In the days leading up to the release of Peter Jackson’s newest epic fantasy, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the big question fans were asking was how he was going to stretch such a short story into three movies. The answer: with bullshit and melodrama.
As the first part of a planned trilogy, An Unexpected Journey adapts the first part of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. It tells the story of a halfling named Bilbo, who, with the encouragement of Gandalf the wizard, sets off to help a group of dwarves reclaim their home from a malicious dragon.
Martin Freeman is perfect in the role of Bilbo, the story’s reluctant hero — Bilbo’s mix of fear, bravery, politeness and indignation are portrayed flawlessly. Sir Ian McKellen’s return as Gandalf is also very enjoyable and he clearly loves every moment spent inhabiting Middle Earth. Thorin (Richard Armitage), the leader of the dwarves, is suitably proud and haughty — though he unfortunately spends most of the movie glowering. Only a few of the other dwarves get any real screen time and keeping track of who is who can be quite difficult, though the dwarven identity and culture is still carried across impressively.
The film is visually amazing. The groundbreaking 48 frames per second combined with well-executed 3D is stunning and used to great effect in some magnificent scenes. The level of detail and quality of the digital effects are superb. The score is also wonderful and several of the dwarven songs from the novel are kept and are delightful to hear. Unfortunately, though, music from Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy is reused quite often.
However, this is far from the biggest problem: the film, quite simply, is not The Hobbit as Tolkien wrote it. There are new heroes and villains, invented history, thematic changes and barely any scenes from the book that escape unchanged. Some added scenes, like the opening view of Erebor in its prime, don’t interfere with the original story and instead take advantage of the visual nature of the medium. But most of the changes seem to exist to simply stretch out the film, or to entice fans of Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings.
These changes result in a rather jarringly inconsistent tone — while Tolkien’s The Hobbit is a lighthearted children’s fantasy, Jackson’s changes add many scenes that carry the weighty melodrama of The Lord of the Rings. This results in a bipolar film that has singing dwarves in one moment and dour-faced elves in the next.
The final disappointing aspect was a noticeable lack of subtlety. Barely anything is revealed over time in this film, and instead things are stated plainly upfront, taking away much of the story’s weight. Themes that were developed subtly throughout the novel, such as the corruption of wealth, are shoved in the audience’s face right from the beginning of the film. Also, Bilbo’s entire character arc of going from a reluctant homebody to a brave hero seems to have been crammed into this first movie, leaving audiences little to look forward to in the next two films.
While The Hobbit is a beautiful film and strong proof for the validity of shooting in 48 FPS, it falls flat where Jackson has stretched Tolkien’s work into a story that isn’t quite sure what it should be. If you are purely a fan of the The Lord of the Rings films and not familiar with the books, you might find An Unexpected Journey to be enjoyable. However, it is sure to make most Tolkien purists cringe and audiences unfamiliar with the films or the books will likely be completely lost. Had the adaptation been kept to one or two films, the story could have stayed true to the novel but, with so much time to fill, it comes across as a mediocre and unfocused effort.