Orcs! Battles! Back-story! At nearly three hours, the first installment of Peter Jackson’s new Tolkien trilogy has too much of almost everything. “All good tales deserve embellishment.” It’s a line spoken by the wizard Gandalf to Bilbo Baggins early in Peter Jackson’s adaptation of the Hobbit. But is also, quite clearly, the operating premise of the director himself.
Tolkien’s fable, first published in 1937, carried the alternative title There and Back Again, the first installment of Jackson’s expansive retelling could easily be called Are We There Yet? The answer incidentally remains a stubborn no. Though it clocks in just under three hours for the theatrical cut, this film is merely the first in a trilogy. Never has it seemed it would take quite so long just to get to the middle of Middle Earth.
Synopsis: Like the novel, Jackson’s film opens quaintly in the Shire where Bilbo’s home is casually invaded by dwarves. Initially Bilbo is reluctant to join Gandalf and the dwarves on their quest; Bilbo is eventually persuaded going as far as to sign a contract. Martin Freeman makes for an amiable Bilbo with a down to earth charm. Gandalf- Ian McKellen is Ian McKellen (as if you would want him to be anybody else); and the dwarves-well there are really too many to keep track of. One is fat, one is old, one seems to have absconded with Wyatt Earp’s moustache, and their leader, Thorin (Richard Armitage), is not fond of hobbits. So far so good. However, once the party sets out on their journey, Jackson piles on layer after layer of extraneous action and incidents. It is not enough that our heroes must fight a goiterous Great Goblin and his terrible hoard; they must also do battle with a brutal Orc Warlord who has a longstanding feud with Thorin. Meanwhile a mysterious Necromancer has taken up residence in an abandoned fortress, and the woods are showing signs of malignant influences. 7.5/10
Direction/Cinematography: Jackson’s direction is brilliant at times in this film. The expository opening scenes in which Smaug lays waist to the Dwarfish mountain kingdom of Erebor are intense yet understated with the monster only seen in fleeting glimpses similar to Ishiro Honda’s “Godzilla”. And while I’m not a firm believer regarding Jackson’s innovation of projecting the film in twice the usual frame rate, the New Zealand landscape to which we have become accustom in the Lord of the Ring trilogy is still as magnificent as ever. 7/10
Conclusion: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey feels like Jackson was less interested in making the Hobbit and more interested in remaking his last series. When Gandalf explained, “There is something at work beyond the evil of Smaug,” it’s hard not to think that Jackson isn’t cross promoting his earlier films. This is further pronounced with Jackson including characters from the original trilogy that were not needed for this film like Galadriel, Saruman, Legolas, and others. The irony of this recycling is that Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings was so rich and epic that Jackson could choose what to keep and what to leave out. Lord of the Rings did not include Tom Bombadil or Radagast the Brown. Conversely, stretching the Hobbit eight to ten hours does not require concision but instead constant augmentation. With the Hobbit, Jackson may have taken on a different challenge, telling a story more innocent and intimate. . . more hobbit-sized. Instead he’s offered up something a bit too indulgent, a bit too familiar, and if I may borrow a phrase, “there and back again”. 7.5/10
Final Score: 7.3/10