I saw The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey on opening night, of course, which has given me a month to let the film simmer and reflect upon. Turns out that’s not a positive thing, because the more I think about this first Hobbit film, the more glaringly problematic it becomes and the less I like it. Perhaps most tellingly of all, I can’t shake the feeling Peter Jackson has made a major mistake, or rather several.
Lord of the Rings is neck and neck with Star Wars as my favorite film(s) of all time, while the books are my favorite books of all time. I am a huge Middle Earth junkie, needless to say, and have been greatly anticipating The Hobbit’s cinematic adaptation for years. Things got off to a rollicking good start in April 2008 when Guillermo del Toro was brought onboard to direct. In my mind he is a superior director to Jackson in almost every area, along with being one of my top five personal favorite directors, and I was very much looking forward to what new and different changes he would bring to the table.
Alas, it was not meant to be, as The Hobbit was stuck in development hell over MGM’s bankruptcy woes for years and thus could never be greenlit. This forced del Toro, one of the busiest guys in all of Hollywood, to eventually leave the project in May 2010 because he couldn’t afford to waste more time on something that was going nowhere. In hindsight, this turned out to be an ominous omen of what was to come. Strike one.
Then after filming was complete, Jackson got the bright idea to stretch The Hobbit into a three-part trilogy, which as we all know is only 300 pages in length. Originally envisioned as a two-parter, which would still have been somewhat of a stretch but one bookreaders were willing to accept and I could definitely have seen working, this revised vision pretty much damned The Hobbit before it was released, especially considering how Jackson and company never scripted it that way to begin with. Strike two.
And what do you know? As a pure stand-alone entity, An Unexpected Journey is an outright mess. I can only imagine the reaction from someone who is either unfamiliar with Lord of the Rings or not a fan of the trilogy to begin with. For starters, it’s far too long and with more pacing issues than any of the Lord of the Rings films, all of which were even longer but still flowed much more naturally. This is shocking because since there wasn’t enough good material to split up in the first place, one could have logically deduced these three new films would end up shorter and more manageable as a result, but no. Doubly shocking is there’s still an extended version to come with 20 additional minutes. Shudder.
Instead, almost everything Jackson has added to the film that wasn’t in the original novel, from either Tolkien’s other writings or stuff he made up himself, feels superfluously out of place. There’s several tangents that contribute nothing to the story and only slow things down or make the story unfocused, whether it be the Necromancer stuff, anything involving Radagast, Orc villains or a pointless mountain pass journey.
Everything involving Azog, a newly created Orc chief framed as Thorin’s personal archenemy, is laughably terrible. There’s a reason Tolkien didn’t have something like that in The Hobbit in the first place, because it doesn’t work! Speaking of not working, Jackson must have been using the Star Wars prequels for inspiration because he likewise decided to throw in a bunch of cartoonish and juvenile attempts at humor, which lo and behold fails as well. Chief offense is Radagast, who absolutely has no business being in the theatrical version. He could literally be edited out of the entire film and nothing would miss a single beat.
Finally, Jackson got the equally novel epiphany to shoot in 48 fps, which has backfired on him in a big way. The reaction has been almost universally panned and harsh from the first time he screened footage at CinemaCon. The response was so poor I didn’t dare venture to see it in the format myself, lest I risk tarnishing Middle Earth further. It’s almost a guarantee the lukewarm reviews would have been much kinder if it had only been shown in the traditional 24 frames.
Yet in spite of all the narrative deficiencies and cartoonish elements, The Hobbit still manages to do several things well. It still feels like Middle Earth, for one, which is an accomplishment in and of itself, and it was very welcome to set foot in the beloved land once again. The performances are solid, too. Martin Freeman as the new Bilbo fits right in, though despite being the title character, he isn’t given much substantial to do. Richard Armitage as Thorin is the only other new character to stand out in a good way, however, as unfortunately most of his dwarf brethren blend together and have trouble differentiating themselves.
It was nice to see a few familiar faces as well, namely Ian McKellen, wonderful as always as Gandalf, yet the unequivocal highlight was the return of Andy Serkis as Gollum. The game of riddles between him and Bilbo is far and away the best stretch in An Unexpected Journey. Those 15 minutes are a brilliant delight in every fashion and the only scene that feels like it could hold its own to the best Lord of the Rings had to offer.
While The Hobbit as a whole is competently told, the flaws stick out the most and serve a stark contrast to its award-winning predecessors. As previously mentioned, it doesn’t really work as a stand-alone film, something the Rings entries actually could do, especially An Unexpected Journey’s narrative cousin, Fellowship of the Ring. However, it does a decent enough job at setting the stage for what is to come. If in hindsight the two sequels turn out to be amazing, it will be much easier to pardon the starting line faults.
Unfortunately, the odds are against Jackson this time, considering almost everything added to the first one were the weakest parts. In the end, The Hobbit simply doesn’t function efficiently as its own trilogy, plain and simple. I would love to be proven wrong, but this Hobbit project has seemingly been doomed from the start. At this point, the final strikeout might be too inevitable to avoid.