The final installment of the Lord of the Rings trilogy is now ten years old, and it has not been forgotten. Many would still hold that the Rings movies are some of the greatest films of all time, so when Peter Jackson announced that he would be making a two-part movie of The Hobbit, the crowds went wild, and for good reason. Jackson had already proved he could masterfully handle beloved source material and make it into a film trilogy for the ages, so how could he possibly fail us with another by the very same J.R.R. Tolkien? Well, he could have made it into a trilogy… oh wait. He did that. Although The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey boasts many outstanding strengths, its shortcomings also abound much to its detriment.
To its credit, the film is fantastically acted. Martin Freeman’s performance as Bilbo is practically perfect, and the thirteen dwarves are all very well-acted as well despite their lack of individual development. The lead dwarf Thorin (Richard Armitage) and his right-hand dwarf Balin (Ken Stott) manage to stand out as particularly memorable characters, though. Returning cast members Ian McKellan (as the wizard Gandalf) and Andy Serkis (as the pitiful Gollum) also put forth their finest efforts for the film much to everyone’s great delight. In fact, the Riddles in the Dark scene with Bilbo and Gollum is so sharp and funny that it just might be one of my favorite scenes in movie history.
One of the main flaws of the film is simply the nature of it- the first part of a trilogy of lengthy films based on relatively brief source material. Take into account the fact that this film is as long as Fellowship of the Ring, and Fellowship itself is probably twice as long as the whole Hobbit book, and you get a film that’s simply way too long. An extra storyline involving a bloodthirsty, vengeful, pale orc called Azog the Defiler has been added in, but all this character does to the movie is make it much longer than necessary. Presumably this blood-feud will last throughout all three films, so I can only expect that Jackson and co. have bitten off a longer running time than they can chew for Desolation of Smaug as well. A quirky wizard named Radagast (Sylvester McCoy), who was not in the book, also makes an appearance and gets some unnecessary screentime as an ultimately silly and pointless character, which brings me to my next point.
When I watch this film, I can never figure out if I’m supposed to think of it as a movie for kids or adults. One minute you have a flashback of Azog holding up a dead dwarf’s severed head, and the next you’re forced to sit through an almost painful scene with the goofy and absurd-looking goblin king in the Misty Mountains. It’s obvious that the crew wanted the film to feel consistent with the Rings films it’s so closely related to, but that seriousness and grit is frequently compromised by silliness and triteness. I presume Jackson wanted those kinds of touches because Tolkien did, in fact, have a younger audience in mind for The Hobbit than he did for Lord of the Rings, but the mood of the film is so inconsistent that it just doesn’t work. The genuine humor from the Rings films is also present here (again, I must refer to the Riddles in the Dark scene), but looking at the big picture, it’s too often thrown off balance by the trite goofiness.
The film’s “mood swings” are also bolstered by the fact that Jackson takes great pains to make at least a dozen obvious nod-offs to the Rings films. At first it truly does feel endearing, like when Bilbo begins telling Frodo his story or when Gandalf hits his head on the chandelier in Bag End, but by the time Gandalf summons the eagles via “carrier moth,” they’re definitely pushing it. It’s as though one of Jackson’s goals for this film was to constantly remind the audience of how awesome the Rings films were, and in the process the film struggles to find an identity of its own.
There is much to be said for the heart of the film, though. Despite all its flaws, there’s still a grand sense of wonder and trepidation at the prospect of such an adventure that the book conveyed, which consistently keeps the movie exciting. I also enjoyed the fact that some of the dwarves, especially Thorin, accepted Biblo at first merely out of necessity, but later come to realize that he truly is an invaluable part of their company as he proves himself to be both clever and self-sacrificing. Most of the larger character developments still have yet to come, though, which makes this first piece of the story feel all the more incomplete for those who love the book.
There truly is an awful lot to say about The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. It’s fun, brilliantly acted, and full of a grand sense of adventure, but it’s also riddled with flaws. Some might say that the source material has been marred almost beyond recognition, and their accusations would be well-grounded, especially because the story has been so forcefully elongated over three almost three-hour movies and this first film doesn’t seem to go very far. But what is impressive about this first film is that despite its many issues, it remains thoroughly enjoyable for the most part, and for that I can still recommend that Rings fans at least give it a shot if they haven’t already. Here’s to hoping that these problems will be alleviated in Desolation of Smaug, and that come Friday we’re in for a more finely tuned treat than we were given last year.