First Film In "Hobbit" Trilogy Does Little With A Lot

The hero of “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” the diminutive Bilbo Baggins, is most easily identified by his shortness. The film he inhabits? Not so much. Ten years after his technically masterful “Lord Of The Rings” trilogy, writer-director Peter Jackson has returned to the Shire, adapting the beloved “Rings” precursor, “The Hobbit,” into a prequel of sorts. Three, in fact. Jackson’s love for all things J.R.R. Tolkien has never been questioned, nor have the stunning visuals of his films. But his passion has repeatedly cost him in the editing room, from his cumbersome “King Kong” remake to extended cuts of the “Rings” films, all of which were already three hours long. Unsurprisingly, the world groaned when Jackson announced he was expanding his vision for “The Hobbit” from two films into three, and the first film in the series does nothing to assuage those apprehensions.

Die-hard J.R.R. Tolkien fans will love the movie. Let’s get that out of the way. Jackson leaves no stone unturned, going out of his way to appease those, like himself, who’ve made the books an important part of their lives. He’s even taken liberties in expanding Tolkien’s universe, including characters and story beats that weren’t in the book. Ian Holm returns as an elder Bilbo, penning his memoirs for his favorite relative, Frodo (Elijah Wood). Soon, we’re entrenched in a time gone by, featuring Bilbo as a young man (Martin Freeman) being sought by Gandalf the Grey (reprised by Ian McKellen) for a dangerous adventure. Bilbo has built a comfortably boring life for himself, so he’s hesitant to join a troupe of rough-and-tumble dwarves and a cagey Wizard for a journey he can’t even begin to imagine.

Martin Freeman is terrific as Bilbo, his range far surpassing that of Elijah Wood in what’s essentially the same role. Freeman gives Bilbo a real sense of internal conflict between his love of the Shire and his gut feeling that’s he meant for something more. McKellen’s work is just as strong as it was ten years ago, and he seems to be having a lot of fun with a different iteration of this well-worn character. Richard Armitage as the mighty Thorin Oakenshield is the only dwarf that gets any kind of backstory (he’s seeking to take back a mountain from a dragon, Smaug), but he strikes the right notes with a limited amount of dialogue. Andy Serkis’ return as the motion-cap creation, Gollum, is the highlight of the film, as he and Bilbo go head to head in a battle of wits near the film’s climax. Also returning are Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), Saruman (Christopher Lee), and Elrond (Hugo Weaving).

The cast is uniformly good, which continues to be no small feat considering the amount of green screen involved and the heightened nature of the material. Unfortunately, the narrative is meandering, loose-fitting, and occasionally, absent altogether. Large portions of the film are devoted to mindless action with no real weight (we already know that most of these characters survive these events), and the special effects aren’t as special anymore. The cinematic landscape has changed significantly in the last decade, and the onslaught of CGI-based entertainment has degraded the art form to the point that its charm has largely worn off. Instead of thrilling, it’s exhausting. Spectacle – rightfully or not – isn’t enough anymore. Audiences have become wise to all the magic tricks, rejecting them when there isn’t enough of a story to back them up. Hence, “An Unexpected Journey” is crippled by its rickety storytelling.

Even the original “Rings” trilogy was intermittently unfriendly to outsiders. Yes, it’s important to capture the spirit of your source material, but it’s also essential that your audience not be required to know the source material to enjoy the film. This “Journey” isn’t hard to follow like its predecessors, but suffers from just the opposite – it has far too little to offer for moviegoers that don’t live and breathe Tolkien. I read “The Hobbit” in seventh grade so my memory of it is hazy, but Jackson’s tangents were plenty obvious, like that of the zany Radagast the Brown. A little research confirmed to me that Radagast was not, in fact, a major player in the book. His role in the film is probably a treat for fans, but for the purposes of the screenplay, it’s a disaster.

However, some of the visuals help to redeem the underwhelming story, such as an amazing sequence in which Bilbo and company are rescued by giant eagles. Also, the endpoint feels much more natural than you’d expect from a duo of films that was recently turned into a trio. Whether you enjoy the film or not, it’s clear that the dichotomy of Peter Jackson’s filmmaking skills remains as striking as ever. He’s as strong a director as you’ll find, but in insisting on directing his own screenplays (this time co-written by his partner, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and original director, Guillermo del Toro), his efforts to filter or self-edit – assuming there were any – remain fruitless. He’s never directed someone’s else’s writing, but if he ever decides to, his considerable skills behind the camera would likely shine brighter than ever before. For now, he’s given us another serviceable Tolkien adaptation – this one as polarizing as the 3D glasses handed out before each screening.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Mediocre)

Release Date: December 14, 2012
Studio: New Line Cinema (Warner Bros. Pictures)
Director: Peter Jackson
Screenwriter: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Guillermo del Toro, Peter Jackson
Starring: Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Cate Blanchett, Orlando Bloom, Ian Holm, Christopher Lee, Hugo Weaving, Elijah Wood, Evangeline Lilly, Andy Serkis, Richard Armitage, John Bell, Jed Brophy, Adam Brown, John Callen, Luke Evans, Stephen Fry, Ryan Gage, Mark Hadlow, Peter Hambleton, Barry Humphries, Stephen Hunter, William Kircher, Sylvester McCoy, Bret McKenzie, Graham McTavish, Mike Mizrahi, James Nesbitt, Dean O’Gorman, Lee Pace, Mikael Persbrandt, Conan Stevens, Ken Stott, Jeffrey Thomas, Aidan Turner, Billy Connolly
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence, and frightening images)