The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Director: Peter Jackson
Writers: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, and Guillermo del Toro. Based upon the novel The Hobbit, There And Back Again by J.R.R. Tolkien.
Cast: Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Ken Stott, Graham McTavish, William Kircher, James Nesbitt, Stephen Hunter, Dean O'Gorman, Aidan Turner, John Callen, Peter Hambleton, Jed Brophy, Mark Hadlow, Adam Brown, Ian Holm, Elijah Wood, Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett, Christopher Lee, Andy Serkis, Sylvester McCoy, Manu Bennett
In spite of being too long and overly padded, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey manages to offer up a few small pleasures (in addition to a couple of interesting subtexts).
Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) an ordinary hobbit is roped into joining a dwarven expedition to reclaim a lost city by the mischievous wizard, Gandalf (Ian McKellen). The dwarves, lead by Prince Thorin (Richard Armitage), are without a homeland to call their own, but in order to slay the dragon that now occupies the city of Erebor, they will need Bilbo's help to find a secret entrance into the cave. After the journey is started, Bilbo meets a strange creature, Gollum (Andy Serkis) and acquires a strange ring from with mysterious properties.
Tolkien is not a writer who ever made it his goal to say what he needed to with as few words as possible. One of the huge advantages The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy had over the books was how they condensed Tolkiens work without losing too many of the details and nuance of Middle Earth. Unfortunately, with An Unexpected Journey Peter Jackson seems dedicated to mimicing Tolkien by drawing out every unnecessary detail possible. There's also a couple of battles with orcs that I do not recall from the book, although it has been almost two decades since I read it.
I'll grant that some of the additional material is interesting, such as how it's suggested here that Saruman has already gone over to the dark side and Radagast discovering the Necromancer (who I'm guessing is supposed to be Sauron), but I'm really not convinced that there is enough material to support three films. The Hobbit is light fantasy story about slaying a dragon and lacks the epic structure that helped build The Lord of the Rings into one of the greatest film series in recent memory.
With the additional material, The Hobbit could have been built up into two films, both of which could have received the Extended Edition treatment. In fact, there's plenty of material here that I think would have worked better in that context. Scenes such as those with Bilbo Baggins interacting with Frodo or the scene with Gandalf and Galadriel where Gandalf explains why he choose Bilbo for the expedition would have been fine for an extended cut. In the theatrical edition, they feel self indulgent and only served to remind me of how quickly movie theater seats can turn into torture devices.
There is also the issue of that feeling of "been there, done that, got the t-shirt that says I Survived the Mines of Moria". I kept finding myself in a perpetual state of, "Haven't I seen this set/locale/character/prop/shot/battle/fight/scene before?" Howard Shore seems to have been paid just so he could cannibalize his score from Lord of the Rings. I actually enjoyed the superfluous material that came with the inclusion of Radagast the Wizard, simply because he was a completely new character. However that does not change the fact that this issue would have been alleviated if some of the redundant material could have been relegated to an extended edition.
As for queer subtexts, there are almost none. This is rather unlike the Lord of the Rings where they were all over the place, (Frodo and Sam, Gimli and Legolas, Merry and Pippin). However, it did seem to me that two of the dwarves, Kili and Fili, were based upon Merry and Pippin and that they shared a similar bond. Also unlike the Lord of the Rings movies, there are no beefed up straight romances. I will say though that Richard Armitage seems to have been cast in order to provide a little dwarven eye candy. In fact, the dwarves are presented as more human in appearance here than one typically finds on film.
There are also a few other subtexts I want to comment on. Here, the dwarves quest to reclaim Erebor reminded me of the Jewish attempts to secure their own state. Not only that but the dwarves appearance, with their unshaven beards and braided sides reflect that of Hasidic Jews. A certain stereotype of Jews is also reflected in the Dwarves pursuit of riches and wealth through mining. This subtext becomes more interesting when one considers the ways Lord of the Rings mimics World War II, with the ring Bilbo discovers reflecting the development of nuclear power.
Speaking of the ring, it has it's own subtext as well in the way it seems to have been inspired by the Ring of Gyges. The Ring of Gyges was a mythical ring that turned it's wearer invisible, thereby granting them unlimited power. Socrates argued in The Republic that if such a ring were to exist, anyone who wore it would be corrupted by the unlimited power that would be granted. In a way, Tolkien and the filmmakers appear to refuting Socrates by arguing that human empathy can over come our petty quests to dominate one another. Indeed, the scene where Bilbo decides to spare Gollum's life is among the most compelling out if all the movies, especially when one considers the ultimate consequences of that decision.
In spite of the pacing issues, I do still recommend this, but with qualifications. It's simply that this not so unexpected journey is just not as great as it could be.
*** out of ****
Want to find a review of a particular work? Check out the Title Index, the archive of all reviews posted listed alphabetically.