As it stands, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a thoroughly engaging, often rip-roaring, old school yarn. It's got scope, excitement, and above all, emotional heft.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected JourneyDirector: Peter Jackson
Cast: Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Ian McKellen, Andy Serkis, Ken Stott, Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett, Graham McTavish, James Nesbitt, Stephen Hunter, Dean O'Gorman, Aidan Hunter
Studio: New Line Cinema
US date: 2012-12-14 (General release)
UK date: 2012-12-13 (General release)
From the moment it (finally) ended, fans frothed over the idea of Peter Jackson taking on the rest of Tolkien's literary world. The New Zealand auteur, previously best known for his outrageous horror films, had successfully translated the mammoth Lord of the Rings into a trio of terrific films, earning billions of dollars, numerous accolades, and several Oscars in the process. So why wouldn't Jackson want to take on The Hobbit, the famed "kiddie novel" that started it all? Well, for one thing, he didn't want to be pigeon-holed as a fantasy filmmaker solely. Also, the idea of taking on another massive moviemaking project just didn't appeal to the director. He was tired. So he handed over the challenge to friend Guillermo Del Toro - and the countdown to the Mexican geek maverick's take on Bilbo Baggins and his trek through Middle Earth began...
Except, something odd happened on the way to the Lonely Mountain. Citing scheduling concerns and a true lack of commitment from the studios (there was also some legal maneuvering involved), Del Toro dropped out. Hoping to salvage things, Jackson reluctantly took his place. Expanding the narrative to encompass as much of Tolkien's world as possible, the now three part Hobbit hits theaters with the smack of good intentions and quite a bit of "been there, done that." While the tone is more cartoony and less somber than the travels of the famed One Ring, Jackson still delivers the spectacle. But there is also a lesson to be learned in this epic, a version of the classic "less is more" that perhaps, given the circumstances and situations before, fell on deaf, if determined, ears.
Everyone knows the basic story - Bilbo Baggins (an engaging Martin Freeman) is approached by the wizard Gandolf (Ian McKellen) to join a band of dwarves on their excursion to the aforementioned locale. Seems the evil dragon Smaug has driven out the indigenous populace, dethroned the ruling family, and is living there, protecting a large horde of gold. Thorin (Richard Armitage), grandson of the former ruler, wants his kingdom back, but has issues with how to go about it. He hates Elves (they did not lift a finger to help his father or their people) and he is unsure how his band of brothers will conquer a huge, fire-breathing beast. Bilbo reluctantly agrees to come along as a "thief" and the party eventually finds itself trapped in the Misty Mountains. There, our tiny hero encounters Gollum (Andy Serkis) a deformed creator who is obsessed with a shiny gold 'object.' In addition, a one-armed Orc known as Azog the Defiler has a score to settle with Thorin, and won't rest until he is defeated...or dead.
Yes, some of the above narrative will be very unfamiliar to those who suffered through (or savored) their Junior High/High School experience with Tolkien's famed flight of fancy. Packed with leftovers from when Del Toro was in charge (Battling stone giants? Really?) and creaking under the weight of its expanded story, The Hobbit; An Unexpected Journey is, none the less, a pretty terrific film. It doesn't have the newness of Jackson's original Middle Earth vision, and there is a whole lotta 'nothing to prove' here. Clearly, the filmmaker feels entitled, capable of doing anything he wants - and with the box office he's already banked in the name of fairy stories more or less guarantees same. That he takes it to a bit of an extreme, overloading his movie with moments that would have otherwise seemed silly in Lord, argues for both the source and his aesthetic.
Few remember Jackson's previous calling, and there is very little of his former horror maestro-ness here. Instead, The Hobbit feels like a fable, a slowly unwinding poem that will eventually wrap up with a pair of beasts vanquished and a setting laid for the future adventures of the Baggins clan. But the fact that the film veers so far away from such a well known book begs the question of too much creative tampering. Artistic license is one thing. Inventing material out of unpublished manuscripts and scholarly footnotes is another. Tolkien readers have always enjoyed the asides in his work, the playful nature and expansion of language and location. But here, Jackson and his company have more or less altered outright context. Thorin and the dwarves were more rowdy adventurers in the original. Here, they've been given a far more noble quest - and it sometimes fails to resonate.
And why three parts? Again, Jackson has the cache to do whatever he wants, but one envisions the ability to READ The Hobbit from start to finish before the entire trilogy (and the guaranteed extended editions being prepped for home video) roll their final credits. It just shouldn't be this expansive. The narrative was always based in Bilbo's perspective. He is the audience, seeing the vast world of Middle Earth for the first time and taking the reader right along with him. It was the same in Jackson's first foray into this material. Frodo and Sam were the perfect team, taking in the journey - risks and all - with a kind of untested wide eyed wonder. In The Hobbit, Jackson forgets that. He constantly shifts the viewpoint, turning it from one character to another. Granted, this is okay for those invested in everything Tolkien did. For those coming to this material fresh, it poses a problem.
Hopefully, it's an issue Jackson can deal with in the next two film. As it stands, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a thoroughly engaging, often rip-roaring, old school yarn. It's got scope, excitement, and above all, emotional heft. Sure, it stops well before we even get to see the main mythological beasty and could jettison much of the opening material for something a bit less...detailed, dwarf-wise. Yet what's clear, and what has always been crystal from the start, is that Peter Jackson was born to take on Tolkien. No other filmmaker and source have been so in sync. The Hobbit may feel bloated, but the meat on these bones is beyond prime. Fault him for overfilling his cup, but this is one artist who invests his efforts with everything he's got. It may not be the perfect Hobbit, but it sure is a good one. A very good one.