pitting the dwarves and Gandalf against a gleefully Dickensian goblin king (Barry Humphries) and his army, the disconnect between what’s real and what was filmed against a greenscreen becomes too much. It’s obvious that none of the dwarves will die, but they rack up the kills on the poor, witless goblin army like an expert video gamer in the early levels of a well-worn arcade game.
Though he certainly tries, Jackson is unable to differentiate many of the dwarves tagging along with Bilbo and Gandalf on their journey. Some are fatter, older, or jollier than others, but, for the exception of the mopey, vengeful Thorin, they’re all mostly the same. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey relies upon Freeman and McKellen to carry the bulk of the film’s 169-minutes, which they’re quite capable of. When Gandalf the Grey is held back by a largely ominous, slow-moving discussion foreshadowing the conflict of the second film, Bilbo finds himself matching wits against Gollum. As Gollum, King Kong, Cesar the Ape, or Captain Haddock, few actors have meant as much to special effects spectacles as Andy Serkis, who could probably lend humanity to a broomstick. The tragedy of Gollum and the character’s madness, however, are two well-trod roads, and his game of riddles against Bilbo Baggins, though vital to series lore, never rises above being a witty aside. Compared to Gandalf’s conversation with Elrond, Galadreil, and Saruman, however, it’s pressing, kinetic stuff. Still, for all its down moments, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is that rare creature: a good, mainstream fantasy film, a franchise-extending artifact that manages to find enough warmth to justify its existence.
I’ll admit, when it comes to splitting book adaptations into an endless succession of questionable sequels, I’m a bit of a skeptic. It’s a recent trend, the franchise addendum, and begs an odd indulgence of its core audience, the fans of the book: pay for some now, and pay again for the rest later. Harry Potter did this. The Twilight Saga did this. Upcoming adaptations of The Hunger Games and 50 Shades of Grey will likely follow suit, with little question of the studio’s motive in releasing as many gigantic blockbusters as possible in successive years. But that’s decidedly not the tone of the coverage surrounding this particular adaptation. A relatively slim volume, especially compared to the tomes that contain the largely empty prose of E.L. James, Stephanie Meyer, or Suzanne Collins, the only precedent for turning Tolkien’s fantasy into a full-blown sojourn on the level of the Lord of the Rings trilogy are the expanded editions of those films, which further packed and padded a series of movies that were, at times, already overstuffed. For many fans of Harry Potter or Twilight, the added film served as an opportunity to bring the series to a fitting, properly epic conclusion. As a casual onlooker, I can’t say I agree with their enthusiasm. I try, as much as possible, to separate a book from the film based upon it, but, for me, the adaptations that work the best are the ones that pare down on the impulses a blank page grants an author, rather than eat-up more than an already considerable chunk of time trying to please every die-hard in the audience.
What Jackson has done with The Hobbit is rare in that the decisions he’s made in adding to The Hobbit are decidedly not made for the benefit of his die-hard audience, who, to paraphrase the words of The Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle, want a one-film version of The Hobbit where a dragon is slain in the end. I won’t suggest that Jackson’s planned trilogy (who knows—maybe they’ll split the third film in two, like a magician with a saw) isn’t an opportunity for Warner Brothers, New Line Cinema, and MGM to fashion themselves a clutch of gold, but if any literary universe is capable of sustaining the sort of expansion the director and his writers have undertaken, its Tolkien’s. The horde of books, short stories, note cards, and outlines the author left is breathtaking, and the odds of any of that material making its way to the theatre on its own are slim. Some of Jackson’s additions, like Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy)—a wizard who speeds his way through Middle Earth on a rabbit-driven sled, his goofiness in the face of world-ending danger a reminder of the sillier aspects of George Lucas’ Star Wars prequels—add nothing. A necromancer (Benedict Cumberbatch in name only—he appears momentarily as a CGI construct, bits and bytes over flesh and blood) from another Tolkien story serves to perhaps unnecessarily tie together events from this film and the Lord of the Rings. But the film’s main addition, the Pale Orc, is not only something created wholecloth for this film, but is a character whose quest to murder Thorin Oakenshield for the loss of his arm is more immediately relatable to on screen than, say, a pack of talking dogs or a flock of hyper-intelligent eagles. The stakes of prequel films, whose outcome is determined by prior movies whose success does not always equal interest in “the rest of the story,” are notoriously low. By playing with elements from Tolkien’s expanded Middle Earth, Peter Jackson has found a way to infuse his prequels with tension and suspense. In its best moments, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey easily meets the expectations of its pedigree. The Hobbit may not be either a perfect film or adaptation, but neither were those sainted films preceding it.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Directed by Peter Jackson. With Ian McKellen (Gandalf the Grey), Martin Freeman (Bilbo Baggins), Andy Serkis (Gollum), Richard Armitage (Thorin Oakenshield), Sylvester McCoy (Radagast the Brown), Hugo Weaving (Elrond), Cate Blanchett (Galadreil), Christopher Lee (Saruman), Ian Holm (old Bilbo), and Elijah Wood (Frodo).