Appropriating part of the title of Jackson’s upcoming third Hobbit movie, There and Back Again, seems like an appropriate way to describe the experience of watching The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. After a nine-year break returning to Middle Earth proves to be a surreal experience, especially for those who came of age with the original trilogy. Things look the same, and familiar faces such as Elijah Wood‘s Frodo appear, albeit with gaunter, less youthfully angelic look. Yet, sadly something seems amiss. The film lacks the sense of power, the majestic sweep of the first Oscar-winning films. This is a hero’s journey that doesn’t really grab you. Despite moments of brilliance it proves to be an uneven, portentous act of filmmaking.
The main storyline takes place sixty years before the beginning of LOTR and follows a young Bilbo played by Martin Freeman (who’s excellent). Despite his relatively youthful appearance, Freeman’s Bilbo behaves like an old curmudgeon. He is full of bluster and is against any intrusion into his quiet lifestyle of good food and comfort in the Shire, except of course when he isn’t, which is a character change that happens remarkably quickly. One day Bilbo is visited by the wizard, Gandalf the Grey (a very fine Ian McKellen), who quickly pegs Bilbo as being the fourteenth member of gang of colorful dwarfs, led by the proud (or sullen) Thorin Oakensheild (played gruffly by Richard Armitage) who want to reclaim their homeland from the greedy dragon Smaug.
It’s immediately apparent that The Hobbit lacks the urgency of LOTR, the motivating factor of impending doom which thrust the Fellowship into action to destroy the ring of power. This is a movie where the characters are motivated by choice, instead of necessity – a problematic feature for the film as it drains some of the drama. It also makes certain character behaviors, such as Bilbo deciding sporadically to join Oakensheild after being initially resistant, feel rather odd.
Worse still, Jackson’s self-conscious direction seems intensely anxious about the noticeable decrease in the story’s stakes. To compensate he includes lots of unwieldy, laborious scenes which try to reestablish the apocalyptic fervor of his earlier films or create actual antagonists for Oakenshield’s company to battle against. Unfortunately, he is not very successful in this endeavor and the overall pacing of the film suffers because of it. Now, The Lord of the Rings also had shit villains, but at least Sauron’s all-seeing eye provided a cool visual, and Christopher Lee’s Saruman was good for at least one or two laughs. Jackson can’t seem to create the same feeling of existential dread here. He audaciously augments certain passages from the book (such as the huge expansion of the White Orc character, Arzog) in a desperate attempt to give his film a climax (as the film covers only up to about chapter seven of the book).
With such profound liberties taken, one must question the merits of New Line Cinema choosing to split up Tolkien’s 300 or so page novel into three 2.5 hour films. When watching The Hobbit one feels Jackson’s struggle to fill up the film’s needlessly gargantuan running time. The director pulls out all the stops, lingering on a prolonged roundtable discussion between our old pals Gandalf, Saruman, Galadriel (Cate Blanchett – who looks like she hasn’t aged a day) and Hugo Weaving’s Elrond (who does). He also greatly expands upon the character of Radagast the Brown, tosses in several scenes of dwarf singing, and caters to those looking for comedic relief by including scene after scene of dwarf tomfoolery that is just painfully unfunny.
The film will register for some as being a less successful retread of The Fellowship of the Ring, as many scenes focus on exactly the same subject matter but feel like the work of someone far less impassioned. Do you remember the stunning introduction to the Shire in The Fellowship of the Ring, where one got a real sense of the community and inhabitants who live there? Well, our reintroduction here is reduced to a simple camera pan across the landscape, which comes off as a lazy cop-out. Do you remember what is probably the most powerful scene in Fellowship, where Gandalf beautifully explains to Frodo the importance of mercy in shaping larger events? A similar scene transpires in The Hobbit between Bilbo and the Wizard, yet it has all the authenticity of soap-box advice, and all the originality of a fortune-cookie.
After the floundering, unfocused first half The Hobbit finally roars to life with the appearance of Andy Serkis’s iconic, CGI-assisted evocation of misery and corruption: the pitiful Gollum. The much celebrated “Riddles in the Dark” sequence is where The Hobbit finally reestablishes some of the palpable emotion found in the earlier series. Serkis is flat-out brilliant in the role, and the effects work on Gollum is noticeably superior to when we last saw this pathetic creep getting incinerated in the fires of Mount Doom. It is a sequence which also reminds you of Jackson’s considerable abilities as a director. The taut, intense camera-work and excellent blocking show Jackson is still capable of zeroing in on emotional specificity, and can occasionally place spectacle second. This is something which had become dubious after the bloated direction of The Lovely Bones and King Kong.
The Hobbit – An Unexpected Journey produces powerful nostalgia, as Jackson pushes hard to connect it to his original trilogy. In Hobbit, when one hears small snatches of Howard Shores’s instantly recognizable score from the earlier films, it is difficult to not become emotional. Yet, the emotion is not connected to anything that we are currently seeing on-screen. It is produced through how the film appears similar to the original series, yet lacks not only its involving characters and potent thematic material, but also its stylistic bravado. It is clear that not only does the source material of Hobbit not merit a nine-hour trilogy, but that LOTR was the work of a younger man and that lightning in this case will not be striking twice.