The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012) **½
Let me begin by reminding you that I was the guy who thought the smart way to adapt The Lord of the Rings to the screen was to make one (probably quite long) movie that would tell a ruthlessly streamlined version of the story. It should therefore go without saying that I was not pleased to hear that Peter Jackson’s follow-up interpretation of The Hobbit was to be split not merely into two films (like the terminal installments in the Harry Potter and Twilight series), but into a whole second trilogy. A lot of stuff happens in The Hobbit, I grant you, but it isn’t a long book by any stretch of the imagination. For the record, the first of Jackson’s Hobbit movies, An Unexpected Journey, covers the events of the novel’s first 115 pages. I re-read the relevant portion of the book before heading out to the theater; it took me about the same time to read Tolkien’s version as to watch Jackson’s.
You would be justified in asking how the hell that’s even possible. It takes longer to describe something in words than to show it, so how did Jackson manage to spin 115 pages of text out into three hours of motion picture? The solution to the mystery is that Jackson isn’t just filming The Hobbit here— he’s making a tripartite prequel to his Lord of the Rings. Consequently, he’s larding the book’s fairly straightforward narrative with material drawn from The Lord of the Rings itself. To some extent, that means showing incidents that were mentioned in passing in the dialogue of Jackson’s earlier films. To another extent, it means revisiting past events that were described in Tolkien’s narration, but rightly dropped from the movie scripts as unnecessary and distracting. And to some third extent, it means incorporating stuff from the nerdy historical, genealogical, and linguistic appendices at the back of The Return of the King, to which Tolkien had banished centuries’ worth of back-story that was of dubious direct relevance to the tale of Sauron’s thwarted second coming, but that he’d on worked too long and hard to bear letting it remain unknown to his readers. Obviously it’s too early yet to judge the full effect (and the example of the first three Middle Earth movies suggests that Jackson might work some of the bugs out as he goes along), but in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the primary results of all the switching between main plot and Lord of the Rings setup are tonal confusion and lack of focus.
Let us begin with the parts of this movie that actually derive from The Hobbit. Hobbits, you will recall, are short, hairy-footed, incorrigibly petit-bourgeois creatures akin to humans, who dwell meercat-like in a village of subterranean holes called the Shire. The Hobbit of the title is Bilbo Baggins (generally played by Martin Freeman, from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Shaun of the Dead, although Ian Holm [who played Bilbo in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring] returns for the rather pointless prologue set on the morning of his 111th birthday). Bilbo is incorrigibly petit-bourgeois even by Hobbit standards, but some of his ancestors were rather less respectable than he aspires to be. One forebear in the maternal line was so disreputable as to take part in wars and quests and whatnot! And truth be told, Bilbo himself took after his mother’s side of the family somewhat when he was a lad. All that goes some way toward explaining why it’s Bilbo’s burrow where the Wandering Wizard, Gandalf the Gray (Ian McKellan once again), drops in looking for someone to participate in an adventure. Bilbo protests that he’s outgrown any interest in such things, but Gandalf is clearly not persuaded. He says he’ll be back at suppertime, and he stealthily scratches a strange symbol on Bilbo’s door before he leaves.
Gandalf does not come alone to keep his appointment. His arrival is preceded by that of a sizable band of Dwarves: Balin (The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian’s Ken Stott), Dwalin (Graham McTavish, from Penance and The Wicker Tree), Kili (Adrian Turner), Fili (Dean O’Gorman, from Young Hercules and The Legend of Bloody Mary), Oin (John Callam), Gloin (Peter Hombleton), Bifur (William Kircher), Bofur (Outcast’s James Nesbit), Bombur (Stephen Hunter), Ori (Adam Brown), Dori (Mark Hadlow, of Battletruck and King Kong), and Nori (Jed Brophy, from District 9 and Heavenly Creatures), all of them interrelated to one degree or another. The unexpected (and frankly unwelcome) guests were drawn to Bilbo’s hole by that mark Gandalf placed on the door. Apparently it’s an underworld sign advertising a burglar seeking work. The whole situation is baffling in the extreme, so far as the Hobbit is concerned, but explanations will have to wait until the arrival of the Dwarves’ leader, Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage, who’s really much too pretty to be playing a Dwarf).
Right, then— exposition time. Ages and ages ago, Thorin’s clan established itself in the network of caverns beneath Erebor, the Lonely Mountain, far off in the east, and converted them into a thriving mining colony. The ground under Erebor was heavily freighted with precious stones and metals, and the Dwarves quickly became wealthy beyond all calculation. The trouble with incalculable wealth is that it tends to inspire greed and envy among onlookers, and few onlookers can be as greedy or as envious as a dragon. During the reign of Thorin’s grandfather, Thror (Jeffrey Thomas), a dragon called Smaug attacked Erebor, slaughtered most of the King Under the Mountain’s subjects, and made a lair of their erstwhile home; he also incinerated the nearby human settlement of Dale while he was at it. At first, the displaced Dwarves found refuge in Moria, another major Dwarfish mining kingdom, but those who remember that name from The Fellowship of the Ring will also recall what eventually happened there. Thror was slain during the Goblin Wars by the Orcish chieftain, Azog the Defiler (Manu Bennett, from 30 Days of Night and Sinbad and the Minotaur), and his son, Thrain (Hercules in the Underworld’s Michael Mizraki), took up the exile crown. Now the symbolic title of King Under the Mountain belongs to Thorin, and he’s looking to make it mean something practical again. That “adventure” Gandalf spoke of was a quest to reclaim the Lonely Mountain from Smaug, and to reinstate the Dwarves in Erebor. Dwarves, however, are apparently as superstitious as they are pig-headed and belligerent, because Thorin and his people are hung up on the luck ramifications of marching a party of thirteen off on such an undertaking. That’s where Bilbo comes in— and on a more practical front, his presence will also mean that there’ll be somebody on Thorin’s team whose instinctive first approach to any situation isn’t “Grr! Dwarf smash!”
That’s the plan, anyway. The trouble is, Bilbo was never consulted about that plan, and he’s of the opinion that it’s bullshit. He’s no burglar, whatever the hell that’s supposed to mean in the present context, and he sure as fuck isn’t running off to fight any dragons. The Dwarves, for their part, think it’s bullshit that he thinks it’s bullshit. If he’s no burglar, then why did he post that sign on his door? What is he— some kind of coward? Obviously the argument is eventually resolved, and resolved on terms that put Bilbo in the Dwarves’ caravan when they ride off eastward the next day. Still, the Dwarves remain skeptical of his value, Thorin especially. But as the challenges mount— first a band of Trolls, then captivity in the underground domain of the Great Goblin (Barry Humphries, of Pterodactyl Woman from Beverly Hills and Howling III: The Marsupials), and finally a regiment of Goblin wolf-cavalry commanded by the Dwarves’ old pal, Azog the Defiler— it becomes increasingly apparent that Mr. Baggins is worth more than either his appearance or his demeanor would suggest. Bilbo’s greatest exploit happens out of his companions’ sight, however. While the Dwarves are in the Goblin king’s clutches, and Gandalf is busy trying to figure out how to rescue them, the Hobbit runs afoul of a twisted and insane creature called Gollum (Andy Serkis, walking away with the whole movie as he is wont to do), and emerges from a high-stakes riddle contest against him not merely with his life, but with a magic ring that turns the wearer invisible. Those who are familiar with the preceding three films will already know the long-term significance of that prize.
As for the extraneous material, most of it concerns the contamination of Greenwood Forest (subsequently to be renamed Mirkwood) by evil forces associated with a mysterious figure known as the Necromancer of Dol Guldur (Benedict Cumberbatch). That loathsome fellow is discovered by Gandalf’s mushroom- and pipeweed-addled fellow wizard, Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy, who played the sort-of title role on “Dr. Who” from 1987 to 1989), and much time is given over to the question of who he is and what he signifies. What Tolkien’s The Hobbit treated as an uneventful sojourn at the home of the Elf-lord Elrond (still Hugo Weaving) thus becomes in the movie the occasion for a heated conference among Gandalf, Elrond, the Elf-princess Galadriel (Cate Blanchet again), and the arch-wizard Saruman the White (Christopher Lee once more), in which Gandalf attempts to convince his skeptical superior that the Necromancer is or represents a power worth worrying about.
The trouble with treating The Hobbit as a prequel to The Lord of the Rings, instead of as a free-standing story set in the same universe, is that the two books could hardly be more different with regard to tone, perspective, and emphasis. The Hobbit was an adventure tale aimed mainly at children, whereas the Rings saga was written in conscious imitation of the ancient and Medieval epics. The former is first and foremost the story of a single central character, whereas the latter encompasses many points of view. And most importantly, The Hobbit is about people of comparatively little power, who triumph over immense odds through guile and ingenuity. There’s an element of that to The Lord of the Rings, certainly, but after the first volume, it is overshadowed by all the clashing armies, worlds hanging in the balance, and that sort of thing. To intertwine the two stories as Jackson does here requires assimilating one to the other. Since the Rings movies came first, it makes sense that Jackson’s The Hobbit would bend in their direction, but the reconciliation is never fully successful, and it sacrifices much of what makes The Hobbit, in my assessment, the more interesting and appealing of the novels.
The easiest way to see how An Unexpected Journey suffers from its attempt to split the difference is to examine its handling of the Goblins. In theory, the Goblins of The Hobbit and the Orcs of The Lord of the Rings are the same species; one book simply prefers the human name while the other prefers the Elvish. Yeah, well Cruella De Ville and Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS, belong to the same species, too. The Goblins are clearly villains, and they’re certainly supposed to be scary, but they’re supposed to be kid-scary. The Orcs, however, are supposed to be grownup-scary. In An Unexpected Journey, Jackson gives us both kinds, and it’s very disorienting. The Great Goblin and his subjects go in for a whimsical sort of evil (so, for that matter, do the three Trolls earlier on), and as befits that portrayal, they’re rather cartoonish in appearance, vocal characterization, and so on. Azog the Defiler and his followers, on the other hand, are unmistakably Orcs. They’re all business when it comes to Dwarf-slaying (no songs about birds and fir trees here!), and unlike the Great Goblin’s people, they look and sound like they belong in the real world (or at least a real world) instead of lying in wait beneath the bed of an imaginative child. Having them both in the same movie really doesn’t work, especially when they’re meant to be the same thing.
Another weakness which An Unexpected Journey owes to Jackson’s determination to tie the Hobbit movies as securely as possible to The Lord of the Rings is its great surfeit of needless battle scenes. In Tolkien’s telling, The Hobbit involved remarkably little hacking and slashing. Part of that might have been due to its intended audience, but it also makes good narrative sense, since at no point are the protagonists ever not greatly outmatched by their enemies of the moment. It would have been stupid of Thorin and company to go charging, swords swinging, into the campsite of the Trolls, for example, and they’re so badly outnumbered in the Goblins’ lair that fighting their way out would be an obvious absurdity. But especially coming after the action-packed Return of the King, a Hobbit movie with as little mayhem as the first third of the book might have struck film audiences as a major letdown. So once again, I can understand why Jackson made the changes he did. Nevertheless, when his Dwarves do go charging into the Troll camp with swords swinging, and do fight their way out of Goblinville despite odds that obviously spell certain death, the principal result is to make the protagonists look like hot-headed fools, and to make the filmmakers look like great, big cheaters for letting the hot-headed fools survive at all. Meanwhile, there’s no mistaking the arbitrary nature of the extra battles, which are wedged in here, there, and everywhere with little regard for narrative flow.
Against all that, the main things The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey has in its favor are tremendous production design and an incredible cast. Both have been hallmarks of Jackson’s Middle Earth movies since the beginning (although the production design was somewhat inconsistent until The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers), so there are no surprises here on either front. An Unexpected Journey is a beautiful movie, and once again a fine travel advertisement for New Zealand, where the great bulk of it was filmed. Ian McKellan, Christopher Lee, Hugo Weaving, and especially Andy Serkis are as great here as you remember from the earlier movies, and the new folks put in performances of a piece with theirs, even if most of the thirteen Dwarves sort of blur together. Another small positive— indeed, a small improvement over even the best of the Rings movies— is that the comedy bits in this film are better integrated with the more serious material surrounding them. I still think turning The Hobbit into three three-hour movies was a terrible idea, but so far it’s shaping up to be a terrible idea reasonably well executed.