I saw The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey on opening night, of course, which has given me a month to let the film simmer and plenty of time to reflect upon. Turns out thatís not a positive thing, however, because the more I think about this first Hobbit film, the more glaringly problematic it becomes and the less I like it. Perhaps most tellingly of all, I canít shake the feeling Peter Jackson has made a major mistake, or rather several.
Lord of the Rings is neck and neck with Star Wars as my favorite film of all time and the books are my favorite books of all time. I am a huge Middle Earth junkie, needless to say, and have been greatly anticipating the Hobbitís cinematic adaptation. Things got off to a rollicking good start in April 2008 when Guillermo del Toro was brought on board to direct. In my mind, he is a superior director to Jackson in almost every area, along with being in my top five favorite directors, and I was very much looking forward to what new and different things he would bring to the table.
Alas, it was not meant to be, as the Hobbit was stuck in development hell over MGMís bankruptcy woes for years and thus could never be greenlit. This forced del Toro, one of the busiest guys in all of Hollywood, to eventually leave the project in May 2010 because he couldnít afford to waste more time on something that was going nowhere. In hindsight, this turned out to be an ominous omen of what was to come. Strike one.
Then after filming was complete, Jackson got the bright idea to stretch the Hobbit into a three-part trilogy, which as we all know is only 300 pages in length. Originally envisioned as a two-parter, which would still have been somewhat of a stretch but one I was willing to accept and could definitely have seen working, this new vision pretty much damned the Hobbit before it was released, especially considering how Jackson and company never scripted it that way to begin with. Strike two.
And what do you know? As a pure stand-alone entity, An Unexpected Journey is an outright mess. I can only imagine the reaction from someone who is either unfamiliar with Lord of the Rings or not a fan of the trilogy to begin with. For starters, itís far too long and has more pacing issues than any of the Lord of the Rings films, all of which were even longer. This is shocking because since they didnít have enough good material to split it up in the first place, one could have logically deduced these three new films would end up shorter and more manageable as a result, but no. Doubly shocking is thereís still an extended version to come with 20 more minutes. Shudder.
Instead, almost everything Jackson has added to the film that wasnít in the original novel, from either Tolkienís other writings or stuff he made up himself, feels superfluously out of place. Thereís several tangents that contribute nothing to the story and only slow things down or make the story unfocused, whether it be the Necromancer stuff, anything involving Radagast, Orc villains or a pointless mountain pass journey.
Everything involving Azog, a newly created Orc chief framed as Thorinís personal archenemy, is laughably terrible. Thereís a reason Tolkien didnít have something like that in the Hobbit in the first place because it doesnít work! Speaking of not working, Jackson must have been watching the Star Wars prequels recently because he decided to throw in a bunch of cartoonish stuff and juvenile attempts at humor, which lo and behold fails as well. Chief offense is Radagast, who absolutely has no business being in the theatrical version. You could literally edit him out of the entire film and not miss a single beat.
Finally, Jackson got the equally novel epiphany to shoot in 48 fps, which has backfired on him in a big way. The reaction has been almost universally panned and harsh from the first time he screened footage at CinemaCon. It was so bad I didnít dare venture to see it in that format myself, lest I risk tarnishing Middle Earth for myself, and I almost guarantee the lukewarm reviews would have been much kinder if it had only been shown in the traditional 24 frames.
Despite all these narrative deficiencies and cartoonish elements, the Hobbit does do a lot of things well. It still feels like Middle Earth, for one, which is an accomplishment in and of itself, and it was very welcome to set foot in the beloved land once again. The performances are solid, too. Martin Freeman as the new Bilbo fits right in, though despite being the title character he isnít given much substantial to do. Richard Armitage as Thorin is the only other new character to stand out in a good way, as unfortunately most of his dwarf brethren blend together and have trouble differentiating themselves. It was nice to see a few familiar faces as well, namely Ian McKellen, wonderful as always as Gandalf, yet the unequivocal highlight was Andy Serkisí return as Gollum. The game of riddles between him and Bilbo is by far the best thing in An Unexpected Journey. Those 15 minutes are a brilliant delight in every way and the only scene that feels like it could hold its own to the best from Lord of the Rings.
While the Hobbit as a whole is competently told, itís the flaws that stick out the most and serve a stark contrast to its award-winning predecessors. As previously mentioned, it doesnít really work as a stand-alone film, something I felt like the other Rings actually could do, especially the Hobbitís narrative cousin, Fellowship. However, it does a decent job at setting the stage for what is to come, so in hindsight if the next two films turn out to be amazing, it will be much easier to pardon An Unexpected Journeyís faults. Yet I feel like the odds are against Jackson this time, especially when almost everything he added to the first one were the weakest parts, and in the end I just donít think the Hobbit functions best as its own trilogy. I would love to be proven wrong, but this Hobbit project has seemingly been doomed from the start. At this point, the strikeout might be inevitable.