‘The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey’ is the first film of Peter Jackson’s follow-up trilogy to ‘The Lord Of The Rings’. The result is good, where great was expected. It has a lot of the virtues of the previous films, but does not offer a lot that the previous trilogy did not and where it does try to be different, it goes off in the wrong direction. Falling well short of being compelling, at times it really drags. Jackson makes the serious error of expecting that Tolkein’s short novel provides enough material to make into its own trilogy nearly as long as ‘Lord Of The Rings’. Visually it is sometimes amazing, but it is a large troll step down from the last trilogy.
Rating: +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10.
Back in the 1960s, I knew that there were two books about Middle Earth by J. R. R. Tolkein. There was the little one which was basically a children’s story called ‘The Hobbit’. The big one was ‘The Lord Of The Rings’. It was so big that the publisher trisected it into three volumes. Peter Jackson eventually filmed ‘The Lord Of The Rings’ in a trilogy of three long movies. He did a good job. Now he is adapting the little book and with about the same degree of compression it should make one short movie. But ‘The Lord Of The Rings’ was so profitable as three big films, Jackson is doing ‘The Hobbit’ in the same way. It strikes me as overkill. I can say that I am not yet seeing the public enthusiasm for Jackson’s ‘Hobbit’ trilogy that I saw for his ‘Lord Of The Rings’ trilogy. With ‘King Kong’, he showed an unfortunate propensity to go overboard damaging what I still think was a good effort.
The ‘Lord Of The Rings’ trilogy was a triumph, with Jackson giving the film a beautiful look worthy of some of the best fantasy illustrators’ visualizations of Middle Earth. The writing was imperfect, but the viewer was awed by the images put on the screen. That was certainly an accomplishment and it was accomplished. But it cannot be accomplished again but can only be repeated. A repetition is very much what ‘The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey’ is. It is a look at Middle Earth using the same tools that Jackson used to do the first trilogy. The problems with the film in large part come from the need to stretch the short novel over three films and the resulting story suffers from the stretch marks.
The plot of ‘The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey’ is, of course, in large part taken from the book by Tolkein. Bilbo (played by Martin Freeman, Watson in the popular series ‘Sherlock’) wants nothing more than to sit home in comfort. But Galdalf (Sir Ian McKellen) inveigles him in a plan to travel east with thirteen dwarves on a mission to retrieve a great gold treasure that has been stolen by the formidable dragon Smaug. What follows is a series of adventures and battles with fearsome wolves, trolls and orcs as the band travel to Rivendell and the mountains beyond.
There are times the plot stands still for comedy or when the dwarves all join together in a song that really does not further the story and too much of the film is taken up with CGI fights. But the trilogy will probably cover more than eight hours – longer than it takes to read the book – and that time has to be filled somehow. Much of the problem is that the script does not give us any compelling reason to care for the main characters. The mission is to retrieve gold, a much more mercenary purpose than destroying a ring that gives dangerously too much power. Also, the characters are not greatly likeable. In fact, we do not know them at all well. Even Bilbo is only superficially drawn with a few humorous quirks but no real personality. So battles with armies of thousands fighting each other have less emotional impact than a dinner table argument between two people in ‘The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’. Even great computer graphics effects cannot for long substitute for under-written characters. All the action and violence does not matter if the viewer does not care about who has a dog on the fight.
This is not to say that there is not a great deal impressive in the visual imagery. First you have stunning settings mostly provided by New Zealand and you have a lot of fairly creative visual effects. In some cases, the images presented are just too much and too complex to be taken in on one viewing. With action all over the screen, it cannot all be seen without some study. This film offers more visual effects, but not a lot that is creatively new. Some images, like the stone giants, are particularly effective but this film needed to offer the viewer more than just more effects.
As with the pod race of ‘Star Wars I’, sequences intended to be amusing can destroy much of the feel of the film. At one point, we see our heroes using a cable slide. That allows the film to have a great swooping shot. The only problem is that we have never been given any clue that Middle Earth is at a technology level where cable production is possible. If they have the knowledge to produce cable it would have a big impact on the rest of their technology. If they can produce cables, they almost certainly can produce more effective weapons. At some point, someone mentions ‘chips’ as food. In the first trilogy, the hobbits smoked ‘pipe weed’ because Tolkien did not want to use the overly familiar word ‘tobacco’. Various places in the story, people fall hundreds of feet to rocks below them and seem to survive. The original trilogy was much more careful about such things and here they ruin the credibility of the story.
This film is a very mixed bag of good touches and bad ones. I am mostly trying to cover what others are not saying about the film. Those are mostly faults. This film does not have the writing that ‘The Lord Of The Rings’ had. ‘The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey’ is an unexpected step down from ‘Lord Of The Rings’. I rate it a high +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10.
Mark R. Leeper
Copyright 2012 Mark R. Leeper