Peter Jackson brings audiences back to the New Zealand-inspired grandeur of Middle Earth — complete with copious aerial panorama shots, snarling orcs and goblins, and picture-book imagery of fantasy landscapes — in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, a somewhat entertaining, entirely unnecessary adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s prequel to The Lord of the Rings. When word of Jackson’s three-part production came out, the whole thing reeked of a money-grab — the product of a coddled, over-zealous filmmaker attempting to cash in on his most successful property. The Hobbit is a children’s book and lacks the majesty and thematic power of The Lord of the Rings, but by delving into Tolkien’s diaries and notes, Jacksons pads out the dramatic stakes (there are story ideas, plot lines and characters non-existent in Tolkien’s novel) of the film as well as the god-forsaken running time. The Hobbit runs about a half-hour too long, stuffs more action set pieces than it needs by half, and the result is a drag-down, mildly diverting entertainment.
Tolkien’s story, in essence, deals with the homebody Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), who’s lured from the coziness of The Shire by Gandalf the Gray (Ian MacKellan) to embark on a mission alongside a twelve-member group of dwarves to reclaim treasure stolen from them by a horrible dragon. The dwarves are led by Thorin (Richard Armitage), the deposed heir-apparent of the dwarf kingdom — a kind of dwarf equivalent to Aragorn from The Lord of the Rings. Armitage is a smoldering, righteous prince, hell-bent not only on reclaiming his land’s treasure but also on seeking revenge against the Pale Orc, the muscular brute who killed his father in a long-ago battle.
There is also a parallel sub-plot about an encroaching necromancer — the foreshadowing of the rise of Sauron. One of The Hobbit’s real pleasures, in fact, is seeing this sub-plot unfold, as the eccentric wizard Radagast (Sylvester McCoy) investigates a dark, secretive force unleashing black magic across Middle Earth. Radagast’s scenes in The Hobbit comprise some of the movie’s most striking moments, ranging from the fearsome sequence in which Radagast tracks down the source of the black magic to a ruined castle to the exhilarating visuals of the wizard, borne along on a sleigh pulled by hyper-kinetic rabbits, being chased by a tribe of orcs astride giant wolves. It’s in these moments that Jackson’s essential pulse as a cinematic storyteller comes alive, and where we feel the director’s vitality for image-making. And delightful as McCoy is as Radagast, Jackson truly lucked out when he cast Freeman as Bilbo. Freeman is the best hobbit ever cast; with his trademark mix of comic nervousness and dramatic sincerity, Freeman ably spins the fussbudget Bilbo into a charming, endearing reluctant hero.
But, alas, The Hobbit is also overloaded with ridiculousness. There are entire sequences here that feel ill-conceived, over-wrought, and fatally drawn-out. A case in point is the entire goblin hall sequence that sags the latter half of the movie. I characterize it as Jackson’s “Jabba the Hutt” moment because of how it trumps dread and danger with silliness and cartoonishness. The goblin king himself — warts, wattle, bug-eyes and all — is just an updated Jabba the Hutt, the bloated baddie in what was the weakest of Lucas’s original Star Wars trilogy. Jackson wants to make this sequence the movie’s Mines of Moria (from The Fellowship of the Ring) analogue, but it’s a failure: The goblins are cartoons, the chase is as ludicrously manic as any Looney Tunes outing, and the perils are too outlandish to really grab our emotional involvement. Most of The Hobbit functions at this outlandish level, as if the lesson that Jackson took from The Lord of the Rings is that bigger is better. But The Lord of the Rings also boasted sympathetic, dynamic characters — the dwarves in his movie are, again, just cartoons save for Thorin — and sincere storytelling that served a captivating narrative, whereas The Hobbit often feels like a cynic packaging a Happy Meal and calling it magic.
Directed by: Peter Jackson
Written by: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, Guillermo del Toro
Cast: Ian MacKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Ken Stott, Graham McTavish, William Kircher, Sylvester McCoy, James Nesbitt, Ian Holm, Elijah Wood, Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett, Christopher Lee