The Lord of the Rings trilogy that Peter Jackson set to film early in the new millennium is a fantastic and magnificent spectacle. Immensely entertaining, imbued with terrific character development, drama, action, fantasy, and a respect for the fact that effects are second to the storytelling, something sorely lacking in many sci-fi and fantasy blockbusters up to that point (namely, George Lucas' overblown CGI nightmare of the Star Wars prequels). Even with the release of the extended editions, clocking in at nearly 11 hours for all three films, it still doesn't feel like enough. There's so much of Middle-Earth left to explore, so much of Tolkien's rich world yet undiscovered. So many characters that could've used so much more development. The films are so good that, no matter how many times they are viewed, all they leave is the want for more. The world as a whole finally got more with the release of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in December, which saw Peter Jackson returning to the director's chair after the project was all but set to be in Guillermo del Toro's capable hands. Yet, is more better? It is, almost, though Jackson seems to have missed a step here, delivering a wonderful film that is as full of new and intriguing characters and locations as it is needlessly tied to the trilogy that preceded it.
The Hobbit tells the tale of a young(er) Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) who is dragged into a quest to reclaim the lost Dwarven kingdom of Erebor from the dragon Smaug, who has overthrown it. The film begins with a tie-in to The Lord of the Rings with Old Bilbo and Frodo (the returning Ian Holm and Elijah Wood, respectively), wherein Bilbo sits down to recount his tales. It is here that Jackson makes his first misstep, so early in the film- does anyone need to see this? A better question may be, in fact, what does this add to The Hobbit, and how does this better tie it to LOTR? Nothing, to the first, and it doesn't, to the second. If the film needs to have a bridge to LOTR (which is in itself debatable), then it can just be Old Bilbo, from behind, sitting down to begin writing his book. Does anyone need to see the "no admittance" sign from Fellowship nailed to the door, or Frodo heading off into the woods to surprise Gandalf? No, is the answer. Why? Because, once The Hobbit has been released (all three chapters and at least 8-9 hours of it), this will be completely inconsequential. One imagines that Jackson envisions someone far in the future, sitting down to watch his entire Middle-Earth saga, starting from The Hobbit, and intends to use this as a buffer to link the two together. Only it's not necessary, and it only stalls the plot progression of the film. For the first of many times. In fact, wouldn't all of this take place after the "Concerning Hobbits" chapter he begins the book with in Fellowship anyway?
Nonetheless, the film finally gets around to telling its own story, with the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellan) not-so-subtly nudging Bilbo into the quest to reclaim the lost kingdom of Erebor by turning his home into a meeting place for the company of dwarves who set out to reclaim it. The party arrives, one or two or a few at a time, and proceeds to eat Bilbo out of house and home before getting down to the business at hand upon the arrival of the leader, Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage). After an exhaustive amount of screentime (if it was Peter Jackson's intention to make the audience feel suffocated and claustrophobic trapped in the hobbit hole, mission accomplished), the party finally sets out for their homeland, with Bilbo deciding to run after them and join them after some initial hesitation.
The biggest problem with the film isn't the changes it makes to the book. Nor is it the film's attempts to tie the film into the larger Lord of the Rings universe for its audience. It is in continually overindulgent scenes that carry on far longer than they need to. While the subplot with Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy) is enjoyable and important to the link that Jackson is trying to make to LOTR, why does he ride a ridiculous rabbit-drawn sleigh? Repeatedly? It looks utterly ridiculous, the same for Radagast himself, who has a thick, crusty trail of bird droppings matting down part of his hair. Jackson wants the sequence to be an important tie to his Lord of the Rings, but makes it laughable and silly. It is impossible to take Radagast seriously after he proudly exclaims that he can outrun the wargs on his rabbit-drawn sleigh. Then the chase sequence goes on and on and on and on. Pointlessly so since elves led by Elrond (Hugo Weaving) show up moments later to save the dwarven company anyway.
Similarly ridiculous is the entire sequence in the goblin city with Gandalf and the dwarves, be it the utterly absurd goblin king and his fifty-six chins that swing with his every movement or the frantic escape from said city, in which it becomes almost cartoonishly stupid. The heroes rush along flimsy CGI bridges, knocking CGI goblins off into the abyss, only to reach the end where they then ride a CGI bridge segment that breaks loose down an incredible CGI distance of cavern and tunnel, only to have it come to rest, fully intact, at the bottom.
Luckily, however, the eye-rolling and groaning moments such as these are few and far between, and the remainder of the film is incredibly strong. The 3D, for the most part, was used effectively, giving Jackson a greater depth of field and a broader setting to tell his story, and is seldom used gratuitously. Strong performances from McKellan and Armitage are wonderful companions to the fantastic performance of Martin Freeman, who continually makes his Bilbo feel like a frightened outsider who simply doesn't belong. As the film continues, however, he gains strength and courage, and truly becomes a member of the company, and once separated from it his absence seems erroneous.
While separated from the company, Bilbo has a chance encounter with the creature Gollum (Andy Serkis), with whom he plays a game of riddles, hoping to escape from the cave with his life (and uneaten!). He also finds a mysterious ring and wins the game, making off with the 'precious' ring and earning Gollum's enduring hatred. The film's villain, the pale orc Azog, feels similar to the Uruk-Hai in Fellowship of the Ring in that he is not nearly as threatening as the threats that loom over the horizon, particularly as Smaug is awakened as the film ends. Not to detract from the action sequences involving him, but it feels a little "been there, done that" and feels like a pointless side-journey en route to the true evil and the real adventure.
Overall, Peter Jackson could use a lesson or two in "less is more" and one only imagines that with the impending arrival of the dragon in the next installment, it will not be a lesson learned. Clearly, Jackson faced a daunting task of adapting what is a children's novel for a broader audience, and (unnecessarily) felt the need to tie it to his Lord of the Rings adaptation. Overall his success remains to be seen, but whereas his trilogy a decade ago practically begged for more in any way possible, his Hobbit instead asks for a break. Shave 20 minutes off the runtime and cut out the really absurd and nonsensical CGI overdoses, and this would be every bit as epic as the trilogy that preceded it. Instead Jackson delivers an overlong, mostly-wonderful epic that can't quite find the charm it so desperately needs. Three and a half out of Five Stars.
By Nicholas Haskins
While it isn't perfect by any means, it is still definitely a film worth seeing in the theater, and the 3D isn't a complete waste. Before you go, check out the feature trailer for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. If you're a fan of my reviews please subscribe to them and share them; your support means everything to me! You can also become a fanboy/girl and follow me on Twitter or book my face.