Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy stands as the great cinematic epic of the past decade. J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth setting received the cinematic equivalent it deserved. These films were simultaneously popcorn entertainment and emotionally fulfilling, while pushing cinema forward technologically. It was the Better-Avatar, with characters and story arcs that would have even stood on their own without the special effects. With his latest film, Middle-Earth prequel The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, also based on Tokien’s works, Academy Award winning Peter Jackson has big shoes to fill—his own. Off the bat, Jackson’s first Hobbit film (of three) has weaknesses. It is too long, is too episodic, and doesn’t invest time in its characters. In short, no pun intended, The Hobbit lacks the magic of The Lord of the Rings. Yet somehow, through its ambition to live up to The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit succeeds as a thoroughly enjoyable film.
Middle-Earth is a rich world to return to for audiences, filled with vast, cinematic landscapes, brutal battles, and loveable and magical characters of a variety of races and even species. It is no lesser in The Hobbit as it was from The Lord of the Rings. This is Middle-Earth. Jackson and his production design team transform New Zealand into Middle-Earth once again, allowing the actors, led by solid performances by Martin Freeman (who plays a young Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit) and Ian McKellen (who plays Gandalf in all of the Middle-Earth films), to invest themselves into the world. Jackson juggles reintroducing characters that audiences know from the other films and brings new ones into the fold, with most of the existing characters shining more than the new ones. This happened in George Lucas’s Star Wars prequels, to iffy effect. Jackson does, however, avoid prequel pitfalls by adhering closely to the same outlines he did with The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, revisiting some of the same plot points, step-for-step, that he did with the earlier film, and therefore not deviating too far away from a successful formula[i]. One of the references to Fellowship, however, borders on too-obvious: where both Frodo and Bilbo discover the powers of the title-ring. In both films, the same camera angle and CGI ring is used. The ring twirls a bit, and turns Bilbo and Frodo, depending on the film, invisible as its rests on their fingers. These mirror scenes encapsulate the complex feeling of acknowledging that this film is merely a retread into familiar territories while loving the fact that we are returning to this wonderful world. The simultaneous feeling of “Yes!” and “Really?” exist on equal ground.
The book version of The Hobbit, written for children, contains many touchstones of the fantasy genre and memorable scenes—not limited to the magnificent “Riddles in the Dark” chapter that ends with the accidental discovery of the ring and its powers by Bilbo. This climax of the film, and its best scene, lives up to the legendary duel of riddles between Gollum and Bilbo, giving Andy Serkis, as Gollum, a chance to remind the world of his memorable portrayal of the monstrous creature. In this scene, the film proves that it succeeds, shirking all fears that this film would be anything less than an adventure worth taking. Unlike Lucas with his Star Wars prequels, Peter Jackson has not lost sight of what makes his Middle-Earth films great. The only aspect of The Hobbit that keeps it from being a great epic like its precursors is its relative lightness.
The light-heartedness of The Hobbit film goes right back to the light-heartedness of the novel. Unlike The Lord of the Rings, full of political allegory and complex plots meant for adults, The Hobbit is an episodic children’s tale of adventure. Jackson has not altered this from the original text. He has added characters and other ties to the original trilogy—such as Radagast’s discovery of the other-worldly dagger and the ghosts from Sauron’s time. These tie the films together in a way the appendices did for Tolkien. But Jackson kept the existing plot intact, which includes songs sung by some of the funniest dwarves you’ll see, goofy adventures with ogres and goblins, Gandalf disappearing whenever he sees fit, and the relatively innocence of Bilbo Baggins.
These fun adventures are similar to The Lord of the Rings in all but one way: they do not leave the magical, emotional impact that those adventures did. When Gandalf sacrifices himself to save the Fellowship against the Balrog, when Boromir is downed protecting Merry and Pippin yet acknowledges Aragorn is his king before he dies[ii], when Faramir is ready to be burned in a funeral pyre alive because his father is hateful and insane, when Sam is powerless to help his best friend—these are the moments that made The Lord of the Rings the great epic of its time. The emotional resonance appeared even through mere archetypes of heroes and Christ-like saviors, and Jackson managed that by utilizing great actors and building up to his emotional climaxes. None of this appears in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, but none of it appeared in the book either. The Hobbit doesn’t need humanity to be good, but the film falls short of being great without it. Because isn’t it nice to revisit Middle-Earth?
I give The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey a strong 7 to a lite 8 out of 10.
[i] SPOILERS BE HERE. Here are some commonalities in plot: The Fellowship of the Ring and An Unexpected Journey open with epic stories narrated in the past tense. After leaving the Shire, the characters have adventures early in the plot that allow viewers know the characters, all with some high stakes for so early in a three hour long film. The Nazgul were after the hobbits, while Azog the Orc is after the dwarves. Then at about the halfway point of both films, the characters rest at the same location—Rivendale—where they gain a better understanding of what they are to accomplish. The characters trek through mountains, faced with impassable obstacles (Saruman or Stone Giants) and must resort to going underground, where they would be bested by goblins and other nasties without the help of Gandalf. Then the ends of both films are an ultimate melee between the heroes and physically intimating, resulting in a pyrrhic victory for the heroes. The final shot of both films are shots of the intimidating future obstacles—Mordor or Smaug himself.
[ii] The most powerful scene in any Peter Jackson film.