This will be somewhat of a mixed review, because The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the first of three rather long installments chronicling Bilbo Baggins’ adventure in Middle Earth, is somewhat of a mixed film. I will avoid spoilers for those who haven’t seen it yet and haven’t read the book, though I consider the start safe.
Director Peter Jackson chose to start with a prologue giving the background for this quest, the story of how Erebor, greatest city of the Dwarfs, fell to Smaug the dragon. This is the whole reason for the quest: thirteen dwarfs, the wizard Gandalf and little Bilbo Baggins the quiet, respectable, titular hobbit, go on an adventure to retake the city under the mountain from Smaug. It is not how Tolkien chose to begin the tale, but it worked well enough, though perhaps went on a little too long, and in general prologues seem to work better in film than in print.
What follows is a second prologue clearly aimed at fans of the Lord of the Rings films: Ian Holm’s Bilbo, on the day of his eleventy-first birthday party, is writing it all down for Frodo, who makes a brief appearance before running off to meet Gandalf. This bit is sweet but rather jarring at the same time. The familiar theme music makes an appearance and it feels like we’re going back to the adventures of Middle Earth we are familiar with, but at the same time we’ve got old-Bilbo writing the first line of Tolkien’s book: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit” and so on where Tolkien described for his young readers what a hobbit hole is. It is necessary for a human reader, especially one who has never heard of a hobbit before as was the case with Tolkien’s original audience, but for Bilbo to tell Frodo that a hobbit hole means comfort is redundant.
It is only after that, when the story truly starts with the “good morning” exchange from the book that the story really gets started. The opening scenes are endearing. They demonstrate something of Bilbo’s character and the team cohesion of the dwarfs, but also hint at the tone of the rest of the film: as promised, the Hobbit is more lighthearted than the Lord of the Rings. There are certainly some brilliantly funny moments, and plenty of silly moments that are at the least mildly amusing.
But there is silliness which is less amusing. One particular scene which does not appear in the book was frankly ridiculous. On several occasions luck seemed to play far too large a part to be credible, including the survival of the dwarfs in situations which frankly wouldn’t warrant it. Jackson has tried on such occasions to give too great a sense of peril, so that when the characters survive largely unscathed it all becomes trivial and silly; the peril should be sufficiently large to cause the audience to be anxious, but not large enough that the characters’ survival becomes incredible. One sequence gives the impression that there is a massive gap in skill levels of those who constructed different sections of a wooden walkway, as some breaks like matchsticks while another section remains intact in spite of severe damage.
In fact the film rather lost its way in general after the scene where the characters arrive in Rivendell. It is after this that much of the bad type of silliness appears, and the film’s other major problem, the feeling that it drags rather, has its defining scene.
It comes, perhaps, from trying to make three films, each almost three hours long, from one book. With Lord of the Rings three films worked. There were three books, after all. Three defined acts. Some bits even had to be cut out. With the Hobbit, bits needed to be added in. Not only, as has been stated by the director, bits from the Silmarillion, elements of what is going on in the background with the wizards, the story of Radagast the Brown and the Necromancer, but also, in order to give this film a complete story arc, a new villain, an enemy of Thorin Oakenshield out for revenge. But it doesn’t work. It adds backstory, giving us a flashback not that long after the prologue and making the whole thing drag even more, and it gives us a villain who has no real bearing on the quest at the core of the story. This villain has no link to the main quest, he is quite simply put there as something for the characters to overcome at the end of a section of story that has no real ending, because it’s only a third of the way into the book. So we know from the moment we see this villain in the flashback that he’ll return, that he’ll be the villain and that he’ll be defeated, and because of that he never feels like a threat no matter how much he and the main party act like he is.
Another major problem comes under the name Deus Ex Machina. On several occasions the characters are saved by the timely arrival of usually Gandalf but often others. Some of these certainly are taken right from the book, but they still feel very cheap indeed. One of these from the book was averted by giving Bilbo more credit, which worked well; after all, the hero should get some of the glory, should have some of the answers. But on several occasions it seems as if Gandalf, supposedly a wise and powerful wizard, has run out of spells and ideas and resorts to answers he seems rather fond of, if his other appearance in film is any indication. And while yes, it was done in the book, it doesn’t work in the film; one expects more of a film aimed at adults than a book aimed at children, more imagination, more innovation. Jackson has failed to deliver on this, sacrificing the chance to tell a great story out of devotion to retelling a merely good one.
It’s not all doom and gloom though. Gollum was perfect. Andy Serkis has outdone even his previous performances to deliver a wonderfully rounded and very sinister character that we can nevertheless sympathise with. The game of riddles was so well done, so brilliantly performed – by both characters – that it really made the film, almost making up for its other transgressions.
Then there was the music. Composer Howard Shore has once again pulled out all the stops to bring back to life the world of Middle Earth and give its new characters, the dwarfs, a noble theme. Use of the themes at the right moments gave the film its moods, teasing forth memories of the Lord of the Rings at the right moments, like in the Shire, in Rivendell, and at the Ring’s first appearance, while weaving in the sense of a fresh adventure distinct from that of Frodo and the Fellowship. Music was both well composed and well utilised within the Hobbit.
It is difficult in a film with so many characters who make up the main party, especially in one where most of them are all dwarfs, to give them distinct personalities. But this, I think, was done well. Not all the dwarfs got a lot of screen time or even many lines, but they each had a distinct look and at the least a hint at their personalities. There will undoubtedly be more of this in the next two films, but for the first, it was handled well enough. We see the most, of course, of group leader and rightful king Thorin, but others have had their moments to shine, some with as little as a look, others with a scene to themselves. That is something I look forward to seeing more of.
The character Radagast, not really a player in either the Hobbit or the Lord of the Rings books, has been included as part of the side story. And he is brilliant. His appearance, his mannerism, his charming oddness (not to mention his unusual mode of transport) brought out laughter and keen attention.
As is to be expected from the spiritual successor and chronological prequel of the Lord of the Rings, the Hobbit’s settings and costumes were utterly fantastic. The whole look of the thing, whether it was at the top of one of New Zealand’s most picturesque mountains, in the valleys of yellowy grass, inside a hobbit hole or gazing at the gorgeous Rivendell, everything just looked remarkable, so full of wonder and detail; a real boon to New Zealand’s tourism industry if nothing else, and a triumph of those working hard behind the scenes making the clothes, finding the locations, building the sets.
Overall, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey had a great many admirable, enjoyable and funny elements, but it failed to live up to the hype. It moves too slowly, and perhaps instead of releasing an extended edition as with Lord of the Rings, I would recommend New Line release a Director’s Cut, with the emphasis on the Cut and perhaps without the director doing said cutting (because it looks like he loves this whole thing rather too much to want to cut any of it or to have a good grasp on what to cut if he had to).
I give this film 7/10. It was clearly loved, it looked amazing and it certainly had its moments, but it was too long, too slow and in places too silly to get even close to full marks.