Andy Serkis, based on a book, Bilbo Baggins, CGI, Christopher Lee, cinema, dragons, dwarves, elves, epic, fantasy, Film, film reviews, Gandalf the Grey, giant spiders, Ian McKellen, J.R.R. Tolkien, long films, Lord of the Rings, Martin Freeman, Middle Earth, Movies, orcs, Peter Jackson, Richard Armitage, Saruman, Smaug, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Thorin, trilogies, wizards
As a child, one of my favorite, most beloved films was the Rankin/Bass animated version of The Hobbit. If I watched that damn thing a thousand times, I must have watched it at least ten thousand times. I loved absolutely everything about it: the animation style, the awesome action scenes, the great soundtrack. To this day, I can’t help but smile every time I think of the film and will frequently find myself humming Glenn Yarbrough excellent theme song, “The Greatest Adventure” out of nowhere. The 1977 version of Tolkien’s classic story may not be perfect but it was perfect enough to be the only version I needed while growing up (aside from the original book, of course).
Since I have such an emotional, nostalgic connection to the original cartoon, I was actually anything but eager to sample Peter Jackson’s newest adaptation. The reasons for this end up having a little to do with wanting to preserve my cherished memories but more to do with my own preconceived notions as to what Jackson would actually do with the rather modest source material. Although I enjoyed Jackson’s panoramic, exhaustive treatment of The Lord of the Rings series, I was more than a little afraid that he would attempt to inflate The Hobbit to the same extremes. Whereas Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings practically screams for a huge, larger-than-life adaptation, The Hobbit is a much smaller affair. Perfect for a single session, I was worried that Jackson would drown his adaptation in minutiae, turning in the equivalent of a super-sized bit of fan service. After all: when the story can be told effectively in one sitting, what could be the possible benefit of expanding and separating it out into three separate pieces (aside from the inherent financial benefit of selling three separate films)? Unfortunately, after finishing the first installment of Jackson’s new trilogy, I find that my previous fears were all well-founded: while An Unexpected Journey has moments of brilliance, it’s also bloated, leaden and more overly-reliant on CGI than any of Jackson’s previous films. After finishing the film (or the first third, as it were), I was left with one over-riding impression: sometimes, less can be much, much more. And much better.
By this point in the history of the world, we should all be (more or less) familiar with the basic story of The Hobbit. Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), a comfortably mundane hobbit with a modest home, is recruited by Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) to assist a group of dwarves in reclaiming their ancestral home from the massive dragon that drove them from it in the first place. Bilbo, being a hobbit, is less than happy with the idea of anything resembling danger or adventure. As time (and the journey) go on, however, Bilbo will learn the true meaning of courage and will eventually grow into the hero, albeit modest, that Gandalf always knew him to be. Along the way, he’ll meet elves, trolls, a particularly nasty spider named Shelob and, eventually, the dragon named Smaug.
Tolkien’s The Hobbit may be many things but it is, primarily, the story of Bilbo learning to be courageous and self-sufficient. Perhaps the biggest sin of Jackson’s version of The Hobbit is how little it actually seems to be about its titular character. Truth be told, An Unexpected Journey seems to be the story of Gandalf and the dwarves, with some small support from Bilbo, as needed. This could, of course, be due to the inherent curse of the three-film structure: Part One has to set everything up, Part Two has to bridge and Part Three lets us paint the town red. For my money, the three-part structure was also an issue for the Lord of the Rings trilogy, if a much more necessary one than in The Hobbit.
In essence, An Unexpected Journey ends up being one of the longest prologues in cinema history. Jackson spends so much time on each page of Tolkien’s text (along with various supplemental material) that the film seems to move in real-time, which would seem to be particularly thrilling during the fight sequences but proves to be almost coma-inducing during the extended scene at the beginning where the dwarves gather in Bilbo’s house. At over thirty minutes long, the scene is a seemingly never-ending stream of dwarves eating, drinking, singing and talking while Bilbo bustles around worried and Gandalf smokes sagely. They do manage to throw in the great ditty about washing Bilbo’s dishes but that’s hardly surprising since everything else gets added, as well.
The film manages to hit all of the important moments and beats from Tolkien’s book (if greatly expanded), yet also opts to throw in tons of material that either add a “Hollywood” aspect to the film (the introduction of Azoth as some sort of Bond-esque villain, complete with mechanical arm, is total horseshit) or needlessly tie The Hobbit in to the Lord of the Rings trilogy (Christopher Lee returns as the villainous Saruman, although anyone who’s seen Jackson’s LOTR already knows what he has up his sleeve, which seems to dilute the intended impact). At times, there are so many references to LOTR and cameos from previous actors/characters that it smacks alarmingly of fan version. One could argue that both series exist in the same world and overlap key characters: one could also argue, however, that The Hobbit always existed as its own entity and was not dependent on LOTR but enhanced and informed by it. Rather than functioning as its own, stand-alone narrative (as it rightly should), An Unexpected Journey often feels like additional player content for an already purchased video game. For an additional $12 (times three, technically), Jackson’s given us the chance to spend a little more time with beloved characters, even if they’re mostly cameos.
Adding to the video game parallel, in my opinion, are the CGI-heavy visuals. Too often, I found the backgrounds to resemble video game cut scenes (think Final Fantasy 35) and I never found myself fully immersed in Middle Earth. While the Lord of the Rings trilogy utilized CGI (particularly the final film), there was still heavy use of practical effects and makeup. Here, the orcs all have a smooth, shiny, generic appearance that reminds me of what a PS3 adaptation of The Descent might look like. In fact, I’m hard-pressed to remember any of the baddies in this one, although I’m assuming that Shelob’s appearance in the second film will be pretty awesome (what can I say: I’m a sucker for giant spiders). The fight between the giant CGI eagles and the CGI wargs is pretty cool but most of the other battles devolve into a kind of frenzied, generic CGI smash-em-up with little individual definition and lots of repetitious action. It gets old fast and is definitely a let-down: I wasn’t enamored of the film, in general, but the battle scenes were my least favorite parts, oddly enough.
Lest it seem like I’m unnecessarily slamming the film, let me be clear: despite my hesitance to see this particular film (due to the reasons stated above), I’ve always been a huge Peter Jackson fan. In fact, up to and including The Fellowship of the Rings, Jackson was one of my favorite directors, ranked in my head in a similar position to Ben Wheatley nowadays. I absolutely love Dead Alive, Meet the Feebles and Heavenly Creatures: each one is as perfect a film, in their own ways, as was ever made. I haven’t really cared for much past LOTR, however, and I grew weary with that series by the end of the second film. In a way, I equate Jackson’s later day career to Tim Burton’s later day career: I’ll always love their early films but I have a real hard time fully appreciating their more recent offerings.
Despite my various and sundry complaints about An Unexpected Journey, however, there is still plenty to laud about the film. The acting is uniformly solid, with Martin Freeman particularly excellent as Bilbo. Andy Sirkis returns as Gollum and, as expected, his scene with Bilbo is a real highlight. The dwarves, although rather interchangeable, are a likable enough bunch, although Thorin (Richard Armitage) is such an obvious stand-in for Aragorn from LOTR that it comes across as a bit silly. The haunting, mournful song that they sing towards the end of the epic first night at Bilbo’s is chill-inducing. There’s also some genuine inventive nuttiness to be found in Greenwood, especially once Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy) is being pulled around on a sled by a team of rabbits. If anything, I wish that more of the film had been this inventive and…well…fun.
Ultimately, An Unexpected Journey is what it is: the first of three films in a very large expansion of a very modest story. Perhaps it’s unfair (and unwise) to judge the whole thing by the first entry. At the same point, however, I can’t help but feel that the original Hobbit would have had us all safe and warm back in our shires, by this point, while Jackson’s adaptation still has us trudging through the cold, desolate wilderness, many, many miles away from our eventual destination.