Movie review: "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey"

The big question in the minds of many fans was which Peter Jackson would show up for “The Hobbit”: the guy who made the amazing combination of spectacle and efficient storytelling that was “The Lord of the Rings,” or the over-indulged director who delivered the bloated mess of “King Kong.”  The answer is: Both.

Judging by the first film, Jackson’s planned “Hobbit” trilogy would benefit from being edited with a dwarven battle axe, and it really should have been two movies, not three.  The amount of extra material packed into the first movie is almost overwhelming at times; it feels like binge-viewing twenty episodes of a TV series on Netflix.  Many things that were only hinted at, or obliquely referenced, in J.R.R. Tolkien’s relatively short and sweet book are spelled out at great length here.  There are a lot of flashbacks, as digressions and backstory blossom into entire reels of film.

Considering how much ground it had to cover, it’s impressive that “The Lord of the Rings” never did that.  It gracefully dished out tasty morsels of backstory, largely through imaginative visuals, leaving many small details to the imagination.  It served up the relevant history of Middle Earth in a prologue that only ran ten minutes or so.  The high points of “The Hobbit” were painlessly delivered through a few lines of conversation.  It never felt as labored as Jackson’s new movie often does.

The cinematic “Hobbit” suffers from the curse that afflicts all cinematic prequels: we already know how the story ends, so the director must labor to make the journey interesting for us.  We’re watching some intriguing backstory from ten-year-old movies expanded at such length that we can’t help feeling that it was more intriguing when we knew less about it.  (Remember how much more interesting the Clone Wars of the “Star Wars” universe seemed, back when you didn’t actually know exactly what they were – it was just an interesting name brimming with potential?)  This is unfair to Tolkien’s tale, which was not written as a prequel, but there’s no way these books were going to get filmed in the proper order.

The prequel curse is most unfortunate, because “The Hobbit” really soars when it forgets it’s a prequel.  This movie would have benefited from fewer ties to “The Lord of the Rings.”  It only really needed the Ring itself (whose true nature will never be clear to any of the characters during this story) and its pitiful, terrifying guardian, Gollum… who steals the show in a sequence that positively crackles with the old LOTR magic.  Watching Gollum in his natural habitat really drives home the sickening malevolence of the Ring, and deepens the tragedy of this remarkable character.

But otherwise, the best parts of “The Hobbit” come when it stays focused on the story it really wants to tell, and lets the audience forget about the epic films from years gone by. This is a good tale that deserves better than to live in the shadow of another.  Some reviewers have complained that the stakes feel too much smaller in “The Hobbit,” but that shouldn’t have been a problem.  Middle-Earth is a magical place, and audiences will be quite happy to spend a little more time there in the company of Bilbo Baggins, who makes a fine reluctant hero.  The quest of the dwarf prince Thorin and his rowdy company to reclaim their homeland is quite adequate to drive the plot; you never feel as if this is a silly lightweight tale because you know the real menace ends up parked in Bilbo’s vest pocket.  This story doesn’t have to be a mere prequel to a mighty epic we’ve already experienced, and when it has the self-confidence to stop seeing itself that way, it’s wonderful.

There’s a lot to like here, from the general charm of Middle-Earth to Martin Freeman’s fussy, lovable Bilbo, who gracefully and naturally comes to display the vast, quiet courage that Gandalf the wizard (a returning Ian McKellen, in fine form) always knew he possessed.  Bilbo’s decision to throw in with the band of dwarves who arrive at his hobbit-hole to shanghai him into service as a burglar initially seems abrupt and confusing, but when he explains it later, it’s both sensible and deeply moving.  You can learn a lot about the true nature of courage and compassion from Mr. Baggins.  And then you can learn something about the nature of evil by remembering what the Ring does to him.

Richard Armitage is also excellent as Thorin, leader of the dwarves.  Both his glorious nobility and dangerous arrogance are in full display; he’s an epic figure who clearly carries the seeds of both tragedy and triumph.  Those unfamiliar with the tale will enjoy watching these three movies to discover which side of his nature wins out.

Some of the special effects seem oddly cheesy, but others are among the best ever put to film.  A riotous underground chase combines frantic action, daredevil stunts, and whimsy into a thrilling, comical brew.  A brief encounter with the titanic creatures that dwell in the high mountains fills the audience with a genuine sense of wonder.  There’s great chemistry between Freeman, McKellen, and Armitage; it’s fun just listening to them talk.

But then the “King Kong” bloat hits, and the audience finds itself slogging through a labored side story about sinister happenings investigated by the batty, and rather repulsive, wizard Radagast.  A scene that re-unites some old favorites from “The Lord of the Rings” for a high-level secret council meeting feels clunky and pointless, especially since even casual viewers of the original trilogy should have a pretty good idea of what’s going on, but the script is obliged to proceed as if we don’t.  You’re watching the great minds of Middle-Earth spend fifteen minutes arguing about a “mystery” you already know the answer to.  It takes far too long for the plot to get things moving out of Bilbo’s hobbit-hole, but then it seems to end too abruptly – an unfortunate contrast with how beautifully “The Fellowship of the Ring” made you feel both satisfied and hungry for more when the credits rolled.

“The Hobbit” is a good movie, with some great parts, but that’s not what Peter Jackson delivered last time out.  And he’s used up perhaps three-quarters of the material in Tolkien’s original book with his first movie.  That leaves a disturbing amount of room for his King Kong instincts to lumber through the next two movies.