Released in theatres December 14, 2012, nearly a decade after the hugely successful The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy, the film adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s children’s novel The Hobbit was saddled with enormous burdens of anticipation and expectation.
Like many fans of anything related to J.R.R. Tolkien and his works, I waited patiently as a studio went bankrupt, intriguing directing choice Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth) was lost to delays, casting was debated, and it seemed like bringing this second trilogy to light would be as difficult as the first.
Finally though, Executive Producer Peter Jackson retook the directing chair, much of his original team was reunited, with additional input from del Toro. The major characters that appeared in both The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit agreed to reprise their film roles, with additional cameos from characters from The Lord of the Rings films promised. There seemed to be a concerted effort to cohesively connect The Hobbit film trilogy to The Lord of the Rings film trilogy. This was exciting.
And yes, The Hobbit: an Unexpected Journey is the first part of a trilogy. Initially, I shared concerns that making three blockbusters to adapt one fairly slim children’s novel seemed excessive. I did think the title was clever. (The Hobbit’s first chapter was entitled “An Unexpected Party.” Replacing the word “Party” with “Journey” for the movie seemed apt.)
Then I considered the structure of The Hobbit itself. Unlike the much denser The Lord of the Rings novels, it moved at a very brisk pace. One of the principal characters, Gandalf the wizard, left mysteriously for large periods of time. This was likely a device to give the more child-like dwarfs and Bilbo the hobbit room to find their own way, with the surrogate parent figure Gandalf swooping in from time to time to guide them or save the day, if needed. He played a similar role in The Lord of the Rings, except his comings and goings were explained in those books.
Also, the climactic Battle of Five Armies, as written, was a few scant pages, mostly due to the titular character being knocked unconscious at the commencement of hostilities.
Additionally, there are thousands of pages of back story and appendices to the Middle-earth universe that Tolkien obsessively worked on his entire life, much of which has been published posthumously, including The Silmarillion which reads somewhat like the old testament to a world that never existed, as well as twelve large volumes collectively known as The History of Middle-earth.
If we could find out what Gandalf was doing during his disappearances, (something about a necromancer rising, possibly an earlier form of Sauron, the antagonist of The Lord of the Rings), if we could see more fleshed out characters, more Middle-earth history…Heck, the skipped over battle scenes alone could almost fill up an entire movie! This actually made some kind of sense!
The question is: was The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey successfully executed?
The answer is yes…and no.
Much like Tolkien’s written work, it has been almost equally praised or maligned depending on who you ask, (lifelong friend and colleague C.S. Lewis was an ardent supporter). There are long moments of pure transcendence, offset by some stumbling missteps.
Certainly, in the film, the world of Middle-earth is revisited in a most vivid fashion. Most of the key scenes from the first part of the book are brought to life, including the memorable introduction to Gollum and the precious ring that went on to cause so much trouble.
As one would expect, the cinematography was at times breathtaking. The lush, familiar score by The Lord of the Rings veteran Howard Shore also served to bridge the gap between the two trilogies.
The thirteen dwarves of The Hobbit were actually an improvement over the Gimli character portrayed in The Lord of the Rings. In those films, I found John Rhys-Davies’ almost palpable physical discomfort with his prosthetic make-up (he was allergic to it) and his cumbersome costume somewhat distracting. These are a much leaner and meaner bunch (with the possible exception of the hugely overweight Bombur, who was the victim of some rather tiresome sight-gags). They are younger, more agile, and fun to watch in action.
Sir “scene-stealer” Ian McKellen was excellent as usual in reprising his role as Gandalf. Presumably, he needed far less aging make-up than used in his first go-around. Martin Freeman was a good fit as Everyman (everyhobbit?) Bilbo Baggins. His naturalistic style fit the character well. Often, though, the one-on-one interactions between the two characters impeded the flow of the film, with Gandalf often taking Bilbo aside and giving him “one to grow on.”
There have been many complaints in fandom about the first hour of the film, which many found to be slow paced. I myself found the scenes with the unexpected party arriving in Bag End to be among the truest to the source material, including songs sung by the Dwarves with the original lyrics written by Tolkien himself. I personally was basking in the familiar warmth of the hobbit hole in anticipation of the hardships and adventures to come.
The rest of the movie moved at a relentless pace, with a brief and lovely interlude with the Elves of Rivendell, but was sometimes a victim of some overwrought ambitions. The escape from the Goblins in the caves seemed far too large in scale, like taking the Mines of Moria scenes from The Lord of the Rings, mixing them with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and then dosing them full of CGI steroids. Far too many collapsing rope bridge escapes for my tastes. In fact, there seemed to be much more unnecessary reliance on CGI in the film than on the practical effects in general, especially with a couple of key villains, a giant Orc, and a giant Goblin, that probably would have worked better as large guys in prosthetics, with a few forced perspective tricks added. Conversely, CGI Gollum looked even better than in the first films, which I attribute to the soul that actor Andy Serkis was able to convey with motion capture technology in both projects.
Part of the problem is that it is hard not to expect the scale of the film to top the massive The Lord of the Rings trilogy, not to mention the host of largely unsuccessful epics that followed in the wake of that success (Troy, Alexander, Kingdom of Heaven etc.). It may have been a better idea to pull things back a bit, but that is not the way of Hollywood.
One of the characters I was most looking forward to seeing fully realized in film was Radagast the Brown, a fellow wizard of Gandalf’s order who was a very minor character in the writings of Tolkien. All we really knew about him was that he was chiefly concerned with nature. And he was brown. The idea of seeing another wizard in the flesh besides Gandalf and Saruman (Christopher Lee briefly reprises his role in a welcome cameo) was downright thrilling. The film makers had a chance to really delve into an intriguing character that was very open to interpretation. Unfortunately they took the low road on a sled pulled by larger than average bunnies (definitely NOT in the book).
The character seemed to be a wacky reject from Hogwarts, and was played almost entirely for laughs. This made the two overt drug references relating to the character a bit disconcerting. This may have been a nod to the surviving hippies of the late 60’s who hugely popularized Tolkien in North America (much to the dismay of the conservative, catholic Oxford don), but even for a character that seems to have been modified for the tastes of a juvenile audience, depicting him as an old man tripping out on hallucinogens while white bird feces constantly dripped down the side of his face was a little undignified for an ancient Maiar Istari.
Another huge suspension of disbelief destroying sequence was the unexpected addition of two 1000 foot tall rock-em sock-em mythological stone giants that engaged in a violent brawl, with our heroes somehow managing to cling to their slippery, craggy, mountainous, MOVING legs, before miraculously escaping the fray. I was okay with the rock monsters, but much like the Goblin escape sequence, I couldn’t help thinking that the entire party should have been killed many times over. Again, a little restraint would have made both sequences more plausible.
On the first viewing, it was hard not to be critical of the many excesses of this movie. I wasn’t quite sure how I felt. So, like a true fan, I went again the following evening. Knowing now what I was getting myself into, I was able to put on some rose-colored 3-D glasses, find compromise with some of the problem areas, and truly enjoy being in Middle-earth again. What can I say? Love is blind.
In the end, everyone got to where they needed to be to set up the next film, The Desolation of Smaug. And I’ll be there.