UPDATE: I saw The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in 48 frames-per-second 3D. I felt that this format deserved its own article. Check it out here.
BENJAMIN ZAUGG: Right at the beginning of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, there is a wonderful scene depicting Thrór, the Dwarf King of Erebor, surrounded by mountains of gold, going completely mad with greed and power. As I watched the rest of the film I would frequently find myself recalling that scene and substituting that Dwarf King with Peter Jackson.
At a little over 300 pages long, the original paperback of The Hobbit is a rather and short straightforward tale. Originally, Peter Jackson was going to tackle it in two films, adding some backstory/sidestory elements to fill out two separate features. This was a bit of a surprise, but given Jackson’s relatively strong track record I was cautiously optimistic. When I heard that he was splitting the 300-page tale into three films I began to worry.
Going in with these grave concerns I came out at the end neither disappointed nor overly pleased with what I saw. There is no doubt that the movie was a combination of two dark forces: Warner Brother Studios milking three films out of what could easily have been one or two, and Peter Jackson given unlimited power to explore every nook and cranny of his cherished middle-earth. What makes Jackson different to say, George Lucas, is that he is actually an extremely good filmmaker. So while this first installment is overloaded with tacked-on story elements it holds together far better than it has any right to.
If you go into this expecting a faithful film adaptation of the first third of The Hobbit you will probably be disappointed. However, if you want to experience a richly detailed backstory to Lord of The Rings where part of The Hobbit is the main plot line, then this may be your cup of tea. Perhaps because I went in knowing it would be more of the latter I enjoyed myself most of the time.
The problem with expanding the story beyond the original book seems to be that much of its spirit seems to have been lost in the process. Part of what made the book so charming was its very linear Bilbo-centric storyline and Tolkien’s excellent pacing – which was so different from LOTR. With all the backstory and ‘side-quests’ stuffed into this installment there is an added weight that slows down the narrative and it also feels like the story is more about the fellowship than about Bilbo Baggins. This is a particular shame because I felt that Martin Freeman’s Bilbo was the best thing about the film and I would have enjoyed a film more focused on that character’s journey.
It is only the extra story elements that slow things down, not the key ones. The arrival of the dwarves and the unveiling of their plan at the hobbit hole, while a scene or two too long, was very well done. The meeting of Gollum and Bilbo is above and beyond what I ever expected, and the appearance of the Goblin King (Barry Humphries) was excellent.
Whole swathes of story could be cut from around the main plot points and the film would only have benefited. Instead, Jackson seemed to be pulling out every bell and whistle to keep the add-ons interesting. I lost count of how many scenes occurred on or just near an overhanging cliff (there’s a new drinking game), and by the end of the film I’d almost forgotten what normal daylight looked like, because every scene seemed to take place at either sunrise or sunset. The editing seemed to be working overtime to keep things dynamic. Just when I thought they exhausted every camera angle a new one would appear.
Despite being a Frankenstein’s monster of plot and despite being something other than the original tale of The Hobbit, the stunning visuals and extraordinary cast made this film an enjoyable watch. I have no doubt that once all three films are finally released on Blu-ray, someone somewhere will rip and edit them all into a single three-hour epic with no extraneous plot. That film will be incredible. In the meantime, I’m going to treat each of these installments like the extended extended edition releases that they seem to be.