I generally try to check expectations at the door when seeing a new movie, but I have to admit that going into the first installment of Peter Jackson’s latest J.R.R. Tolkien trilogy, The Hobbit, I was somewhat dreading the movie. Like most of the millions who flocked to the theaters for The Lord of the Rings, I enjoyed those movies. But three movies based on three books, each developing the interlacing storylines that comprised the fantasy-epic showdown between forces of good and evil, is one thing. The Hobbit is a single novel, and a relatively simple one (at least for Tolkien) at that. It tells a straight adventure story, about a hobbit, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), who is unwittingly swept up in a quest, alongside a gaggle of dwarfs, conscripted into the unlikely journey in order to slay an evil dragon occupying their homeland. Its subtitle is “there and back again,” which alone suggests a rather neat narrative arc, and fodder for one — or at most two — movie adaptions. So the fact that Jackson and company have decided to break the book into three parts reeks of one thing: greed.
Greed is like air in Hollywood, but what the trilogy-ification of The Hobbit does to the story is precisely what I dreaded going in. The first film, subtitled “An Unexpected Journey,” is chock-full of bloated, needless scenes that stretch out the plot. When the dwarves arrive at Baggins’ hobbit hole, they spend what feels like an eternity eating and goofing off. When the crew is hiking across the steps of Middle Earth, they are pursued by orcs that send the film into a flurry of action-chase sequences. And Jackson and co-screenwriters Fran Walsh and Phillippa Boyens — plus the addition of Guillermo del Toro to the writing team — add new storylines, dragging in some of the Lord of the Rings protagonists to this story that was written before Tolkien had fully fleshed out his imaginary myth. There’s even a ridiculous wizard who drives around on a sled pulled by bunny rabbits.
There’s no reason why all of this shouldn’t work. If Jackson proved anything with the Lord of the Rings trilogy, it was that he was a master of handling behemoth narrative challenges in a way that kept the films feeling both lean and faithful to their original source. But in The Hobbit, Jackson’s antics begin to feel repetitious, with bombastic masculine prostrations and over-the-top corny heroics that make some of the film feel like self-parody. (The shouted line “but we have lost the ponies!” made me immediately think of the comedy duo Flight of the Conchords’ ingenious spoof of the original films.) Del Toro’s presence is also felt in the more gruesome and monstrous moments that add some quirkiness and punch to the storyline, if lending it a slightly different tone. Some of the awkwardness of the new film also comes from its 48 frames-per-second technology that, ironically, delivers images so crisp they look like they were shot on a camcorder.
In Tolkien’s novel, Bilbo’s story is about our own unexpected courage, about the surprising capacities of the little ones in the face of unimaginable adversarial forces. Freeman delivers one of the most richly nuanced hobbits we have seem to date, charming and neurotic, with a depth of humanity that makes him both charming and conflicted. He is a good guy, but his solipsistic nature makes him capable of pettiness and cruelty.
This first film brings us from Bilbo’s home in the Shire, through the encounter with the trolls, past onslaughts of goblins and to the city of the elves, where conspiratorial forces begin to swirl around the journey. Finally the dwarfs head out and make the treacherous way through the Misty Mountains, where they are captured by goblins, and Bilbo falls in a hole and encounters that creature of the dark, Gollum (Andy Serkis). Their encounter comprises the film’s single best scene, one that reminds us that even with The Lord of the Rings, however exciting the war scenes were, Tolkien’s little moments drive the plot forward and root the action in a thematic undercurrent with significance. Here, Bilbo and Gollum’s stand-off is as funny as it is harrowing. They are alike, these two little people in love with simple pleasures, wrought hard by their own simple desires.
When Jackson stays close to the text, The Hobbit feels like an engaging and inspired adventure tale, full of warmth and humor. But those moments come too infrequently in this new film. As a result, there is less determination and focus than there was with the prior trilogy. It’s a bloated, dawdling movie, that didn’t have to be so. Perhaps when we are finally through with all three films, the limited-edition box set that will surely be released can feature the unlikely addition of a director’s cut that is shorter than the theatrical releases.