The announcement that Peter Jackson’s long-rumored, long-delayed film adaptation of The Hobbit would be split into two films was greeted with fan astonishment and disbelief. The later announcement that it would actually be three movies upped the ante to disgust and frothing rage. How, exactly, did the shortest and simplest of J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy novels merit as many films as his entire Lord Of The Rings trilogy? Wasn’t this an obvious cash grab? Given that Rankin-Bass was able to cover most of the novel’s high points in under 90 minutes in the 1977 animated adaptation of The Hobbit, how could a mere third of the book stretch to 169 minutes in the first installment, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey?
The answer: Through many acts of stalling and stretching, which come in a variety of types:
- Repetition. Unexpected Journey begins with a frame story that has Ian Holm revisiting his role as old Bilbo Baggins, and Elijah Wood returning as Frodo, for scenes set just before Bilbo’s birthday party from The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring, and focused mostly on setting up events already seen in that movie.
- Visualization. Journey takes its time with the backstory that brings 13 rambunctious dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) to hire young Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) for a quest to reclaim the dwarf treasure stolen by the dragon Smaug. The film takes any hint of combat or action from the books as an opportunity to flesh out a full-on battle sequence, and stories the book covers briefly or offscreen—Smaug’s takeover of the dwarven mountain/city of Erebor, a faceoff against mountain trolls, an escape from a goblin cavern—are instead illustrated in long, expansive scenes.
- Insertion. Journey fills out and inserts material from Tolkien’s Unfinished Tales and The Silmarillion, particularly a side story that has the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen, also reprising his Rings role) investigating news of a dangerous necromancer coming to power. Naturalist wizard Radagast The Brown (former Doctor Who star Sylvester McCoy), who gets one mention in passing in The Hobbit, here gets a number of lengthy, goofy scenes based on Tolkien’s notes about his character.
- Wholesale invention. Like Jackson’s Rings movies, Journey sticks tightly by some of Tolkien’s original material, but it goes much further than past films in terms of altering it for dramatic effect. Journey is full of newly written material, most significantly detailing a personal grudge between Thorin and the orc Azog The Defiler, which leads the latter to hunt the former all over Middle Earth, via many chases and battles throughout Journey. It also invents a significant crisis of faith for Bilbo, and uses it to force a broader and more stridently emphasized character arc onto a story that originally followed a more natural, less heightened progression.
Some of the extra material bogs down the film, or becomes repetitious. Some of it ventures into the arena of the ridiculous. (See Spoiler Space, linked below.) But some of it inserts the epic-adventure spirit of the Lord Of The Rings movies into a story that was always considerably smaller. Thorin’s quest for the treasure of Lonely Mountain comes across in The Hobbit as petty and selfish by contrast with the cause that binds the protagonists together in the Rings novels, and the quest’s progress is a series of embarrassing but exciting misadventures. The Hobbit explains how Bilbo became an unlikely hero, and how he got his hands on the One Ring, but it rarely portrays his quest in a positive light, given how much time Thorin and his company spend puffing themselves up, then getting into trouble and requiring rescue.
The conflict between the Hobbit material, the ancillary material, and the material generated by Jackson and his collaborators (his regular screenwriting partners Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, plus Guillermo del Toro, the original director before production delays forced him to tap out) all leads to a problematic tonal confusion. Jackson mostly shoots for a lighter tone than he did in the Rings movies, with more comic business and slapstick beats. The situational humor recalls the Rings films’ gags about dwarf-tossing and the dwarf Gimli forever being on the losing end of his rivalry with the elf Legolas. (Maybe dwarves are just the natural clowns of Middle Earth?) A life-or-death chase where orcs pursue Radagast and his rabbit-drawn sledge turns into a giddy, gibe-strewn event that strongly recalls the pod race in The Phantom Menace, and not just because it’s almost entirely CGI.
But at other times, Jackson attempts to re-create the Rings movies’ gravitas and sense of scale and importance. In particular, when Gandalf reunites with his mentor Saruman (Christopher Lee) and the elves Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and Elrond (Hugo Weaving) to discuss the necromancer threat, the movie suddenly feels like it’s left the children’s table at a holiday gathering, and moved to the adults’ room. Problem is, the threat they’re just starting to understand was already resolved in the Rings movies, which dissolves any sense of stakes.
None of this makes The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey a bad movie. At its best, it recaptures the Rings movies’ breadth, detail, and staggering sense of beauty. Jackson retains the sense of an entire world created on a vast scope for a film. The design is beautiful to a fault; the score is sweeping and energizing. Even without gravitas, Jackson’s work has majesty and beauty on its side. And some of the invented material does work efficiently: Thorin’s longstanding enmity with Azog gives the story more shape. His pursuit of Thorin adds a personal touch to the ongoing encounters with orcs, rather than the book’s sense that orcs are everywhere in Middle Earth as a generic threat. And as in previous films, Jackson uses diegetic music—with lyrics taken from The Hobbit—to set a haunting mood, and to convey the sense that these characters are nuanced enough to have their own arts.
But by comparison with the other Rings movies—the extremely high bar Jackson has already set for himself—Unexpected Journey falls short and feels muddled, yet too eager to please its fan base with an obligatory swordfight every few scenes. It overextends itself literally, by drawing out scenes too long, but also figuratively, by mushing too many stories together and failing to maintain a tight focus on any of them. It often feels like trying to watch two or three films at once, which explains the length as well as the erratic tone. And its attempts to fuse Tolkien’s classic material with more modern story beats make this film feel more like a Harry Potter installment than another Rings movie.
The odd thing is, many of these problems could be fixed by editing Unexpected Journey down to two hours or less of propulsive storytelling. The film instead feels like Jackson is so determined not to leave any of Tolkien’s writing unadapted—or any potential profits unclaimed—that he loses sight of whether all the material he’s tossing together belongs in the same overstuffed kitchen sink.
Note: Jackson shot Unexpected Journey at 48 frames per second rather than the usual 24, to give the film a sharper, more realistic look; this is a first for a feature film. Reactions have varied; some viewers won’t notice, some like the sharper image, and some have found it immensely irritating. It’s codifying the TV motion-smoothing setting Scott Tobias wrote about scathingly back in August by doubling the frame rate in shooting rather than just in playback. But like motion-smoothing, the technique sharpens the picture while producing images that look remarkably video-like and unreal. I saw the film in 48 fps and hated it. To my eyes, it looked like cheap CGI; the higher frame rate has a flattening effect that makes everything look shallower, more pixelated, and more artificial. Even the scenes Jackson shot in real places look like something whipped up in Robert Rodriguez’s trailer. The sharper detail also makes the actual CGI stand out and reveals every little flaw, particularly during the big action scenes where actors are replaced with wireframe dummies. I’d advise skipping the 48 fps version if you can; it’s only being shown in around 450 theaters nationwide, but theaters may not be advertising whether they’re showing the 48 fps version or the regular 24. Whether you love or hate motion-smoothing on your TV, or just can’t tell the difference, it’d be smart to check your local listings or call your local theater and find out which version you’re getting, so you know what to expect.
For thoughts on, and a place to discuss, plot details not talked about in this review, visit The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey’s Spoiler Space.