I’m not really a J.R.R. Tolkien fan; somehow I missed that particular boat as a young reader. Indeed, for me part of the magic of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy was that it pulled me onto the boat in the first place. The Fellowship of the Ring enthralled me with its visual artistry, well drawn characters, epic scope, and ensemble chemistry. It drew me into its world by the heart and left me not just converted, but addicted.
By the time the trilogy closed, though, I think the addiction had started to wear off. There is something to be said for restraint, and Jackson’s career post-Fellowship has been a case study in escalating, unchecked filmmaking power. He held me through The Two Towers, but The Return of the King — while still providing satisfying closure — was riddled with action setpiece indulgences that I found a bit too over-the-top. Then I saw King Kong, which proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that Jackson had become a 900-pound-gorilla (sorry) with no external editor — in my opinion, to the considerable detriment of his work.
And so to The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012), the director’s highly anticipated return to Middle-earth. I went into this one with reservations. Could Jackson manage to stretch Tolkien’s shorter, simpler prequel into an epic three-chapter spectacle? And, more importantly, why was he trying? Why not simply bring the novel succinctly to life as one successful film? I suspect the answer is at least partly mercenary.
The story involves a younger Bilbo Baggins (the smartly cast Martin Freeman), recruited by crafty wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) to join a quest. A band of dwarves has set off to regain their homeland, which was stolen by the gold-hording dragon Smaug long ago. Led by the fearless, no-nonsense Thorin (Richard Armitage), the dwarves plan to journey to the Lonely Mountain, Erebor, to reclaim their kingdom. Since Smaug is familiar with the scent of dwarf, Bilbo is recruited — somewhat arbitrarily, it seems to me — because Smaug will not be able to detect his hobbit scent. They set off on their journey, which involves perilous encounters with trolls, orcs, and goblins, while also forcing them to cross paths with their hated rivals, the elves, in Rivendell.
I found the film diverting and, in places, entertaining. The opening prologue setting up the dwarven history is well handled, and there are a handful of powerful character moments involving camaraderie between Bilbo, Gandalf, and the dwarves. From time to time, a glimmer of LOTR magic shined through the spectacle.
But too much of this film is merely spectacle: flabby, padded, indulgent spectacle. Jackson clearly loves this world, but he loves it beyond all reason. And while a certain amount of passion for the material can be converting, too much can be distancing. The Lord of the Rings invited me in and won me over, made me feel like part of the experience. The Hobbit, by contrast, feels like an accomplished but unstructured romp through someone else’s passions. I did not feel invited to experience it; it was simply shown to me.
Of course, those who share Jackson’s passion will have a lot to revel in. If you’re not looking for the woods, the trees are fun. But to me it made for a structurally unsatisfying film. The beginning struck me as particularly sleepy; the introduction of the dwarves stretches on excessively, as does Bilbo’s reluctance to join them. There’s a pointless flash-forward involving Frodo, and a distractingly long interlude involving Elrond (Hugo Weaving), Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and Saruman (Christopher Lee). There’s a weird sidebar featuring Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy), who I understand doesn’t even appear in the novel. And vast stretches of the final third of the film are consumed by the kind of preposterous, cartoonish action setpieces that marred The Return of the King and King Kong. Some of this time would surely have been better spent streamlining and perfecting the important troll scene (which seemed short-shrifted to me); much of the rest of it could have been cut entirely.
Will I continue with the series? Most likely, if only to keep my finger on the pulse of the movie-going zeitgeist. And there were some worthwhile elements, to be sure. McKellen and Freeman were quite good, and the scene with Gollum (Andy Serkis) was strongly rendered. There’s something to be said for beautifully crafted Middle-earth travel porn. But alas, only traces of magic linger here for me. If there is a great adaptation of The Hobbit to be had here, I suspect it will have to be carved ruthlessly from what’s shaping up to be a rather bloated and sprawling franchise. We shall see.