Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy is solely responsible for my falling in love with the movies. Fellowship hooked me back in 2001, and soon I was gleefully discovering the worlds of the French New Wave, Italian Neo-realism, and Film Noir. I’ve seen all three entries well over a dozen times, most of them of the Extended Cut variety. They remain in my top five of all-time (I consider them one film, really), and on any given day, they could occupy the top spot. In fact, they mean so much to me that I’ve steadfastly refused to review them over the years. Some emotions are best left unwritten, and I fear any sort of real objectivity would be entirely lost when it comes to the LoTR trilogy. And this from someone who has only read the books once and, while enjoying them immensely, could hardly be labeled a Tolkien geek.
With that major caveat out of the way, we turn to Jackson’s long-awaited prequel to The Lord of the Rings—The Hobbit. Or, rather, the first part of the said prequel; An Unexpected Journey (The Desolation of Smaug and There and Back Again will follow in 2013 and 2014 respectively). On first glance, this seems entirely unnecessary. While The Lord of the Rings is, in fact, three separate books, The Hobbit is not. Furthermore, it’s a much simpler book than its successor—more playful and less dark, for starters, and certainly not as emotionally or substantively complex. So, why was it split into three parts? For one, let’s call a spade a spade and acknowledge that Jackson possesses, er, a drop of directorial conceit. Ever since the beyond-anyone’s-wildest-dreams success of LoTR, Jackson has seemed to think he has poetic license to put any topic into a wholly epic scope. The Lord of the Rings, with its operatic story and deep soul, could easily carry this. But King Kong? Not so much—the first hour in particular felt like a self-congratulatory masturbation session before it settles into a passable comfort zone. And The Lovely Bones? Even less; that topic required a much softer, subtler touch mixed with a few grandiose moments. Jackson failed at injecting any of the former into the mix at all, instead putting out a mostly muddled mess that felt inappropriately bombastic for its subject. All of this goes to show that Jackson is more than capable of inflating a topic beyond its necessary means. Along these same lines, of course, is the subject of money. Splitting the films was going to be substantially more lucrative to New Line than releasing them as one shortened version…so really, what was there to think about? Like Warner Brothers did with the penultimate Harry Potter, New Line and its executives went were the money was.
So, now the million dollar question: did it work? Did the editing and expansion of the material drastically cheapen the source material? Or did Jackson, back in his comfort zone of Middle Earth, pull it off with splendor, transporting its viewers as if 11 years had passed like nothing? The answer to that question is likely to be a matter of perspective. I chose to make the experience as close to The Lord of the Rings as possible, eschewing 3D and IMAX for “old school” standard viewing, and thus eliminating a potential distraction from the mix, and the worlds and imagery are very similar to those of the original trilogy. Those who were transported years ago are likely to be so again. There are certainly scenes and entire sequences that one could argue could be trimmed or cut without doing any damage to the narrative. There’s singing, drinking, and lots of eating. The pacing is more laborious. But does that constitute a chore? Again, we go back to perspective. For this critic, I could have sat there for another three hours, warts and all. Martin Freeman of Sherlock fame makes an excellent Bilbo; Ian McKellan reprises his Gandalf with his usual aplomb; the cinematography, music, and set design are wonderful. The excesses and ponderous dialogue—well-written but dramatic—will certainly bore many to tears, especially those not drawn to the genre. But there’s tons to admire here, and just being back in these glorious lands of elves and dwarves, in Rivendell and Hobbiton, gives a glorious thrill in and of itself. Jackson’s conceits are real, but he’s never in his element as much as he is here.
Let’s be clear: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is not at the level of The Lord of the Rings. The characters, which predominantly consist of Bilbo, Gandalf, and a gaggle of dwarfs, are simply not as rich or interesting as Aragorn, Legolas, Frodo, Merry, and the LoTR crew. There’s not the same emotional heft. There’s not the same endless scope. But there ARE excellent production values, superb acting, and a marvelous fantasy story, all of which will leave many-a-viewer thirsty for more. Beauty and wonder is in the eye of the beholder, and to these eyes, the early critical backlash isn’t warranted, unless we’re basing our expectations on The Hobbit matching The Lord of the Rings. It doesn’t, and it won’t go down in history the way those masterpieces will. But it’s a worthy entry in its own right, offers lots of charming shout-outs to the originals, and should more than satisfactorily scratch the itch of those who have waited many long years to see Middle Earth back on screen.