It has been nine long years since director Peter Jackson's last foray into the realm of J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth. Since then, The Hobbit has had a difficult road to the silver screen, with rights changing hands, lawsuits, and even changing directors from Guillermo del Toro, whom Jackson personally recommended for the project, back to Jackson himself.
Now that it's finally here, there are still plenty of concerns surrounding the film - or more specifically, the three films Jackson (and no doubt Warner Bros.) has broken Tolkien's 300 page novel into. Criticisms of bloat and an overly long running time have permeated nearly every review, leaving many to wonder exactly how they plan to stretch out relatively little material into three two-plus-hour motion pictures. To put it in perspective, The Lord of the Rings is around 1,300 pages long and though many sacrifices and cuts were made, was adapted into as many films as their single 300 page precursor.
The complaints definitely have some merit. After seeing the first chapter of the film trilogy, subtitled An Unexpected Journey, I couldn't help but wonder how Jackson is going to squeeze two more films out of Tolkien's seminal children's fantasy, even if he translates every event to the big screen. In all honesty, there were numerous points during An Unexpected Journey that I felt were superfluous and could have been excised entirely. Whatever problems it may have had, from oversimplification and trivializing some of the more serious moments from the book, the Rankin/Bass animated adaptation of The Hobbit manages to depict nearly all of the major events in its sub-two-hour running time.
The opposite is true in Jackson's film. Not only does he cover the first half of the novel in this first film, he adds several sequences that are not in it at all, cribs characters from other Tolkien lore and transplants them here, and extends some sequences well beyond their necessity. An Unexpected Journey isn't a terrible film, but it feels too self-indulgent, and some clumsy writing gets in the way of the rather straightforward story.
There seems little reason to summarize the plot. Anyone reading this is most likely already familiar with The Hobbit, and more than likely The Lord of the Rings, arguably the most beloved and influential works of fantasy fiction ever written. With that in mind, what I'm about to say may seem tantamount to blasphemy, but some of An Unexpected Journey's problems can be traced back to the source material.
While Jackson could be accused of changing, reworking, rearranging, and altering The Lord of the Rings for his films, its his strict adherence to the novel here that renders the troupe of thirteen dwarves mostly faceless. Apart from the company's leader, Thorin, the other twelve have very little to do and are nigh indistinguishable from each other, save in appearance. It would be easy to lay the blame on Jackson for not developing the characters, but in reality he had little to work with save the book's meager descriptions, which offer little more than "they were the youngest," or "they were the best at building fires." Jackson fleshes out Kili by showcasing him as a decent marksman with a shortbow, but by and large the dwarves are as underdeveloped are they are in Tolkien's work.
Surprisingly, I didn't find the beginning nearly as slow as the majority of reviewers. Opening with a prologue which tells the history of Erabor, the dwarven kingdom ruled by Thorin's grandfather, it transitions into a brief interstitial featuring an aged Bilbo (Ian Holm) and his nephew, Frodo (Elijah Wood) preparing for the former's 111th birthday party, as depicted in The Fellowship of the Ring. While it is somewhat interesting, and heartwarming to see Holm and Wood reprise their iconic roles, it is extraneous.
But even the moments that follow, much of which are taken straight from the book, drag a bit as the company of dwarves invade young Bilbo's home without warning, raid his pantry, and sing a couple of songs. Much of the humor in these scenes, and indeed many others, falls utterly flat and is one of the film's biggest failings, especially later on when it's used in scenes that had a more serious tone in the novel.
Like the book, An Unexpected Journey is basically one series of misfortunes after another for Thorin's company, with Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) disappearing at various times only to reappear and get them out of a jam. When it sticks close to the source, it's largely solid, but nearly every deviation fails - such as the superfluous, cameo-filled meeting with Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), Saruman (Christopher Lee), and Elrond (Hugo Weaving) that takes place in Rivendell and is rife with clumsy foreshadowing and figurative elbows to the audience saying, "remember when this happens in Lord of the Rings?"
Similarly, the appearance of Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy), is utterly dreadful. The disheveled, eccentric wizard whose face is perpetually caked with bird droppings is barely mentioned in the book, and only plays a minor part in the Rings novels, yet here he's given several minutes of screen time, including the revelation of the Necromancer - something Gandalf discovers for himself on one of his adjuncts in the book. Radagast is a caricaturesque character that serves little purpose save to expand the already-too-long running time of the film.
The appearance of Azog, also known as the Pale Orc, seems to shift the story's focus from Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) to Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage). Though Azog isn't an invention of Jackson's, he is only mentioned in the appendices of The Lord of the Rings. His inclusion here follows Tolkien's established lore, and serves the dual purpose of providing an antagonist for the audience to focus their ire on, though it's debatable how necessary it is. It's an odd change, seeing as how the very title of the work centers around Bilbo. At numerous points in the film, the titular hobbit all but disappears into the scenery, becoming a tertiary character so Thorin can glower at someone or Gandalf can take center stage.
It's not all bad, however. Freeman is given several chances to shine, and his twitchy, quick-tempered interpretation of Bilbo is frighteningly reminiscent of Ian Holm's older variation. Most of the comedy stemming from Bilbo is endearing and genuinely in line with someone whose quiet life has been uprooted and flipped upside down. Armitage is also impressive as Thorin, a stubborn but brave and intelligent born-leader.
Most people will probably walk away from The Hobbit remembering its most iconic scene, the chapter titled "Riddles in the Dark" in the novel. It is here we are first introduced to Gollum, once again brought to life by Andy Serkis and the true wizards at Weta Digital, and Bilbo discovers the One Ring - though he does not yet understand its significance.
This scene is one of the instances where Jackson's humor spoils the mood a bit, but it's easily the most engrossing part of the film as the two trade riddles to decide whether Gollum shows Bilbo the way out, or eats him whole. Serkis is once again marvelous, Gollum looks more real than ever, and Jackson wisely sticks to Tolkien's text, though he omits several riddles and truncates another.
It's easy to point out the many flaws of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, but truth be told, in spite of all my gripes I still enjoyed it by and large. When it adheres to the source material, it tends to work very well, only failing in the same places where Tolkien himself failed. There are some genuinely exciting moments, though they're on a much smaller scale than the epic battles of the Rings trilogy, but the humor is often clumsy and the numerous attempts to tie the story to its successor are wholly unnecessary. Fans of the world Jackson created are likely to enjoy it, and Tolkien scholars are likely to despise it and nitpick every difference. As one who stands firmly in the middle of both camps - someone who can appreciate the films for what they are, and the books for what they are, as separate entities - I was left feeling that a good editor could have turned An Unexpected Journey from a good film into a great one.