Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

‘Oh god, this really is Peter Jackson’s Phantom Menace, isn’t it?’

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani

So the audience eventually walked out of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in a bit of a daze. Some of them were still rubbing their eyes from the new, incredibly detailed 48 frames per second presentation. I myself was nursing my very first 3D headache thanks to that very same process. As we huddled together for companionship, eager to share our thoughts on the latest Peter Jackson fantasy epic, there was a certain trepidation in our voices. “Martin Freeman was great,” we admitted. “But it felt really padded.” “At least Smaug’s going to be in the next one,” we hopefully opined. “ “Every scene ended in an anticlimax, but that’s okay because…”

“Wait,” we suddenly asked, uncertain if we really wanted to pose the question. “Did this movie… suck?”

Peter Jackson has built up enough good will to last a lifetime with his first three Lord of the Rings movies, classic adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy series that are as dramatically satisfying as they are entertaining. He broke new ground in visual effects, but more importantly he reminded the world that blockbuster entertainment could be more than a distraction, it could actually be good. The Lord of the Rings movies are the ones people point to when they say that Transformers isn’t worth defending, and that films like The Golden Compass need to step up their game. Peter Jackson definitely knows what he’s doing. He just didn’t do it this time.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is the first part of a three-part trilogy based on the shortest novel in J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy series. By the time it’s done, it will take about as long to watch The Hobbit as it would to see all of the Lord of the Rings adaptations put together. But whereas Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings was a sweeping travelogue of intersecting storylines, rich characters and incredible sights, The Hobbit is a lean and efficient fantasy tome, sending its hero reluctantly on a heistlike quest for glory and demonstrating along the way that the lust for adventure implies a lack of maturity, but meeting it bravely when it knocks on your door is the foundation of heroism. The Lord of the Rings had to be distilled down to its essence before it reached the screen, whereas The Hobbit had to be stretched within an inch of its life to accommodate this new, arbitrarily epic running time. 

In padding the storyline, Peter Jackson, along with co-writers Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Guillermo Del Toro (his contributions left over from an aborted stab at directing The Hobbit himself), has given the film a tediousness that should not be ignored. The adventures of Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and the party of dwarves who hire his services – even though they were never explicitly offered – en route to a lost dwarven kingdom, long since conquered by the mighty dragon Smaug, leads them merely from one fairly random plot point to the next in the early stages. They are almost eaten by trolls, they are kidnapped by goblins in a subterranean city. They are also, in each instance, saved at the last minute by the wizard Gandalf the Grey (Sir Ian McKellan, returning to the role).

Because Jackson & Co. have focused the story on just the opening chapters of the book, before any of the character development sinks in, or even most of the plot, the arc of the action never feels genuine or significant in An Unexpected Journey. There is no meaningful crescendo to build to, so Jackson & Co. have invented one by elevating the dwarf characters to a more heroic stature. In the book, the dwarves' focus tends to be on the retrieval of lost riches. In the movie, they are only tragic figures reclaiming their homeland, a parallel to the comfy Hobbit Hole to which Bilbo longs to return. Their leader, Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), is a fallen prince not unlike Aragorn in the The Lord of the Rings trilogy. The dwarves are now the heroes. Bilbo is simply along for the ride, serving no purpose in this first installment other than as the focal point for empathetic audience projection.

By making the dwarves into purely noble beings, Jackson has diminished the significance of the contrast between Bilbo’s selflessness and their own frequent selfishness. He has reduced the essence of the storyline into a grand adventure so much like The Lord of the Rings that this, the progenitor of the series, never feels like its own entity. Most of the additional material comes in longwinded exposition sequences – with distracting and unnecessary cameos by members of the original Lord of the Rings cast – establishing that every individual element of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is meaningless on its own. It’s all just a build up to something more important that happens later, making one wonder why they needed to film this original story in the first place. Aside from the “Riddles in the Dark” sequence, which plays as beautifully as anything in the previous cinema trilogy, little from the actual text of The Hobbit is a direct lead-in to The Lord of the Rings, and no matter how much supplemental material exists to support the deeper interconnectivity of the two stories, and even the richer backstory of the dwarves, the fact remains that J.R.R. Tolkien wove little of it into the fabric of his first novel, and as such, the principle storyline was simply not designed to support these digressive expositional inclusions.

It must be said that, with two more movies on the horizon, Jackson & Co. may be able turn these criticisms around, stretching the themes of the book across three movies rather than supporting them with each individual installment. But until the next film is actually released, we the audience are stuck only with this first installment, and it’s a tedious and only sporadically entertaining motion picture whose unnecessary padding and emphasis on new cinematic techniques over the relevant content of the story invites wholly reasonable comparisons to Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace.

Jackson is keeping the meat of the storyline at bay because he has two more movies to go through, and while the seeds of greatness are present, they are not incorporated into a satisfying film that actually warrants them. While The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey isn’t as bad as The Phantom Menace, it has all the same problems. No matter how fervent the initial response will be, thanks to the audience’s overwhelming desire to like whatever Jackson presents us, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey doesn’t work on its own merits. If it works at all, it’s because at this point we just want to return to Middle Earth under any circumstances, even if it’s not nearly as good as the original trilogy we fell in love with.

Oh god, this really is Peter Jackson’s Phantom Menace, isn’t it? I hate that my job forces me to admit that. I so want to pretend it isn't so. And we have two more of these on the horizon. If the quality doesn’t pick up dramatically in The Desolation of Smaug and There and Back Again, I’m afraid we may, just may, be forced to admit we have truly lost our dear, sweet precious.

William Bibbiani is the editor of CraveOnline's Film Channel and co-host of The B-Movies Podcast. Follow him on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani