The Hobbit An Unexpected Journey Is Genuinely Not A Bad One

The confirmation that Peter Jackson’s long-rumored, long-delayed movie adaptation of The Hobbit would be split into two movies was greeted with fan amazement and disbelief. The later announcement that it would actually be three movies upped the ante to disgust and frothing rage. How, exactly, did the shortest and simplest of J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy novels merit as many films as his entire Lord Of The Rings trilogy? Wasn’t this an obvious cash grab? Considered that Rankin-Bass was able to cover most of the book’s high points in under 90 minutes in the 1977 animated adaptation of The Hobbit, how could a simple third of the novel stretch to 169 minutes in the first film, The Hobbit An Unexpected Journey?

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The answer: Through many acts of stalling and stretching, which come in a variety of types:

Repetition. An Unexpected Journey kicks off with a frame story that involves Ian Holm reprising his role as old Bilbo Baggins, and Elijah Wood returning as Frodo, for scenes set just before Bilbo’s birthday party from The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring, and focused mostly on setting up events already seen in that film.

Visualization. Journey takes its time with the backstory that brings 13 rambunctious dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) to hire young Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) for a quest to reclaim the dwarf treasure stolen by the dragon Smaug. The film takes any hint of combat or action from the books as an opportunity to flesh out a full-on battle sequence, and stories the book covers briefly or offscreen—Smaug’s takeover of the dwarven mountain/city of Erebor, a faceoff against mountain trolls, an escape from a goblin cavern—are instead illustrated in long, expansive scenes.

Insertion. Journey fills out and inserts material from Tolkien’s Unfinished Tales and The Silmarillion, particularly a side story that has the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen, also reprising his Rings role) investigating news of a dangerous necromancer coming to power. Naturalist wizard Radagast The Brown (Sylvester McCoy, former Doctor Who star), who gets one mention in passing in The Hobbit, here gets a ton of lengthy, wacky scenes based on Tolkien’s notes about his character.

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Whole sale invention. Like Jackson’s Rings movies, Journey sticks tightly by some of Tolkien’s original material, but it goes much further than past films in terms of altering it for dramatic effect. Journey is filled with newly written material, most notably detailing a personal grudge between Thorin and the orc Azog The Defiler, which leads the latter to seek the former all over Middle Earth, through many chases and battles across Journey. It also invents a significant crisis of faith for Bilbo, and uses it to force a broader and more stridently emphasized character arc onto a story that originally followed a more natural, less heightened progression.

Some of the extra material bogs down the film, or becomes repetitious. Some of it ventures into the arena of the ridiculous. (See Spoiler Space, linked below.) But some of it inserts the epic-adventure spirit of the Lord Of The Rings movies into a story that was always considerably smaller. Thorin’s quest for the treasure of Lonely Mountain comes across in The Hobbit as petty and selfish by contrast with the cause that binds the protagonists together in the Rings novels, and the quest’s progress is a series of embarrassing but exciting misadventures. The Hobbit explains how Bilbo became an unusual hero, and how he got his hands on the One Ring, but it hardly portrays his journey in a positive light, considering how much time Thorin and his crew spend puffing themselves up, then involving in trouble and needing rescue.

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The conflict between The Hobbit material, the ancillary material, and the material generated by Jackson and his collaborators (his usual screenwriting partners Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, alongside Guillermo del Toro, the original director before production delays made him tap out) all builds to a problematic tonal confusion. Jackson mostly shoots for a lighter tone than he did in the Rings movies, with more comic business and slapstick beats. The situational humor evokes the Rings movies’ jokes about dwarf-tossing and the dwarf Gimli forever being on the losing end of his rivalry with the elf Legolas. (Maybe dwarves are just the natural clowns of Middle Earth?) A life-or-death pursuit where orcs chase Radagast and his rabbit-drawn sledge turns into a giddy, gibe-strewn event that strongly conjures the pod race in The Phantom Menace, and not just because it’s nearly entirely CGI.

But at other times, Jackson attempts to re-create the Rings movies’ gravitas and sense of scale and importance. In particular, when Gandalf reunites with his mentor Saruman (Christopher Lee) and the elves Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and Elrond (Hugo Weaving) to discuss the necromancer threat, the movie suddenly feels like it’s left the children’s table at a holiday gathering, and moved to the adults’ room. The problem is, the threat they’re just beginning to understand was already resolved in the Rings films, which dissolves any sense of stakes.

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None of this makes The Hobbit An Unexpected Journey a bad movie. At its best, it recaptures the Rings movies’ breadth, detail, and staggering sense of beauty. Jackson retains the sense of an entire world created on a vast scope for a film. The design is beautiful to a fault; the score is sweeping and energizing. Even without gravitas, Jackson’s work has majesty and beauty on its side. And some of the invented material does work efficiently: Thorin’s longstanding enmity with Azog gives the story more shape. His pursuit of Thorin adds a personal touch to the ongoing encounters with orcs, rather than the book’s sense that orcs are everywhere in Middle Earth as a generic threat. And as in last installments, Jackson uses diegetic music—with lyrics taken from The Hobbit—to set a daunting mood, and to deliver the sense that these characters are nuanced enough to have their own arts.

But in comparing with the other Rings films—the extremely high bar Jackson has already set for himself—Unexpected Journey falls short and seems muddled, yet too eager to please its loyal audiences with an obligatory swordfight every few sequences. It overextends itself literally, by drawing out scenes too long, but also figuratively, by mushing too many stories together and failing to maintain a tight focus on any of them. It often feels like trying to watch two or three films at once, which explains the length as well as the erratic tone. And its attempts to fuse Tolkien’s classic material with more modern story beats make this film feel more like a Harry Potter installment than another Rings movie.

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The weird thing is, many of these issues could be handled by editing Unexpected Journey down to two hours or less of propulsive storytelling. The film instead feels like Jackson is so determined not to leave any of Tolkien’s writing unadapted—or any potential profits unclaimed—that he loses sight of whether all the material he’s tossing together belongs in the same overstuffed kitchen sink.

Note: Jackson shot Unexpected Journey at 48 frames per second rather than the usual 24, to give the film a sharper, more realistic look; this is a first for a feature film. Reactions have varied; some viewers won’t notice, some like the sharper image, and some have found it immensely irritating. It’s codifying the TV motion-smoothing setting Scott Tobias wrote about scathingly back in August by doubling the frame rate in shooting rather than just in playback. But like motion-smoothing, the technique sharpens the picture while producing images that look remarkably video-like and unreal. I saw the film in 48 fps and hated it.

To my eyes, it looked like cheap CGI; the higher frame rate has a flattening effect that makes everything look shallower, more pixelated, and more artificial. Even the scenes Jackson shot in real places look like something whipped up in Robert Rodriguez’s trailer. The sharper detail also makes the actual CGI stand out and reveals every little flaw, particularly during the big action scenes where actors are replaced with wireframe dummies.

I’d advise skipping the 48 fps version if you can; it’s only being shown in around 450 theaters nationwide, but theaters may not be advertising whether they’re showing the 48 fps version or the regular 24. Whether you love or hate motion-smoothing on your TV, or just can’t tell the difference, it’d be smart to check your local listings or call your local theater and find out which version you’re getting, so you know what to expect.

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The Hobbit An Unexpected Journey Is Genuinely Not A Bad One
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