The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (review)

The Hobbit An Unexpected Journey yellow light Martin Freeman

I’m “biast” (pro): loved Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings

I’m “biast” (con): was not happy to learn that this brief story was being chopped up into three epic-length films

I have read the source material many times (and I love it)

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

No, not all who wander are lost. But doesn’t mean that some who wander aren’t lost. Such as Peter Jackson, with his first-of-three-parts big-screen adaptation of The Hobbit. I wish I could say that it’s confounding and inexplicable that he would do such a thing, take one small short charming little adventure story and blow it up into three hugely epic films… but it’s not mysterious at all. Jackson’s Hobbit was always going to be a license to print money, after the remarkable and wholly deserved success of his beautiful Lord of the Rings trilogy. Bilbo Baggins could sit smoking his pipe and reading aloud the Shire genealogy records for four hours, and fans would line up for it. I don’t think Jackson was being particularly mercenary with his decision to expand his Hobbit to three films and nine hours (or at least not only mercenary) — I think he thought he was giving fans a gift of as much more Tolkien as he could manage. Alas, though, Jackson’s own fannish partiality may be getting in the way here… as well as what I suspect is a case of George Lucas Syndrome. I fear Jackson is now surrounded by too many of his own fans who would never dare to tell him his ideas might possibly be the teensiest bit crappy.

Many diehard fans of the book and of Jackson’s LOTR trilogy will love An Unexpected Journey, I have no doubt, or will at least be very forgiving of its many problems. And that’s fine: I would never wish for anyone to not get as much enjoyment out of this they possibly can. Revisiting Middle-earth is a treat: this is escapism at its purest, a full-blown diversion from reality. This is an alien land fully realized onscreen, populated by totally authentic nonhuman characters, and in 48 frames-per-second mode, as I saw it, it is startlingly real, as if you were looking through a window into Middle-earth… or perhaps as if you had walked onto a holodeck. It’s almost disconcerting how touchably real it all looks, though not in a bad way: this method of shooting film at a faster rate, which captures twice as much information and hence is sharper and clearer than anything we’ve seen before, is just so different. It’s a groundbreaking step for cinema that may well be a par with the introduction of color. The kick up to 48fps for Middle-earth is like Dorothy from black-and-white Kansas suddenly finding herself in Technicolor Oz. 48fps — also known as HFR, or high frame rate — also makes 3D feel more real and look less dark. (Note that relatively few showings of The Hobbit will actually be in HFR, because many multiplexes have yet not upgraded their technology. Check F.P.S.: 48 for a list of U.S., Canadian, U.K., and worldwide cinemas showing the film in 48fps.)

As a story, however, Journey is more than a bit like slogging through overly completist volumes of fan fiction, and that is going to bore more casual moviegoers, and also some serious fans (as I consider myself). What we have here isn’t even fairly titled as The Hobbit, because it’s only just barely about Bilbo Baggins; better would be A Child’s History of Middle-earth in the Late Third Age. Not a lot actually happens here — far too much time is given over to backstory and tangents that act only as fan service. Oh, look, there’s the Arkenstone! Hey, it’s Galadriel again! Oh, so that’s why the elves and the dwarves don’t get along! The charm of The Hobbit as Tolkien wrote it is that it was, you know, charming. It was not, at least not on its face, an epic tale of good-versus-evil: it was the tale of a homebody fussbudget who ran out of his cozy hobbithole one morning without even a handkerchief and discovered, though travel and hardship and — *gasp* — missed meals that the world was bigger and more interesting than he realized. There are lovely, lovely moments here, during the house party of rambunctious dwarves that Bilbo gets tricked into hosting by Gandalf in order to induce him to come along on their adventure as their resident “burglar,” in which Martin Freeman as Bilbo so delightfully exudes a hobbity despair at witnessing his larder being decimated by unwanted and very hungry guests. Freeman (Sherlock, What’s Your Number?) is downright adorable as Bilbo — he was born to play a hobbit. And it’s a shame that he gets so little chance, over the course of nearly three hours of running time, to be a hobbit reacting to the not-conducive-to-hobbitness stuff going on around him.

Jackson (King Kong) — who didn’t just direct but wrote the script with his regular partners Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, with an assist this time by Guillermo del Toro (Hellboy II: The Golden Army, Pan’s Labyrinth) — lavishes love on everything he presents here, but every time the focus wanders away from Bilbo, we lose the sense that there is a coherent, primal story to be told. We don’t need the full and complete history of the dwarf city under the Lonely Mountain far from the Shire to understand why deposed dwarf king Thorin wants to take it back from Smaug, the dragon, who now lives there. It’s nice for actor Richard Armitage (Captain America: The First Avenger, Robin Hood) that Jackson chose to make his Thorin this trilogy’s Aragorn, all noble and lonely and angsty and still-not-king, because Armitage is wonderful in every possible way and I hope this makes him a huge star, because he totally deserves it and I long to see him more on the big screen. But that’s not really a good reason to take a story called The Hobbit that is about a hobbit and make it about Thorin. Also too: Jackson tries to force a sense of the epic upon this, but this story lacks the existential threat that Lord of the Rings has. Middle-earth is not in crisis. Some dwarves want to get their gold back from a dragon. That’s it. There’s nothing urgent about this, and no amount of lurching from action setpiece to action setpiece can make us feel an urgency that isn’t there. Tolkien’s Hobbit is sort of a mock epic, in which the leaving behind of a handkerchief is mock tragic. And yes, there is the event, to be seen in retrospect as momentous, in which Bilbo acquires a magic ring later discovered to be the One Ring of Power forged by the mighty Sauron, etc… but it’s only later that the enormity of this happenstance is known. Jackson should have trusted the viewer to bring in our own awareness of the Vital Importance of Certain Events here. But he doesn’t. He wants to take a little side trip into, say, roundtables of Gandalf (Ian McKellen: The Golden Compass, Stardust) and Elrond (Hugo Weaving: Cloud Atlas, Happy Feet Two) and Galadriel (Cate Blanchett: Hanna, Robin Hood) holding high-level magical discussions at Rivendell of the Vital Importance of Certain Events. In the book, Gandalf keeps wandering off on the mysterious business of wizards, leaving Bilbo and the dwarves to wonder just what the hell he’s up to. But there’s no mystery here. It’s all so on-the-nose. It loses all possibility of being metaphoric — in the same way that Jackson’s Lord of the Rings felt like it was commenting on our world, particularly in the immediate wake of 9/11, when the first film was released — by making itself so concrete.

Here’s the thing. Tolkien was constantly rewriting his stuff to bring it all into line with his grand vision, which he was ever developing. In the 1960s, he tried to rewrite The Hobbit, which was first published in 1937, to bring its tone in line with the heroic somberness of The Lord of the Rings. And he couldn’t do it. He found that it ruined the essential hobbitness of The Hobbit, the light adventure and the comedy and the airiness of it. Jackson is trying to do what Tolkien failed to do, and though the filmmaker makes sure there’s plenty of dwarf-belching and troll-snot and other blithe grossness in the mix, it’s plain that Tolkien was right: you cannot force grandeur onto a story about a hobbit for whom losing the buttons off his waistcoat remains a calamity even after he’s been traveling with uncouth dwarves for a while. The button-losing is here in the film, but to concentrate on it feels out of whack. That’s not how it should be.

see also:
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug review
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies review

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