The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, review by Greg Wright
I must confess: I capitulated to pessimism in the weeks leading up to the theatrical release of the first of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit films. I had been increasingly skeptical that these adaptations would be anything but dark and violent, almost the opposite of the colorful and often light-hearted tale that Tolkien originally wrote. Yes, I am fully aware that things get awfully bleak once Bilbo and company cross the Great River and forge into Mirkwood—but the first third of the book includes an awful lot of humor in the context of danger (such as the encounter with the Trolls, and even “Riddles in the Dark”), giddily awkward songs, and a lightness of tone that makes Rivendell feel like an eternal birthday party.
So the good news: my pessimism on these issues was largely unfounded. Unlike the theatrical release of The Fellowship of the Ring, An Unexpected Journey doesn’t feel rushed. It moves at a pace, and with an ethos, that would have made room for Tom Bombadil in Fellowship. The colors are bright—exceptionally bright, and clear, thanks to the care that Jackson and New Line have put into the 48fps 3-D presentation. The songs are there, in all their silliness and pomposity. Elrond and Rivendell actually seem pleasant instead of grim and dour (if beautiful). Bilbo’s encounter with Gollum produces both chills and belly laughs. We even get a healthy dose of witty homages to The Fellowship of the Ring, including numerous cameos of both principal cast members and memorable bit roles.
But frankly, all this narrative generosity doesn’t add up to feeling like a good thing. Journey seems so intent on being thorough, detailed, and spacious that it never manages to develop either the emotional resonance or cinematic momentum of The Fellowship of the Ring.
Like Fellowship, Unexpected Journey often feels like an extended exercise in “setting the stage,” as it were, rather than an actual story being told. It does manage to do justice to Tolkien’s original work better than I expected—but it’s missing the spark of excellence and audacity found in Fellowship and Return of the King. Peter Jackson (and the audience) would have been better off with a film that made him happy, rather than a film that feels designed to please a picky and territorial fan base. It never develops any real emotional punch&mash;no gravitas. It never feels like anything is really at stake.
The one exception is Bilbo’s decision to spare Gollum’s life. That’s the heart of this episode in the trilogy, and it’s a fine moment—and also a key connection with the larger scope of Jackson’s Middle-earth. The important point, again, is not entirely that Bilbo finds room in his heart for mercy, motivated by pity. It’s that, through that merciful act, the larger Providential arc of Divine movement is worked out. Neither Bilbo, nor Frodo, nor even Gandalf, Elrond, or Galadriel, are powerful enough to save Middle-earth from great Evil. Evil will ultimately destroy itself through its own evil impulses, and Gollum is the agent of that demise—in spite of the best intentions of others.
Other themes also register, but don’t fare as well. For Thorin and the other Dwarves, Jackson scripts a nice speech for Bilbo about the need to find a home—and it’s a thoughtful and creative solution for the dilemma of creating a through-line for Unexpected Journey. It’s just a shame that Bilbo connects with Thorin through a violent act fabricated by Jackson and company—especially when, early on in the film, Gandalf advises Bilbo that “true courage is not about knowing when to take a life, but when to spare one.” It seems that, to Peter Jackson, such advice simply doesn’t apply to the “unredeemable.”
Still and all, the film was for me an unexpected lack of irritation, and a more-or-less satisfying return to Middle-earth… though it certainly doesn’t measure up to the best of Jackson’s forays into Tolkien’s world. I’ll applaud Jackson for using the film to break new ground with cinematic technology, and for achieving a somewhat kinder, gentler Middle-earth.
But this is simply not a compelling film, except for the most die-hard of fans. One of the British reviews of the film has said it looks like “the most expensive TV program ever produced.” I think that hits it about on the head.
Greg Wright is the author of Peter Jackson in Perspective: The Power Behind Cinema’s The Lord of the Rings (2004).
Check it out tonight, and don’t forget to dine local first!