I am sorry to report that I was disappointed by The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the first installment of Peter Jackson’s film trilogy based on J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit.
Jackson’s first mistake was trying to make a trilogy at all. The Hobbit is shorter than any of the three volumes of The Lord of the Rings. Thus its story could have been told completely and satisfyingly in a single movie of around two hours.
While The Lord of the Rings movies are long, they are actually in many ways masterworks of dramatic compression. To make The Hobbit into a trilogy, however, Jackson has attempted a masterwork of dramatic padding. Unfortunately, there is no such thing as a masterwork of dramatic padding.
There are three main types of padding in this movie: (1) slow and boring sequences, (2) fast and lame sequences, and (3) additions to the text.
The first 30 minutes of the movie have a particularly slow and padded feel. It is as if Jackson decided simply to use the book as a script.
Later in the movie, we get a lot of quick and lame padding: chase scenes, battle scenes, scenes of people falling and holding on for dear life, scenes of people falling hundreds or thousands of feet, again and again, and then bouncing back into action, as indestructible as Wile E. Coyote. It is supposed to be exciting. But it is so overdone that it becomes tedious and farcical. (There was a bit of this kind of padding in The Return of the King, e.g., as Sam, Frodo, and Gollum climbed the secret stairs into Mordor, and near the end when they reach Mount Doom.)
The extra-textual padding comes from other works by Tolkien, such as the Appendices of The Lord of the Rings. These Appendices provide some context for The Hobbit, and if they had been used judiciously, they could have added more than just starch and filler. But in Jackson’s hands, all they amount to is a series of contrived and jarring cameos from characters from The Lord of the Rings.
Only four characters from The Hobbit actually reappear in The Lord of the Rings: Gandalf, Bilbo Baggins, Elrond, and Gollum. But in this movie, we also see Frodo, the aged Bilbo played by Ian Holm (although he actually looked like somebody else made up like Ian Holm), Saruman, and Galadriel. The wizard Radagast, who is only mentioned in the novel, is written into the story and given quite an extensive role.
The trouble with all this padding is that the basic plot of The Hobbit feels a little padded as it is, with a one-damn-thing-after-another feel to it.
Jackson’s second mistake is that he failed to strike the right tone for the movie. The Hobbit was written for teens and young adults. The Lord of the Rings virtually defined fantasy literature for grownups. The Hobbit is a fairy tale, whereas The Lord of the Rings is mythic and epic. Like every fairy tale, The Hobbit does touch upon serious themes, but they are treated in a light and farcical way. The Lord of the Rings is far more serious and sublime and moving. Jackson should have remained faithful to the storyline of The Hobbit, but he should also have teased out and amplified its serious elements, to unify it with The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Jackson does try to do this, but he also turns the farcical elements up to 11, and junks the story up with extra-textual elements, giving the whole movie a diffuse and strangely schizophrenic feel.
I did somehow manage to enjoy this movie. It got better as it went on. I do recommend it. It is Tolkien, after all. If you love Tolkien like I do, you’ve already seen it anyway.
I have touched on the bad parts. The best parts include the encounter with the three trolls, which is genuinely funny, and Bilbo’s encounter with Gollum, which is pure magic.
Martin Freeman was well-cast as the younger Bilbo, and his performance is as good as Jackson allows, getting better and better as the movie picks up its pace. The same is true of Ian McKellen’s Gandalf. As for the 13 dwarves, you can hardly develop so many characters. Richard Armitage is a charismatic Thorin Oakenshield, Ken Stott is an extremely likable Balin, and Aiden Turner as Kíli is the Legolas of this trilogy, probably the world’s first dwarf sex symbol. (None of the dwarves are played by actual dwarf actors, apparently.)
The music by Howard Shore was beautiful, as were the sets and costumes and landscapes (although the over-use of pastels gave many scenes the creepy, cloying tweeness of parts of The Lovely Bones). The special effects, particularly the monsters, were breath-taking.
Like The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit is completely free of any anti-white ideology. Everything about this movie is a celebration of whiteness, with a particular emphasis on Nordic and Celtic myth, culture, and art.
But somehow, overall, the magic is lacking. This is The Hobbit as brought to us by the director of King Kong and The Lovely Bones rather than of The Lord of the Rings. Peter Jackson was certainly capable of making a great movie of The Hobbit, but I believe that he simply lacked faith in the material. Let us hope that the next two movies are much more tightly edited and properly pitched, so that this one is merely an anomaly, merely Peter Jackson’s equivalent of The Phantom Menace.