With the remarkable success of “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy – including critical acclaim, almost $3 billion in worldwide box office and a mountain of Oscars – filmmaker Peter Jackson and his team essentially set the precedent for the modern blockbuster. That kind of achievement gave Jackson free reign to make any movie he wanted, so naturally fans started asking about his involvement with “The Hobbit,” J.R.R. Tolkien’s previous Middle Earth story, as soon as the end credits rolled on “The Return of the King.”
Understandably, the writer-director wanted to branch out a bit, which led to ambitious misfires like “King Kong” and “The Lovely Bones.” With those out of his system, Jackson initiated his return to the world of hobbits, wizards, dwarves and orcs. His original plan was to executive produce and write the scripts (along with fellow screenwriters Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens) for two movies that Guillermo del Toro would direct.
However, after numerous false starts and bankruptcy proceedings involving the film’s studio, del Toro jumped ship and Jackson took his rightful place as director. In most people’s minds he was the natural choice to begin with. Then plans changed yet again after he began shooting, and two movies became three.
So was “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” worth the wait? Mostly. The 170-minute flick is very good, but those expecting greatness on the scale of “The Lord of the Rings” will be let down. There are some phenomenal action sequences and interesting characters, but the film is crammed full of subplots and flashbacks that feel unnecessary. It’s like Jackson is trying to turn “The Hobbit” into “The Lord of the Rings,” but they’re different texts for different audiences.
The adventure centers on Bilbo Baggins (played as an elderly hobbit by Ian Holm and for most of the film by Martin Freeman), who is recruited for a dangerous mission by the wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen). A company of dwarves is seeking to reclaim their homeland and gold, which involves doing battle with the fearsome dragon Smaug. (But not yet. We still have two movies and six hours to go.)
Gandalf believes that Bilbo will come in handy on the sneakier parts of their journey since he’s small, clever and crafty. The dwarves, led by noble Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), remain unconvinced but defer to the wizard’s judgment. Bilbo is also against the idea at first, but he eventually finds himself a long way from home, wielding a sword and facing down goblins, orcs and another deadly creature we’ve seen somewhere before.
Jackson’s most recent works have been bloated and overlong, so I questioned whether he really needed a trio of three-hour movies to tell the story of Bilbo Baggins. After all, Tolkien’s book is less than 300 pages. Even now that I’ve seen the film my fears haven’t exactly been dispelled.
The director’s smartest decisions involve his casting choices. Bringing back familiar faces like McKellen, Holm, Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving and Elijah Wood was a no-brainer. It’s certainly great to see them again and they act as a welcome bridge between this new film and the old ones.
But his most inspired move was casting Freeman as young Bilbo – I can’t imagine anyone else in the role. He brings copious amounts of humor and heart, while also acting as the audience surrogate in a strange and beautiful world. Bilbo starts out as a timid, stubborn homebody, but he’s a lot braver by the end with plenty of room for the character to evolve over the next two films.
Freeman also has phenomenal chemistry with Andy Serkis, who once again plays the iconic Gollum in what is – by far – the film’s most wonderful scene. Taken directly from Tolkien’s novel, the “Riddles in the Dark” section introduces the dual nature of Gollum and also gives viewers their first glimpse of a little gold ring that will have enormous importance later on.
The biggest issue I have with “The Hobbit” is that it doesn’t work as a standalone film. “The Lord of the Rings” movies – despite being smaller parts of a whole – still had their own individual story arcs while simultaneously painting a bigger picture. “The Hobbit” doesn’t do that; even the smaller subplots are unfinished.
I also have some minor quibbles with the film’s unnecessary flashbacks, subplots, and sometimes cartoonish CGI (though certainly not in Gollum’s case), but overall it’s still fun and exciting entertainment. (But parents should take the PG-13 rating seriously. There are a few creatures that will be downright nightmare-inducing for young children.)
For the most part, “The Hobbit” is a success. But the idea that we have six hours to go feels exhausting. I’m guessing that’s not the emotion Jackson was going for.