The Hobbit an Unexpected Unpromising Start

Better advice: Save the money and see it in 2D (or don't bother at all). 

Directed by Peter Jackson
New Line Cinema/MGM, 169 mins. PG-13 (for beheaded orcs)
* *

I devoured everything J. R. R. Tolkien ever wrote about Middle Earth (including The Silmarillion) and I’m also a fan of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films (one of the few DVD sets I actually own). For filmmakers, though, prequels are tricky business. Just ask George Lucas, whose three Star Wars prequels failed to generate the enthusiasm of parts IV, V, and VI, which were released nearly two decades earlier. Peter Jackson is the latest director to toss aside caution, and perhaps he shouldn’t have done so. Although The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, part one of his three-part adaptation of Tolkien’s 1937 novel, is cleaning up at the box office, it’s no Lord of the Rings. In fact, it’s not a very good film at all. Unless Jackson has something quite different in the can for parts two and three, it’s hard to imagine that the critical reviews of part one will help the box office for what comes next.

The first problem is one of padding. The Hobbit was a single contained book of just 388 pages. In order to make this into a trilogy, Jackson has added touches from other Tolkien writings on Middle Earth. Alas, much of this material is for devotees only, the sort of hardcore stuff that’s analogous to inventing an entire Klingon language for Star Trek über fans. You will, for instance, be introduced to twelve dwarves–too many for most viewers to absorb and more than anyone needs to know about. The salient fact is that they are a small band intent upon restoring Erebor, the dwarf kingdom conquered by the dragon Smaug. So let’s just form the fellowship and move on, shall we?

Jackson doesn’t. He opens with a sequel to his prequel–an aged Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) busily finishing the memoir of his youthful adventure–The Hobbit–for his nephew Frodo before he disappears from The Shire. Sound familiar? It’s taken from The Fellowship of the Ring, part one of the Lord of the Rings (LOR) trilogy. Finally we flash back in time and see Gandalf (Ian McKellen) attempting to convince a youthful and reluctant Bilbo (Martin Freeman) to forsake his comfortable hobbit home and stuffed larder to undertake an adventure.

Soon we encounter the film’s second problem: tone. LOR was fantasy for older readers, but The Hobbit was originally meant for children. So how does one target the film? As the opening drama for what is ultimately a grander one, or as a cartoonish children’s story? Jackson tries to have it both ways and it doesn’t work. He introduces Bilbo to the dwarves by having them invade his home and clear out his well-stocked pantry in a hedonistic evening of gluttony, drunkenness, and burping. I wondered if Terry Gilliam co-directed, as these scenes played as they were outtakes from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The dwarves are supposed to be fierce fighters, but our first impression of the barrel-chested, pint-sized sons of Erebor is that they are a cross between Snow White’s companions and The Three Stooges (x4).

Equally trite is the story of Gandalf’s wizard colleague Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy), the protector of Mirkwood. He’s St. Francis by way Dr. Doolittle and a Summer of Love acid test. He tends a forest of cute animals including–and I kid you not–a team of speedster rabbits that pull his land sledge at rocket velocity.

Then we get more padding, including a trip to Rivendell to meet the elves and experience the enchantments of Galadriel (Cate Blanchett). What isn’t padding or background is wall-to-wall ambushes and battle scenes. Pick your Middle Earth villains–trolls, goblins, wargs, orcs–and they are all here, including the Pale One, a mutant super orc thought to have been mortally wounded by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) after the orc killed his grandfather.

The battle scenes are spectacular, but they also flunk the plausibility test, even for sci-fi and fantasy. It’s easy to see why the LOR fellowship will ultimately triumph over evil–any dark power that relies upon orcs and goblins for its army is doomed to fail. They are so inept that, in one scene, our Erebor-bound band of 14 manages to rout thousands of them in a single go on their own home turf! An Unexpected Journey only takes us to Bilbo’s discovery of the ring, his first encounter with Gollum (Andy Sirkis), and a draw showdown with the Pale One. Quite a bit remains, and we didn’t really get a lot of story for a nearly three-hour-long film.

So how about the cool special effects? These and the battle scenes are often thrilling, but so too are car chases in run-of-the-mill mob films that induce similar sensations for far less money. Plus, we’ve already seen these in LOR. What about the 3D? My advice: don’t bother. It’s nothing you’ve not already seen in other 3D movies and the glasses dramatically darken the picture. Rivendell should be viewed in full light. It is a CGI marvel of the first magnitude. (I can attest from experience that the few bits of actual New Zealand landscape for Rivendell come from one of the most nondescript parks in the entire country!)  How about the acting? McKellen and Sirkis are fine, but they could do Gandalf and Gollum in their sleep and sometimes do. Freeman is easily the best thing in the movie, but even he has trouble redeeming some of the paste-up performances from the dwarves. And, if I might, Armitage’s portrayal of Thorin Oakenshield is particularly wooden!

In all, not a promising start, though I suppose we can thank Jackson for not tossing in any Jar-Jar Binks characters. The tale will continue. But should it? Sometimes it’s best to rest on one’s laurels. --Rob Weir

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