Dear Reader, kindly take the following review under the advisement that its author has been a total Tolkien geek since the age of 14. I have been looking forward to no other movie in 2012 quite so hungrily as The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.
While many greeted the news that The Hobbit was being extended to a three-episode series by decrying producer/director Peter Jackson as a money-grubber seeking to milk every last farthing from the franchise, this reviewer took the position that there is simply no such thing as too much Tolkien. I would have been perfectly happy if Jackson had split each of his three Lord of the Rings films into three separate full-length segments (though hopefully not released a year apart), so that more detail from the sprawling novels could have been included, such as Tom Bombadil and the Barrow-wights.
So it is with some sense of surprise that I have to admit that – although, predictably enough, I loved it – An Unexpected Journey might, in fact, have been improved by a bit of a trim. Skeptics of Jackson’s gameplan noted from the outset that The Hobbit is a much slighter tale than The Lord of the Rings, originally conceived as a bedtime story for J. R. R. Tolkien’s children, and doubted that it would survive the requisite padding to bring it to seven or eight hours of total screentime. Fans, on the other hand, responded with pleasure to the notion that the director planned to incorporate elements of the story that happened “offscreen” and were only revealed in detail in LotR’s voluminous appendices – such as the White Council’s eviction by force of magic of the Necromancer (a disguised Sauron) from his tower of Dol Guldur in Mirkwood.
In many respects, Jackson’s treatment so far of The Hobbit is appropriate to the conception of it as a children’s tale. Compared to the Lord of the Rings films, there is a great deal more humor in An Unexpected Journey – mostly at the expense of the dwarves, to whose desperate expedition to reclaim their lost kingdom of Erebor from the dragon Smaug the titular hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) is a reluctant recruit.
If you had problems with the anachronistic dwarf-tossing jokes in Gimli’s scenes in the earlier trilogy, you’re going to feel even more uncomfortable with the long sequence in which Balin, Dwalin, Oín, Gloín, Dori, Nori, Ori, Fili, Kili, Bifur, Bofur and Bombur – and to a lesser extent, the dignified Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) – trash Bilbo’s dining room, kitchen and pantry. There are moments when they seem more like the 13 Stooges than doughty warriors on a quest. (Yes, there is a food fight.)
Once they actually ride out on the perilous road to the Lonely Mountain, with wise old Gandalf (Ian McKellen) as their guide, things generally get a little more serious. But even when they encounter foes – beginning with a dimwitted trio of trolls and continuing with a paunchy, rubbery Great Goblin who bears a strong resemblance to Jabba the Hutt from Star Wars – Jackson seems to be trying to maintain a lighter touch in this series.
This approach comes closest to derailing the Heroic Quest tone when we are introduced to Radagast the Brown, one of Gandalf’s wizard colleagues. Benign but not impressively powerful for a member of the Istari, Radagast is a sort of St. Francis of Assisi character who can talk to birds and animals. His job in the story, as expanded by Jackson, is to tip off Thorin’s party that the Necromancer is turning out to be more than a minor nuisance to the ecology of Mirkwood. Unfortunately, Jackson makes him a bit of a goofball with lichen growing on his face, who travels via wooden sledge drawn by a preternaturally fleet team of…rabbits.
Little kids will like the rather twee Radagast material, but they may have trouble enduring the two hours and 49 minutes of the total film. Ironically, it’s the scarier sequences put in to keep action-movies fans from complaining that the movie is too long and talky that seem most dragged-out and expendable.
There’s a climactic chase and battle with hordes of goblins on narrow suspended walkways in the caves beneath the Misty Mountains that seems devised to demonstrate the giddy potential of 3-D. It’s most impressive visually, but goes on for so long that the viewer has time to wonder where the goblins actually sleep, prepare meals, make things, trade and generally go about their daily business on these miles and miles of wooden planking. That’s not what you’re supposed to be thinking about during a big action sequence, and it definitely could have been a few minutes shorter.
Once the expedition has left Bag End, there’s not much reason to complain of excessive time devoted to exposition in An Unexpected Journey, and the less kinetic scenes are often the most dramatically charged. There are some tense moments between dwarves and elves that clearly convey the weight of historical antagonism between those peoples in Middle Earth. And Bilbo’s encounter with Gollum (Andy Serkis), in which the One Ring begins to reemerge as the crux point of global politics in this alternate universe, is admirably executed.
Even in their potentially deadly riddle game, Jackson mines the humor, contrasting Gollum’s multiple-personality disorder and cannibalistic tendencies with Bilbo’s bourgeois politeness. Freeman and Serkis are both splendid here; and when the camera focuses on Gollum’s bulging blue eyes, as it did on those of Elijah Wood as young Frodo in the prologue, we are reminded as never before of the twisted creature’s deep kinship with hobbitkind.
Most of the gravitas to be found in this film comes from Armitage, who does a fine job as the princely-if-humorless Thorin, and from McKellen as Gandalf. Unavoidably looking older and even more careworn here than in the LotR films, he anchors this sometimes-lightweight tale to the larger saga and its ancient and complicated history.
For this viewer and my teenage moviegoing companion, the one jarring note in the Gandalf scenes was his exchange with Bilbo, when the wizard gives him an Elven sword and the hobbit protests that he has no idea how to use one. But that was because we had both read A Game of Thrones more recently than The Hobbit, and were thus primed to expect to hear Gandalf say, “Stick ‘em with the pointy end.” Be warned: Giggling at this point in the movie is ill-advised, since it’s a scene that’s supposed to bring home the crucial role that Bilbo’s mercy to Gollum will ultimately play in the fate of all civilization in Middle Earth.
Suffice it to say that The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey suffers a bit from a sense that the tone is all over the place. One may hope that it will have settled down somewhat by the second installment, when our adventuring party enters dark and dangerous Mirkwood (although even there, we can expect some dwarven slapstick when the obese Bombur falls into an enchanted sleep and has to be dragged everywhere for a goodly while). Dragon fans will have to wait until the final movie to get a full view of the magnificent Smaug, although there are enough teasers in the first one – a silhouette behind a blast of fire, a huge trampling foot, a slowly opening golden eye – to keep them intrigued.
As with the LotR films, the production values here are topnotch, the art direction so lavishly detailed that you will long to move to Middle Earth after seeing this movie, if you didn’t already. For that reason alone if no other, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is worth the extra price of the 3-D goggles and the investment of nearly three hours of your precious time. Absolutely take the kids along if they can handle a bit of occasionally gory swordfighting without getting nightmares. Just make sure that they all go potty immediately beforehand.