The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

If any director deserves indulgence with any project it’s Peter Jackson with the Hobbit.  The greatness of The Lord of the Rings trilogy buys a lot of good will.  Plus a good fantasy world is one you want to explore at leisure so sidetracks and detours from the main plot are not just tolerated but welcome. Tolkien created the most fully realized world of all, and Jackson brought it gloriously to the screen.

So now he has taken on the task of translating The Hobbit to the big screen.  And with Hollywood being Hollywood, he has to do it with three epic length movies, repeating his earlier achievement.  So his task is the opposite of LOTR, where he had to cut out whole sections of the saga (Tom Bombadil, most of the scouring of the Shire) to make it fit into nine plus hours.  With this trilogy he has to take a 287 page novel for children and pad it out to three epic length movies.  He has access to the material in the appendices of LOTR but not to the Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales or any of the other posthumous publications put out by the Tolkien estate.

It pains me to report that he has failed.  The mishmash of plot elements that Jackson and his co-writers, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and a few ideas left over from Guillermo del Toro’s tenure as director on the project, destroys any rhythm to the project and creates awkward juxtapositions of tone.  They have given Thorin, played by Richard Armitage, a bête noir in the form of Azog, an orc chieftain whom Thorin injured in an earlier battle in the Mines or Moria.  Azog, played by Manu Bennett, is eager for revenge against the Dwarf king and is leading a pack of orcs that attack the quest party whenever it’s convenient for the plot.  It feels too much like a modern action movie; plus we’ve seen it before.

Another example is the Goblin King, voiced by Barry Humphries who sounds a lot like George Sanders in All About Eve.  It’s way too sophisticated for the character.  Even Martin Freeman’s portrayal of Bilbo is too full of modern gestures and line readings.  There may be certain similarities between this role and that of Arthur Dent in Hitchhiker’s Guide but they should probably be played differently.  The stuff with Radagast, played by Sylvester McCoy is way too broad.  Rabbits pulling a sled?  Did no one look at that and realize it crosses a line?  Or possibly jumps a shark?

There are a lot of gags in this and more of them miss than hit.  Now I realize that The Hobbit is lighter fare than LOTR and there is some humor in the book, but much of Jackson’s take on it is just out of place here. 

And the frustrating thing is that they left some stuff out.  Tolkien’s description of Bilbo’s escape from the caves is much more detailed and exciting, frankly, than this.  The old master included a lot about logistics, replenishing ponies and foodstuffs, which would have been interesting to Middle Earth fans.  Jackson glosses over that.

It is a beautiful film with great special effects.  The performances for the most part are fine, although there are times when Ian McKellen looks positively embarrassed by his lines.  Andy Serkis’s Gollum is, as usual, the best thing about the movie. 

Maybe it is too soon to judge.  This is after all the first third of the project and there is a lot to go.  But looking at this film I couldn’t help but think that Jackson is bored. 

And that does not bode well.

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