If you are a fan of Peter Jackson's LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy, good fortune has smiled upon you this weekend, because THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY contains more of what you enjoyed before - much, much more. In fact, there is so much LORD OF THE RINGS that there is barely any room for THE HOBBIT. Unfortunately, instead of simply adapting J.R.R. Tolkien's novel, Jackson has opted to use the story as a jumping off point for a convoluted prequel that threatens to do for Middle Earth what George Lucas's STAR WARS prequels did for a galaxy far, far away.
The strategy yields a schizoid mess that buries Tolkien's simple tale beneath an avalanche of expository dialogue and CGI action - the former intended to tie the events into the previous films, the latter intended to pad the story into an action-adventure epic. The problem is that, unlike before, this story is not big enough to support the epic length. Whereas THE LORD OF THE RINGS felt dense, even with each film clocking in at over three hours, THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY feels thin - a good first act (of what should have been a two-hour movie) stretched to interminable length in order to fill a feature-length running time over two and a half hours.
The result is strangely disengaging - a virtual remake, hitting all the beats of its predecessor but missing the emotional resonance. The similarity is certainly inherent in the source material (when Tolkien wrote his sequel to The Lord of the Rings, he reused many story elements from The Hobbit), but Jackson has deliberately emphasized the echoes in an effort to recreate his winning formula of expanding the author's literary prose into stunning cinematic visuals.
For example, like THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING, THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY begins with a massive battle in which monster-thingy smites a king whose heir must set things right, and it ends with our heroes standing on a hill looking into the distance at a forbidding mountain to which they will travel in the next installment. The images look just as spectacular as before, but this time they feel like empty spectacle.
Which wouldn't be so bad if the spectacle were a little more...well - spectacular - but Jackson seems to have lost sight of how to build thrilling action scenes in which characters are caught in dangerous situations but manage to find a way out through ingenuity or perseverance. There is a surfeit of CGI long-shots of animated characters running around toppling bridges but less of the eye-level live-action camera work that drew the audience into the action to build suspense. The aesthetic here is less LORD OF THE RINGS than it is the silly T-Rex trapeze sequence in Jackson's KING KONG 2004 remake. In a weird way, THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY even recalls Toho's giant monster films of the 1960s, when less and less live-action was filmed, reducing the city destruction to a series of crumbling miniatures bereft of any human scale.
Every once in a while, a scene comes alive in a way that makes a viewer yearn for what might have been. Gollum's riddles in the dark with Bilbo are creepy and funny - the scene works as a stand-alone moment in in this film, and it foreshadows events that will happen later in LORD OF THE RINGS - without any heavy-handed cinematic threading to tie the incidents together. Ian McKellen is wonderful as ever as Gandalf: when he delivers his message in favor of mercy to Bilbo, he really does seem to be channeling a higher wisdom worth remembering. And Bilbo's explanation of why he decides to help the dwarves is genuinely moving (Bilbo yearns for home - something the dwarves do not have).
Too bad THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY could not have focused on these considerable strengths instead of drowning them in a sea of CGI set-pieces and ill-conceived ret-conning. Tolkien's tale is a fairly straight-forward children's fantasy about Bilbo Baggins joining the wizard Gandalf and a dozen dwarves on a quest to reclaim their homeland from the dragon Smaug. His Lord of the Rings sequel trilogy is much deeper and darker, and Tolkien himself had to do a little revamping to stitch the two together (rewriting substantial portions of Gollum's appearance in Chapter 5 of The Hobbit). However, when Tolkien later sat down to do a complete rewrite of The Hobbit, to bring it more in line with Lord of the Rings, he abandoned the task after three chapters, when someone told him "It's not The Hobbit anymore." Sadly, Peter Jackson did not heed the lesson of this anecdote. The humorous antics of the original (e.g., the three trolls arguing over how to kill and cook Bilbo and his companions) remain, but the tone of these sequences jars with the grizzly, quasi-horror material that has been added.
In the appendix to Lord of the Rings and in various post-humously published stories, Tolkien laid out the connections (particularly in "Quest for Erebor," in which Gandalf explains that, while the dwarves may have been concerned only with reclaiming their homeland from Smaug, Gandalf was eager to prevent the dragon from becoming an ally of the dark lord Sauron). Apparently, Jackson's goal is to incorporate these ulterior motives and behind-the-scenes machinations into his prequel trilogy. Consequently, non-essential bits of business (e.g., the Necromancer - originally conceived as a plot device to get Gandalf off-stage for a while and later re-imagined as an incarnation of Sauron) end up being over-emphasized. Saruman (Christopher Lee), Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and Eldrond (Hugo Weaving) also show up, so that Gandalf can voice to them his concern about the evil brewing in the east. As interesting and admirable as it is to use the cinematic format to synthesize these elements together in a way the novel never could, the unfortunate side effect is that poor Bilbo, the little hobbit who could, gets pushed too often to the sidelines, obscuring what should be the main narrative.* And for all its attempt to satisfy the geeks audience by maintaining continuity between the films, Bilbo's acquisition of the Ring plays out quite differently here than in the prologue from THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING.
THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY is not a complete disaster. There is still a good little movie in there, wishing it could escape from the epic aspirations forced upon it; the production values and special effects are excellent. The cast give it their all: Andy Serkis is as fun as ever as Gollum; and as Bilbo, Martin Freeman is a serviceable replacement for LORD OF THE RINGS Ian Holm (here seen only in a prologue to set up the flashback to earlier times). However, THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY continues the downward slide that has afflicted all of Jackson's Tolkien adaptations. It bodes ill for the future films - an omen neither from Mordor nor the Lonely Mountain but from the accounting office in Hollywood that demanded another tent-pole franchise from source material ill-suited to support one.
THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY (Warner Brothers, December 14, 2012). Directed by Peter Jackson. Screenplay by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, Guillermo Del Toro, based on Tolkien's novel. Cast: Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Ken Stott, Ian Holm, Elijah Wood, Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett, Christopher Lee, Andy Serkis, Sylvester McCoy, Lee Pace, Barry Humphries. 169 minutes. PG-13.
- In a similar way, the 1994 INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE film adaptation marred its narrative by incorporating scenes and ideas that appeared not in the original text but in its literary sequels.