After rescuing film production of The Hobbit from years in purgatory, Peter Jackson deserves to make the most of his opportunity to bring the movie to the big screen. The filmmaker was due that courtesy given his box-office success with The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and his crowning triumph at the Academy Awards with The Return of the King, which earned 11 Oscars.
And so with no financial, legal, or studio obstacles in his path, Jackson has free rein to adapt J.R.R. Tolkien's beloved fantasy book his way, beginning with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.
It's a pity then that the filmmaker and his writing partners -- Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, along with one-time Hobbit director Guillermo del Toro -- opt to go full-on epic with the delightful children's tale, and spread thin -- like butter scraped across toast, to borrow an analogy from The Lord of the Rings -- what should be a two-part series into what is shaping up to be a bloated trilogy.
Jackson and company dug deep into Middle-earth lore to expand the scope and length of The Hobbit's small-scale story by tapping into Tolkien's later writings. Think of them as footnotes, character biographies, and appendices that have been fleshed out for the films as new subplots. But Tolkien didn't dream up The Hobbit for such lofty ambitions -- at least initially -- and these additions are distractions that steal our attention from what is a rollicking good adventure tale, as a group of revenge-minded dwarves, along with the wizard Gandalf, enlist the aid of the simple Hobbit Bilbo Baggins for a perilous quest to reclaim the dwarves' riches from the monstrous fire-breathing dragon Smaug.
Jackson handles best the trip to meet the dragon when he gives these scenes his full attention. It's in those moments that An Unexpected Journey soars to the level of the director's best work, with thrilling action sequences and the quiet character moments that make us care about those we're rooting for.
But while there is still magic aplenty in Middle-earth, much of this journey we've seen many times before: the sweeping shots of the adventurers as the camera pulls back to reveal magnificent vistas; the god-like views of our heroes' battles with goblins on rickety wooden bridges; the dizzying chase sequence through dark caves, forests, and meadows. As beautiful a backdrop as New Zealand makes, and as gorgeous as the CGI from Jackson's Weta effects house can be, it's all too familiar by now and at points nearly inseparable from moment to moment.
Credit Jackson and his team, though, for the impeccable casting of another fantasy film trilogy, with Martin Freeman a delight as Bilbo, capturing the Hobbit's fussy wit and couched bravery, as well as the important character arc of disbelief in himself as the hero type. Freeman is an overlooked actor: quiet, effective, and one who goes about his business, as one would expect of a Hobbit.
The other major character additions are the dozen dwarves with whimsical names that rhyme -- Balin, Dwalin, Bifur, Bofur, Bombur, Fili, Kili, Oin, Gloin, Nori, Dori, Ori -- and their leader Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), the would-be Dwarven king who wants nothing more than to slay Smaug and take back his kingdom.
The dwarves are a merry, friendly lot -- Jackson manages to keep two of their songs from the book in his film as a wink to Tolkien fanboys -- who also can be ornery, gluttonous, and greedy, and who bear a decades-old bitterness toward elves.
There are the familiar faces as well, most prominently Ian McKellen as Gandalf, and Andy Serkis as the voice and movement of Gollum. Decades before Frodo's quest in the Rings trilogy, it's Bilbo who first encounters Gollum in a dimly lit cavern and engages in a life-or-death game of riddles with the withered creature. It's also Bilbo who finds Gollum's Precious, the One Ring that will change Middle-earth's destiny.
The only other significant new character introduction is Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy), an odd wizard who lives in the forest and communes with the animals. Virtually shunned by the Order of Wizards, with the exception of Gandalf, Radagast makes the discovery of a sinister new evil presence in the land. This is one of the half-baked film subplots not found in The Hobbit, but that Tolkien later wrote about, which presumably will be resolved with payoffs in the latter movie installments.
Jackson's biggest failing with the first installment of The Hobbit is that he crowds out a great story with such minor plot developments that carry no immediate importance to the movie or characters. Much of the film is an aside, and at two hours and 46 minutes, it's entirely too long.
This seems to be a pattern with Jackson and his post-Lord of the Rings works, particularly the film within a film within a film that is his King Kong remake.
An Unexpected Journey is the director's cut, but what it really needs is the editor's cut.
NOTE: The review screening was presented in 3-D, which is terrific, but The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey also will be shown locally at Franklin Park and Fallen Timbers in the new HFR (high frame rate) 3-D format, and well as in standard 2-D. Look for an update to this review in the next few days to include my reaction to HFR 3-D.
Contact Kirk Baird at firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6734.