Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (March 14, 2013)
When he wrapped the Lord of the Rings saga almost a decade ago, it looked like Peter Jackson left behind Middle-earth – as director, at least. While he initially planned to act as producer for an adaptation of The Hobbit - JRR Tolkien’s first novel and the world’s introduction to that fantasy realm– Jackson eventually decided to take over as director.
And he also expanded plans in regard to the length of the adaptation. Although Tolkien’s Hobbit was radically shorter than Lord of the Rings, Jackson chose to film a trilogy that will eventually run about as long as his three Rings films.
This starts with the opening chapter, 2012’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. In a prologue, we see how a dwarf named Thror (Jeffrey Thomas) becomes king of Erebor and leads a long era of prosperity. Eventually Smaug the dragon attacks and despite the best efforts of Thror’s grandson Thorin (Richard Armitage) and others, the creature lays waste to much of the area. The dwarves must flee and Thorin feels bitter when local elves refuse to help their cause.
From there we meet our title character, hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman). He feels content to live in the agrarian Shire, but after much prodding, Gandalf the wizard (Ian McKellen) convinces Bilbo to leave home and go on an adventure. Bilbo will accompany Gandalf and a team of dwarves – including Thorin – on a mission to reclaim their kingdom from Smaug.
And so starts a quest that apparently will take about nine hours to complete. Probably the biggest complaint leveled at Unexpected Journey stems from its length. At 169 minutes, it’s not quite as long as any of the Rings films – the theatrical versions of Fellowship of the Ring and Two Towers were each about 10 minutes longer – but given the nature of the source, the running time caused qualms.
As I alluded earlier, Lord of the Rings boasts about four times as many pages as Hobbit, so the choice to expand the latter to a film franchise with virtually the same running time as the former seems puzzling. Sure, Jackson adds to the tale with bits and pieces of other Tolkien works, but the concerns of fans – many of whom figured Hobbit should’ve been one long movie and that’s it – make sense.
When I went into the Rings films, I did so with little foreknowledge of the series. As I mentioned when I first reviewed Fellowship, I saw the movies before I read the books, and I never viewed any prior adaptations, either. This meant that while I’d picked up on some Tolkien basics over the years, I went into Fellowship with only the most rudimentary understanding of the nature of Middle-earth and its denizens.
Obviously, with multiple viewings of those three movies under my belt – as well as a reading of Rings - I’m much better acquainted with Middle-earth now. Nonetheless, I still haven’t read Hobbit; I may do so after I see the third film in the series, but I’ve made a conscious choice to wait until then.
That’s largely because I want to enjoy/evaluate the three Hobbit movies on their own merits without comparisons to Tolkien’s text. As I mentioned, Jackson expands the original novel with nuggets from other Tolkien works, but I can’t identify the different components.
Speaking as someone without that prior knowledge, I think Journey fits together pretty well. Many folks criticized the film for its alleged padding, but I don’t agree with those thoughts. Are there parts of the movie that don’t appear to be crucial to the plot? Sure, but I can’t find much that I would deem gratuitous; the material blends with the overall narrative in a satisfying way, so even when Journey becomes vaguely indulgent, it remains enjoyable.
Any problems with pacing remain minor. No, I can’t say the movie moves at breakneck speed, but I don’t regard that as a problem. It invests in its characters/settings well and develops them in a satisfying manner.
Another criticism comes from Jackson’s apparent attempt to turn The Hobbit - essentially a light children’s tale – into the operatic high drama of Rings. I can’t argue that point; Jackson reuses pretty much every stylistic trick he developed a decade ago, and the project often adopts a dark tone at odds with the notion of a breezy fable. The movie also can feel like a conscious attempt to create a formal prequel for Rings rather than to leave Hobbit as the standalone tale it is.
While Jackson’s choices may be inconsistent with the source, I think they work fine for the movie itself. Sure, Jackson’s reliance on the same cinematic bag of tricks can get a bit tedious; how many swooping shots of characters on the run can one man stand? Nonetheless, I find the end result to usually come across as engaging and involving, so I won’t complain too much.
A fine cast benefits the film as well, with special praise due to Freeman. He creates a thoroughly well-drawn Bilbo and adds a much needed tone of humanity to all the action and effects. Bilbo could easily get lost along the way – heck, the movie does seem to forget him at times – but Freeman’s performance ensures that the lead character never disappears from our consciousness.
In the end, I understand the many criticisms of Unexpected Journey in the abstract. I get the concerns that a short, fun fable has been turned into something much different, and I comprehend the feeling of déjà vu that comes along the way.
Nonetheless, Unexpected Journey does the trick for me. Whatever liberties it takes with the source – and apparently it takes many – suit the film and help turn it into an entertaining adventure that flies through its 169 minutes quickly. I look forward to the next chapter.
Footnote: for an alternate view, contact my Dad. We went together to see Unexpected Journey theatrically, and although Dad loved the Rings films, he hated this one with a passion.
Somehow this devolved into an argument about the movie in which Jerry the cartoon mouse danced with Gene Kelly; Dad claimed this occurred in An American in Paris while I assured him (correctly) that it was Anchors Aweigh. Because of that detour, I didn’t learn many of the specifics that caused my Dad’s dissatisfaction, but if you get in touch, I’m sure he’ll be happy to tell you!