It has been nine years since The Return of the King brought Peter Jackson’s massive adaptation of author J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy epic to an end. After the millions were counted, the awards were won and the Extended Edition DVDs were all released, thoughts turned to a potential adaptation of Tolkien’s other masterpiece, The Hobbit. Unfortunately, various business deals had locked the movie rights to The Hobbit with MGM, who spent the latter part of the last decade embroiled in legal and financial troubles. Likewise, director Peter Jackson spent years fighting New Line Cinema in court over royalties he felt had been denied by the movie company from the success of the Lord of the Rings movies. Even when everything was sorted out, production was delayed after director Guillermo del Toro left the project in the hands of Jackson to go film Pacific Rim.
I bring all this up to point out that, even with the success of the earlier trilogy, bringing The Hobbit to life was not as easy as most of us would consider. Ironic since, of the two works by Tolkien, The Hobbit is the more straightforward and easier of the two to digest and understand. It’s a simple adventure story that features an erstwhile hero, called to adventure and forced out of the comforts of hearth and home by the most awkward of situations. The Lord of the Rings is a massive epic that unites all to face ultimate evil and puts the fate of Middle Earth on the balance. The Hobbit doesn’t go as high as that, but that’s because it wasn’t intended to reach there.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey starts with Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit who, like most of his kind, enjoys the quiet and simple life. This idyllic life is upended by the arrival of Gandalf the wizard and thirteen loud, rough and uncouth dwarves. They are the company of Thoren Oakenshield, prince and heir to the kingdom of Erebor AKA the Lonely Mountain. Decades before, Thoren and his people were driven out by the greed of a massive dragon named Smaug. Now, having been turned away by everyone else, it falls to Thoren and to his band to try and do the impossible – remove Smaug from Erebor and reclaim its treasure troves for his people. Gandalf has convinced them they need a burglar to accomplish this and Bilbo – who has never stolen a thing in his life – is that thief.
Any discussion of this movie has to start with Martin Freeman. For years, Peter Jackson engaged in a campaign to convince Freeman to take the part and even rearranged the movie’s schedule to fit Freeman’s. This after Freeman had declared in countless interviews that he was in no rush to enter Middle Earth. It’s not that he needed the role since he’s one of England’s prolific actors. It’s that he perfectly captures everything that is Bilbo. His reaction to the arrival of the dwarves, twisting between surprise, outrage and a sense to not be rude is great. He gives Bilbo a sense of frustration with the rougher side of the adventure while not forgetting to add doses of courage and wonder. Freeman manages to balance the various sides of Bilbo’s personality and makes his journey from exasperated host to valiant hero a natural one.
Alongside Freeman, the next major performance is that of Richard Armitage as Thoren Oakenshield. While not as well known in the US as he is in the UK – his biggest role on these shores is of Sgt. Porter on Cinemax’s series, Strike Back – Armitage generates an aura that puts him on an even keel with Freeman and Ian McKellen. Thorin is equal parts haughty pride and wounded rage. The only times you see him show affection or care are towards the members of his band of dwarves, kinsmen and vassals who willingly answered his call. It’s a part that requires a careful balancing act: make us understand and care for all that Thorin has suffered while he acts like a total prick to every non-dwarf around – mostly towards Bilbo.
Around Freeman and Armitage are veterans of the previous trilogy – Ian McKellen, Cate Blanchett, Ian Holm, Hugo Weaving, Christopher Lee and Andy Serkis – as well as newcomers who mostly fill the dwarf party – Ken Stott, Graham McTavish, Aidan Turner, Dean O’Gorman, James Nesbitt, Mark Hadlow, et al. Obviously some of the dwarves stand out more in this outing – Stott’s Balin and McTavish’s Dwalin are the most immediately memorable. The vets acquit themselves as you’d expect. They are all top notch in their performances. Still, the movie felt like it lost some energy when we left the dwarves to the side. The story of The Hobbit is, after all, theirs and not the story of the machinations of the greater folk.
This is the crux of the problem for this movie though. As told by Tolkien, the story in The Hobbit can likely fill one 3-hour movie. So the idea that they were going to make 2 of them to fill in every detail from the Appendices seemed a bit excessive, but acceptable if you’re going to explore the unseen aspects of the story. But to make a trilogy of movies, each the same length, breadth and scope as the Lord of the Rings trilogy? That seems excessive. Even when you consider that Jackson and co-writers Philippa Boyens, Guillermo del Toro and Fran Walsh are adapting every bit of material available for these movies.
Don’t get me wrong. If you’re a fan of Tolkien’s works or of Jackson’s adaptations, you’ll likely enjoy The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey as well. The usual masterwork is done by the Weta (Note: I went and saw the regular 24 fps version.) Howard Shore’s scoring of these movies remains a strong point. The set designs, costumes and all the other elements are perfect. It’s just that, when the story isn’t on Bilbo or Thorin’s dwarves, things grind to a halt. The story of the Necromancer and the whispers of darker things slowly bleeding back into the world of Middle Earth is an important one since it affects the story that follows it. But it’s not this story and it credits Tolkien and his editors that they had the good sense to keep the story focused he was telling on where the action was occurring.
So, in a sense, I would recommend this movie but only to those that liked the Lord of the Rings movies or who love Tolkien’s works. Everyone else is likely to feel the movie’s time – friends I went to see it with did start checking their watches/phones after 90 minutes. In an ironic twist, the more accessible of Tolkien’s stories has become the harder movie for audiences to get behind. It’s understandable that MGM, Warner Brothers/New Line and Wingnut all want this to be their next franchise saga and not just a singular success. It’s just that, in order to make it a franchise, they may have hurt its mass appeal. Of course, that conclusion cannot be reached until the final movie in the trilogy – There and Back Again – is released in 2014. Fingers crossed that Jackson and company pull this trick off.