When I found out that Peter Jackson was planning on filming The Hobbit, the beloved prequel to The Lord of the Rings trilogy, it seemed out of order—the appetizer after the three-course entree.
But I was willing to play along. After all, the filmgoing public—and Jackson himself, obviously—has a great affinity for Tolkien’s characters and stories. Why not give us more?
That was before I found out that Jackson was planning on turning The Hobbit, a slim volume at best, into another film trilogy. What’s Elvish for “ripping people off”? (I’m just glad that Jackson didn’t have this extreme impulse toward gigantism 10 years ago, when he first started The Lord of the Rings trilogy—we’d probably be up to our 9th installment at this point.)
At the very least, you would expect that The Hobbit would be turned into three compact films. Wrong again! The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, clocks in at an orc-sized 166 minutes. Even Gandalf himself couldn’t get so much blood out of that stone.
For those who haven’t read the book, it focuses on Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), a modest Hobbit living a life of creature comforts and contentment in his small village. One day, he is visited by the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellan) and told that he is being recruited to aid on a great adventure. He balks, but is later ambushed by a small army of exiled dwarves—friendly, but hungry—arriving at his doorstep. They’ve been driven out of their mountain kingdom by the evil orcs (and one really nasty dragon) and they want to reclaim what is rightfully theirs, including a mountain-full of gold. (Instead of using CGI to depict this awesome gold, Jackson apparently just used the actual money he made from the first trilogy. I kid. . . I kid.)
With their bulbous noses and elaborate facial hair, most of these dwarves look like Robin Williams playing Popeye, or perhaps Sean Penn in a ZZ Top biopic, but their leader, the brave King Thorin (Richard Armitage) is a handsome, strapping man—can a dwarf be strapping?—with a luxurious beard and piercing blue eyes. A natural warrior, he immediately distrusts the pacifist Bilbo, and their adversarial relationship is at the heart of this first installment.
I hate to cynically suggest that Jackson milks this first dinner party for all it’s worth—there’s even a musical number as the dwarves clean up—then milks the fights with the various trolls and orcs along the way for all they’re worth and then milks the side story of the wizard Radagast and his adorable animal kingdom under siege for all it’s worth. . . but my 3D-weary eyes don’t lie.
Of course, there’s some skill on display here. Jackson still is the master of blending gorgeous scenery with briliiantly imaginative CGI and the acting is quite fine, especially in a scene where Bilbo matches wits with the sniveling Gollum (Andy Serkis, reprising his motion-capture role). Still, all of the somewhat risible tendencies of The Lord of the Rings trilogy—specifically the panoramic shots of characters walking (as parodied brilliantly in this faux trailer)—are on display here, without the sense of grand purpose that fortified that masterful work.
The irony is rich that, for a story about the strength of small things, The Hobbit feels bloated almost beyond recognition.