When it was first announced that The Hobbit would be split into three films, the move sounded like nothing more than a shameless money grab. JRR Tolkien’s slim novel is ostensibly for children, and the page to screen time ratio is wildly disproportionate compared to director Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. But if the first part is any indication, there is enough material to justify three films, even if Peter Jackson packs in scenes of unnecessary world-building. Amid the eye strain from the new visual format, younger movie-goers and Tolkien fans will find a lot to admire.
Part of the book’s charm is the brevity of its opening sentence. “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit,” is about as perfect as any introduction, yet nearly half an hour passes in the film before we hear it. The Hobbit opens with a prologue that sets up Smaug the dragon, and how he stole the livelihood from three generations of dwarves. After that, there’s a perfunctory scene where an older Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) chats with his nephew Frodo (Elijah Wood), and only then, finally, do we get to meet Bilbo as a young hobbit, played by Martin Freeman. Gandalf (Ian McKellan) interrupts Bilbo’s pleasant life by imploring him to go on an adventure. He wants Bilbo to join him and twelve dwarves, led by Thorin (Richard Armitage), to defeat Smaug and take back what’s rightfully theirs. Bilbo agrees at around the hour-mark.
Peter Jackson’s biggest weakness is that he’s a nerd first and a filmmaker second. In other words, he’d rather honor Tolkien’s legacy than make a smart storytelling decision, so when characters from the Lord of the Rings trilogy make a brief cameo, their portentous introductions last longer than they should. Annoyingly, he dwells on unimportant characters; there is a bizarre scene where a wizard tries to revive an ailing hedgehog. There is little doubt all these references come from somewhere in Tolkien’s universe, but that did not make me any less impatient.
Once Jackson gets on with the actual adventure, however, his sense of character and action is downright exciting. There is a chilling sequence where the group must dodge gigantic stone giants, and another where they improvise together to outrun thousands of goblins. Lots of things fall down in The Hobbit whether they’re stones or dwarves or tree branches, and Jackson is the master of having them fall in an intense, believable way. He also finds a satisfying emotional arc — while initially doubtful, Thorin finally accepts Bilbo by the end — so the film’s ending point feels natural. While Freeman is plucky as Bilbo, the real standout is Armitage. He gives Thorin steely charisma and even a little complexity. By flawlessly towing the line between arrogance and bravery, he might eventually become a movie star.
No discussion of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is complete without mentioning that Jackson shot the film at 48 frames per second, double the standard format. Critics complained that the format looks cheap, even comparing it to a soap opera from the 1980s. The better comparison, I think, is to a video game. The image is too bright by half, so the actors sometimes have a strange otherworldliness to them. While I hated the format at first, I grew more accustomed to it as the film continued. Whenever Jackson was shooting a vast exterior without CGI, for example, the image was perfect and uncommonly crisp. Still, the shooting style could be a jarring distraction, so Jackson’s attempt at innovation is a mixed bag, with a potential for improvement. Despite one too many last-minute rescues — Jackson and Tolkien both rely entirely too much on deus ex machina — there is a satisfying romp in between the bloat. Jackson could fix his missteps by being shrewder, but even as a non-fan, I understand why he’s reluctant to do so.