An eccentric wizard allows birds to nest in his hair, and streaks of crusted excrement trail through his beard. Upon spying a dying hedgehog near his house, said wizard uses a mystical blue crystal to draw black smoke from the hedgehog, even as gigantic spiders attack his ramshackle cottage home. Fearing dark sorcery afoot, the wizard promptly hops onto a magical sleigh, drawn by rabbits, which he uses to outrun a pack of monstrous goblins riding huge wolves. When this erratic behavior is called into question, the wizard’s superior cites the “mushrooms” that our eco-magician friend has been regularly consuming.
You’ve just met Radagast the Brown Wizard – director Peter Jackson’s very own Jar Jar Binks. And unfortunately, “The Hobbit” is the “Star Wars, Episode I” to its predecessors’ “original trilogy.”
I wanted to like this movie. I really, really, really wanted to like this movie. I’ve seen the original “Lord of the Rings” films countless times, own all three extended-edition DVDs, and preordered my ticket for the 3D midnight showing of “The Hobbit.” It’s fair to say there’s a lot I was willing to forgive, particularly given that LOTR’s deviations from the source material often served to improve the narrative. Unfortunately, “The Hobbit – An Unexpected Journey” is rather like an over-baked chocolate chip cookie: nuggets of tastiness sprinkled haphazardly throughout an unpleasant-tasting whole.
“The Hobbit” is a fairly simple story, at its core. Thirteen wandering Dwarves enlist the aid of young hobbit Bilbo Baggins for an epic quest: winning back their home and ancestral gold from the savage dragon Smaug. Aided by the wizard Gandalf, they embark in a cross-continental journey that takes them into goblin-infested mountains and spider-haunted forests.
This is where any review must necessarily begin: the overall narrative structure. In case it’s been awhile since any readers have seen the “Lord of the Rings” movies, it’s worth noting that what particularly defined those films was a sense of cosmic gravity. The quest of Frodo and the Fellowship to destroy the evil Ring of Power, while simultaneously contending with the world-destroying armies of the Dark Lord, was the stuff of grand myth. LOTR dealt with colossal themes – life and death, the will to power, good vs. evil – whereas “The Hobbit” emphasizes friendship and the dangers of seeking riches.
“The Hobbit” is not a cosmic-scale story, and was never written to be one. It’s a simple adventure, originally penned as a bedtime story for author J.R.R. Tolkien’s children. But Jackson’s vision of the Hobbit, tragically, obviously doesn’t conform to the author’s intent. Jackson goes big, opting for high-dollar battle sequences and sweeping CGI vistas, and it’s that impossible ambition that ultimately sabotages his newer work.
The film is marred – irreparably – by a constant tonal dissonance. Humorous elements (obviously geared at a younger audience) are bizarrely juxtaposed with images of genuinely extreme violence.
There are three songs in the film – two performed by the dwarves, and one performed by a morbidly obese goblin king. Readers of Tolkien’s work will recognize songs as a common feature throughout both “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” – Jackson, for the most part, omitted these in his “Rings” trilogy. It’s probably fair to say that was a wise decision, given the films’ overall milieu: Jackson’s movies are masterpieces of military fantasy that take themselves very seriously (though they do have moments of humor). “The Hobbit” on the other hand, was written to be a much lighter work – and as such, I don’t necessarily have a problem with the inclusion of songs in this new film.
I do, however, have a problem with the darkness of the “Rings” trilogy bleeding into “The Hobbit.”
A major subplot in the film involves dwarf leader Thorin vying with Azog, the goblin warlord that killed his father (never mind that this is Jackson’s own invention). In a gruesome battle sequence, viewers witness Azog decapitate Thorin’s father and hold the severed head up proudly. Shortly thereafter, Thorin hacks off Azog’s arm, which spurts blood as the goblin roars in pain. As the movie unfolds, viewers are treated to constant beheadings, more limbs lopped off, disembowelment, and throat-slashing. And this, of course, is saying nothing of the mysterious “Necromancer” who summons up the spirits of the dead and uses witchcraft to poison woodland creatures.
This is not bedtime-story imagery.
I like dark movies. I also like many movies that are considered “violent.” But for the first time in my life, I found myself saying “this movie should’ve been more family-friendly.” “The Hobbit” is a children’s story, not a war movie – and it’s a betrayal of Tolkien’s oeuvre to include this kind of material.
That’s not all. By the time the nearly three-hour movie draws to a close, another serious flaw has become apparent: bloat. It’s one thing to tell a story in great depth and detail (the three LOTR films managed, somehow, to pull this off); it’s quite another to embrace self-indulgent excess. Jackson is obviously writing his own checks (a concession which, I’m sure, New Line Cinema is happy to make), and stretching what should’ve been only one film into three is a blatant cash-grab.
The aforementioned battle scenes are not only grotesque; they are pervasive and obnoxious, and reek of padding to fill a three-hour time slot. It’s clear, as the film progresses, that Jackson is stretching the story “like butter scraped over too much bread.” Excessive violent flashbacks pull attention away from the central quest – that of Bilbo and the dwarves – and sacrifice time that could’ve been better spent developing characters. (Radagast the Brown’s subplot is a major part of this bloat. The less said about his character, the better.)
This is not to say there are no elements worthy of praise in “The Hobbit,” because there certainly are. Bilbo (Martin Freeman, of “Sherlock” fame) is perfectly cast (though a bit underutilized), and it’s always great to see Ian McKellen reprising the role of Gandalf. Cameos by a few other supporting characters (Hugo Weaving’s Elrond, Cate Blanchett’s Galadriel, Christopher Lee’s Saruman) are also pleasant inclusions. Howard Shore’s score is as majestic as ever (probably the best single feature of the entire film).
A few standout scenes (the aforementioned “chocolate chips” in the cookie) are worth noting. For starters, the “Riddles in the Dark” sequence (in which Bilbo challenges the slimy creature Gollum in a battle of wits) is every bit as awesome as anticipated. A scene slightly further on, in which Bilbo debates whether or not to kill the creature Gollum, is superbly acted and filmed. Jackson is working with great, complex characters and A-list actors: it’s too bad he’s more focused on technology and pizzazz than strong storytelling.
In commenting on the film’s visuals, I’m a little conflicted. On one hand, Jackson’s world is gorgeous. Lush images of caverns and landscapes dominate the screen, forming an almost hypnotic tableau. This time around, though, it’s obvious Jackson’s using much more computer-generated imagery. One of the most unique features of the original trilogy was its reliance on miniatures and creative prop work to generate scenery; “The Hobbit” seemingly opts for greenscreens over hands-on models. Occasionally, this becomes a glaring weakness: the “Great Eagles,” who play an important role in the movie’s climax, look extraordinarily unnatural.
I hate criticizing movies without offering a solution, so here goes: what should’ve happened, as per the original plan, would’ve been for Guillermo del Toro (executive producer on “The Hobbit,” also the director of “Pan’s Labyrinth”) to take the reins of a “Hobbit” film. Del Toro’s “Hellboy” films proved he has the capacity to mix humor with good storytelling, and without lapsing into gratuitous grisliness. Furthermore, the more comic tone of “The Hobbit” would’ve offered a perfect opportunity to generate a “parallel film” – one that incorporates elements from Jackson’s Middle-earth, but still embodies del Toro’s unique cinematic vision. Stripping out most of the out-of-place attempts to offer continuity with the “Rings” trilogy would’ve allowed “The Hobbit” to stand successfully in its own right.
As it stands, however, “The Hobbit” just isn’t that great of a movie. Taken apart from the “Rings” trilogy, it’s memorable exclusively for its top-dollar visuals and acting talent. The cohesive plotting and pacing that so characterized the “Rings” trilogy is no longer present, and action is routinely substituted for character depth and development.
Perhaps “The Hobbit” is something of a case study in irony. Not only did Tolkien fear that industry and technology would destroy the traditional values he held so dear, he also devoted plenty of “Hobbit” page space to criticizing a “lust for gold.” That lust – the pursuit of profits above excellence – is perhaps the veiled factor that sinks “The Hobbit.”
I’m sure many will disagree with this rather negative appraisal, but even the romance and joy of rediscovering Middle-earth can’t disguise a threadbare plot and an inconsistent tone. Mr. Jackson, you are on probation; one can only hope that the two subsequent “Hobbit” films will redeem this frustratingly weak start.
A seriously disappointing prequel to one of the best cinematic fantasy trilogies of all time.
Normalized Score: 0.5