The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
At 24fps, and in two easy-on-the-eyes dimensions, Peter Jackson’s first installment of The Hobbit is simply a movie, as opposed to an experience. It is a good movie, at that. But is it great? No. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey delivers on its promise to bring Tolkien’s whimsical prelude to the Lord of the Rings to life on the silver screen, but somewhere along the way the whimsy and heart of Bilbo’s great adventure got lost.
The opening lines of Tolkien’s novel are indelibly carved into my psyche. “In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit… .” Simple, direct and without a doubt one of my favorite written passages ever committed to paper. So as the opening credits rolled, I waited with bated breath for that classic line. To me, there was simply no other way to open what is sure to be a timeless trilogy of films. Ten minutes and one ill-advised “bookend” scene later, and I (sort of) got my payoff. The opening scene, tying The Hobbit to Jackson’s LOTR trilogy of films, seemed tacked-on, ill-advised and smacked of hand-holding. While things certainly improved from there, the film never quite took the tone I was hoping for.
Unlike the LOTR, The Hobbit is not what I would consider to be “epic fantasy.” More akin to works of Roald Dahl or Neil Gaiman’s Stardust, The Hobbit is as much a folk and fairy tale as it is fantasy. To be sure, the fantastical setting, exotic races and languages, and epic scope don’t exclude it from the fantasy genre, but tonally the book is far more personal than LOTR. The Hobbit, in novel form, is ultimately the story of Bilbo’s great adventure. There, and back again. On screen, Jackson has made the conscious decision to place the tale, as opposed to the characters, at center stage.
Part of the problem, perhaps, is the homogenous nature of the supporting characters. Twelve dwarves, each with their own voices and personalities, are far easier to handle (or ignore) in novel form. A few paragraphs, over the course of a few hundred pages, are far less costly to the writer than a few minutes of screen time are to a director. And Jackson sacrificed some of the characterization of the Company of Thorin Oakenshield on the altar of “The Plot.” I can’t really argue with the choice—at nearly three hours for the first installment, Jackson clearly tried to fit as much as possible into the film. But while Thorin and Balin (and to a lesser extent, Dwalin) actually came across as characters integral to the story, the rest of the dwarves did not. But for the sake of accuracy, they could have been named “Dwarves 3-12.”
Jackson’s choice to give the dwarves short shrift is made all the more disturbing by his excellent character work with Gandalf and Radagast the Brown. Ian McKellen, who for my money has never been bad in anything, once again plumbs the depths of Mithrandir, and I was pleased to see that the Gandalf the Grey of The Hobbit is decidedly different from the Gandalf of 60 years later seen in the LOTR films. McKellen does a masterful job of portraying a powerful character that is fighting entropy, apathy and irrelevance as much as evil. The inclusion of Saruman and Galadriel, while once again bridging the gap between trilogies, underscores Gandalf’s love for Middle Earth by subtly suggesting that perhaps the rest of the White Council may be a tad…content.
Sylvester McCoy as Radagast the Brown was thoroughly entertaining. While Radagast’s role in the novel was unseen, Jackson uses the character to introduce The Necromancer and the creeping malaise of the Mirkwood. While not staying completely true to the novel, Jackson manages to add drama and a sense of dark foreboding through Radagast’s travails, all the while providing perhaps the most satisfying character moments of the film.
An Unexpected Journey culminates with Bilbo’s fateful encounter with Gollum, deep in the Misty Mountains. Of all the scenes in the film, this was the best. Riddles in the dark, panic and claustrophobia, disgust and despair—Jackson manages to capture each and every emotion on film. CGI or not, Gollum is once again a pleasure to watch. Andy Serkis has inhabited Sméagol long enough to know him inside and out, and his performance is another highlight. Much like Gandalf, Gollum is a subtly different character in The Hobbit, and these differences come across well on the big screen.
Martin Freeman as Bilbo was a genius piece of casting. The perfect mix of neuroses, heart and fear of failure, Freeman’s performance captures the essence of Bilbo Baggins far more than that of Ian Holm, who plays the elder Bilbo we see at the beginning of the film and in the LOTR trilogy. Freeman’s wit and charm complement Bilbo’s, and his timing—comic and dramatic—is impeccable.
At 24fps and in 2-D, I did not find the CGI or the actual manner in which the movie was filmed either disturbing or distracting. Middle Earth once again looked beautiful, if not a bit more austere than in the LOTR films. I did find some of the quick cuts and top-down shots to be unnecessary, and some of the scenes within Erebor and in the hall of the Goblin King were a bit dark, but that could be a function of my lousy eyesight as opposed to a cinematographic miscue. An Unexpected Journey was, in my opinion, filmed in a workmanlike manner leaving very little to gripe about.
Unfortunately for us fans, the whole of the film amounted to something less than the sum of its parts. While it may be unfair to judge one part of what is essentially an eight hour film without seeing the whole, I think it is fair to say that heart, fun and sense of adventure that pervaded the LOTR films was missing here. A whimsical tale minus the whimsy played as dour and heavy-handed when it should have been light-hearted and, ultimately fun. After all, The Hobbit is the prelude to an epic, not the epic itself. That being said, I still enjoyed the movie and can’t wait to see it again. A good-but-not-great Peter Jackson film set in Middle Earth is vastly preferable to any other alternative. And who knows? By the time the thrush knocks three times and Sting is blooded, the whole may be greater than the sum of its parts.