I read The Hobbit a long time ago but I do remember the sort of innocent and whimsical book that it was. It was a story that came out well before The Lord of the Rings and was never intended to be a set up story for something bigger. I mean in the first publication of The Hobbit Gollum basically gives the ring to Bilbo. It wasn’t until Tolkien conceived the idea of the ring of power that he went in and changed the “Riddles in the Dark” chapter to better align the book with it’s sequels. I can see people arguing that Jackson is doing the same here to align the story of The Hobbit with his first Middle Earth films but that isn’t an excuse for this. Only the first film in The Hobbit trilogy, An Unexpected Journey is a borderline mess of a film. Way too long and way to into its own previous accomplishments, this has to be the most disappointing film to come out in awhile. I guess I saw it coming when it was announced that the Hobbit would be split into three movies but it doesn’t change the fact that The Hobbit that readers wanted is lost in Jackson’s reconstructing of the story. It is loyal enough to save itself from being too far over the edge but not loyal enough to warrant its own existence. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is The Phantom Menace of the Middle Earth films.
Starting off with a silly flash-forward to the moments right before The Fellowship of the Ring, it is evident that An Unexpected Party is relying on the Lord of the Rings connection. Sacrificing its own identity as a stand-alone story, the movie opens up with and continues to cue in all the Lord of the Rings mentions and throwbacks it can. Not to say that the movie doesn’t try to create its own identity but it is too aware that it is the story that came before all the Lord of the Rings films. This isn’t the biggest problem of the movie as it sprawls on for nearly three hours. Splitting up this story into three movies should mean a shorter running time for each film but Jackson throws in all the cut scenes he can muster. The Lord of the Rings films were so long because they needed to be just like how the Game of Thrones T.V. series needed to happen to adapt George R. R. Martian’s huge series. The Hobbit has no excuse for its long running time and the studio should have seen this. Three hours is a long time for a film that feels like it has only just begun.
One of the biggest problems that many people had with the Lord of the Rings Trilogy was that the films put the hobbits in the background. I can see that but that didn’t make me feel that the four little heroes didn’t get their time to shine but here I do feel that Bilbo is pushed to the background. The Hobbit needs to be about The Hobbit. The script is way too focused on the overall story of the ring instead of the drama of Bilbo leaving home. The screenwriters were more interested in bringing to light the elements of the Lord of the Rings Appendices which leads to a narrative that is way to inconsistent. Bilbo is the story here: not Gandalf, the Dwarves, or the forces of the ring. Everything should of come second to Bilbo and the episodic pace of the book. I understand that The Hobbit book didn’t paint as grand of a picture of Middle Earth as LOTR did but is a story for a simpler audience. It was a hard task to bridge the two works of literature but at the end of the day The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey takes the easy route and the one that sees Bilbo the star of a movie so desperately wanting to get back to the future or the past (which ever way you want to see it).
I really do believe that Peter Jackson deserves most of the credit for The Lord of the Rings and he deserves most of the blame for An Unexpected Journey (and probably the whole Hobbit trilogy when all the films are released). His plot middling and over indulgent story telling wasn’t too distracting in LOTR but here it is almost blinding. It isn’t surprising that New Line and the other studios would want to make as many films as they can but it is disappointing that Jackson doesn’t have the integrity to do these movies (or should be movie) right. Jackson’s ego is too invested in these movies as he tries to redeem himself from the disappointing Lovely Bones. When it was announced that Del Toro would hold the reins to The Hobbit movies, I was pretty excited. Not to say that I didn’t trust Jackson (which I guess I shouldn’t of) but I saw The Hobbit as its own story and not just a LOTR prequel. It most likely needed a new eye to tell the Hobbit in its own way and not just a LOTR prequel. Del Toro apparently felt the same way with his own promises to make The Hobbit in a different way then Jackson’s previous films but Del Toro left the project when production staled and Jackson stepped in to make the movies. When Jackson first made the LOTR series he had the responsibility to make it for both the novice and the expert. Here he only plays to the audience that has only seen Tolkien’s epic works and not the audience that feel in love with The Hobbit on page.
I am sure that the film will make me madder over time but for now the movie’s nostalgic charm and heavy action pace works well enough to make An Unexpected Journey a mildly entertaining and fun return to Middle-Earth. The biggest thing to smile about is the casting of Martin Freeman as Bilbo. He not only plays the character consistently with the past performance of Ian Holm but he also makes Bilbo a strong enough character to be the headliner of this long tale. He brings fresh legs to the movie where other returning cast members don’t. The Dwarves were also well cast even if many of them don’t look like Dwarves for the sake of having more “human-like” heroes. Then you have the nostalgic (in reference to the earlier LOTR films) feel of the movie that is the biggest flaw of the film at first but at the end of the day actually saves the film from being stuck in the mud. Its the most graceful and ungraceful thing about the movie, as the film’s tone seems conflicted with the nature of The Hobbit book and the nature of The Lord of the Rings films.
If you look at The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey as an adaption it is easy to see that the movie fails. It is a selfish adaptation of Tolkien’s first venture into Middle Earth and one that doesn’t really care much about it’s source materials place in the grand scheme of things. One film would have been enough but Jackson and the powers that be have a very different motive then just telling Bilbo’s tale. The best way to watch The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is to see it as a prequel to The Lord of the Rings films alone. At the mid night showing that I went to I was surprised to hear a lot of clapping at the end of the film but it dawned on me that the viewers were much less concerned about Tolkien’s classic story as they were about Jackson’s Middle Earth. For most audiences out there it is more about coming back to the films that they feel in love with a decade ago then it is about watching an adaption of a wonderful children’s story. I don’t blame them because Jackson’s visual representation of Middle Earth needs no earlier readings to understand it or love it. It is sad though that the people who come to the movie to see The Hobbit come alive on screen will be the ones most left in the dark. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was made for all the wrong reasons and the wrong people as it has more in common with the villain (the greedy dragon Smaug) then it does with the humble and kind Bilbo Baggins.