There is an early moment in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey that captures the evocative poetry of Tolkien’s songs — something that The Lord of the Rings films, for all their achievements, never did. By the time the credits roll, that moment feels like it belonged in a very different film.
It is the Dwarves’ solemn, haunting lay about their long-forgotten gold — only three or so verses, but you can well believe that, as they sang, the love of beautiful things made by hands and by cunning and by magic moved through Bilbo Baggins (well-cast Martin Freeman, credibly evoking a young Ian Holm) and woke something Tookish in him, as Tolkien describes in the first chapter of The Hobbit. (Perhaps a future extended edition will include more of the song.)
That melody becomes a theme for the dwarves, played as they hike over mountain ridges and so forth. I think it plays during their absurd charge through a theme-park-style fight scene amid thousands of adversaries in the bowels of Goblin-town — a sequence that looks as if Peter Jackson is trying to outdo the Mines of Moria from The Fellowship of the Ring, but with all the conviction and danger of an action sequence in a Pirates of the Caribbean sequel. Jeff Overstreet has compared the Moria sequence to the best action scenes in Raiders of the Lost Ark; if so, the Goblin-town fight plays like the silliest stunts from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit is a different animal from The Lord of the Rings, more fairy tale than mythic saga, full of whimsical, simplistic touches that would never fly in the longer, more sophisticated work. (One can’t imagine Elrond’s Elves in The Fellowship of the Ring singing “tril-lil-lil-lolly, the valley is jolly, ha ha!”) It’s also, of course, much shorter, about a fifth the length of the later work.
At times An Unexpected Journey likewise seems to be aiming toward a younger audience, as in a cheerily cartoony shot of one of the Dwarves, snoring away, inhaling and exhaling a cloud of flying bugs with each breath. The raucous spirit of the dwarves’ other early song, the “Chip the glasses and crack the plates” number at poor Bilbo’s expense, is delightful, and there’s more dwarvish slapstick than poor Gimli had to suffer in the entire trilogy — fairly so.
Yet the PG-13 violence is at or near Rings levels, with intense battles, multiple decapitations, lopped-off limbs and so forth. There’s Shrek-style rude humor, including a dwarvish belching competition, trollish rear-scratching right in Bilbo’s face and a thuddingly vulgar line ostensibly about croquet. Bizarrely, there’s overt drug culture humor, notably when Gandalf, seeking to calm an agitated Radagast the Brown (a comic Sylvester McCoy), gives him a relaxing toke on his pipe (Radagast’s eyes cross blissfully). Later Saruman has a derisive line about how Radagast’s “excessive consumption of mushrooms” has “addled his mind.”
When Jackson and his collaborators, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, first set out to adapt Tolkien 15 years ago, the original idea was a trilogy, starting with The Hobbit and covering The Lord of the Rings in two sequels. At the time, though, film rights to The Hobbit were tied up.
We can only wonder what a Jackson Hobbit film would have looked like a decade ago. Certainly it wouldn’t have been a sprawling trilogy of three-hour films stretching The Hobbit to the epic length of the Rings films, stuffed with all sorts of extraneous subplots and additions inspired by the various appendices of The Return of the King, such as the appearance of the Necromancer (a disembodied manifestation of Sauron) and a meeting of the White Council (here comprising Galadriel, Saruman, Elrond and Gandalf) to discuss the problem. (Unexpected Journey gets us as far as the rescue by eagles from being treed by Wargs — here a wildly revisionistic set piece with a lovely denouement.)
Without a trilogy, the dragon Smaug wouldn’t be carefully under wraps for an entire film, and it wouldn’t be necessary to import an interim villain, such as Azog the Defiler, a CGI orc-chieftain with an ugly history with the dwarf-lord Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage). (In Tolkien, Azog kills Thorin’s grandfather and uncle, and Azog’s offspring Bolg is killed at the Battle of Five Armies at the end of The Hobbit. Both Azog and Bolg look to be running antagonists in the trilogy.) “He died of his wounds long ago,” Thorin growls when Bilbo asks about Azog’s fate — one of a number of instances of heavy-handed foreshadowing.
The Lord of the Rings films were full of bombast, but also brilliance, and moments of quiet grace, subtlety and joy. Unexpected Journey is almost all highlights and bombast, with little if any room for subtlety or poetry. No lovely establishing vignettes in Hobbiton, like Fellowship, or evocations of hobbity respectability and the unacceptability of dashing off on adventures. No wistful moments of Bilbo contemplating his comfortable chair before the fire and the kettle singing.
Bilbo is less interesting a character in this entire movie than Holm made him in just the prologue of The Fellowship of the Ring. He’s certainly not as textured as the character Tolkien created when he wrote The Hobbit. That character was utterly flummoxed by the dwarvish invasion of his home and their mad scheme, but he was also proud — and Tookish — enough to push back when slighted by the dwarves:
“I don’t pretend to understand what you are talking about, or your reference to burglars, but I think I am right in believing” (this is what he called being on his dignity) “that you think I am no good. I will show you. … I am quite sure you have come to the wrong house. … But treat it as the right one. Tell me what you want done, and I will try it, if I have to walk from here to the East of East and fight the wild Were-worms in the Last Desert.”
The movie’s Bilbo, by contrast, is quite happy to be thought no good if it will get rid of the dwarves, and only impetuously decides to join the party the next day. Much later, concluding that the dwarves’ skepticism was warranted, Bilbo decides to abandon the adventure and go home. The problem is, the movie makes a point from the outset that Bilbo signs a contract with the dwarves. There’s no signed contract in Tolkien, but if there were, it would definitely matter at a moment like this. Here it’s irrelevant.
Following the template of the Rings films, The Hobbit opens with a dark, action-filled prologue (a pledge to impatient viewers) establishing the back story of the dwarvish kingdom under the mountain, the Arkenstone and the coming of Smaug. This is narrated by Holm’s elderly Bilbo, who is expanding his memoirs for Elijah Wood’s Frodo.
Then Bilbo shifts gears and — still ostensibly writing for Frodo — begins writing the story of The Hobbit, starting with a gloss on the famous opening lines: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a dirty, nasty hole … It was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.” Didn’t anyone point out that these lines imply a non-hobbit reader? To make matters worse, Frodo has grown up in that very hobbit-hole.
The film is chock-a-block with fan service. Jackson once said that if he made the Rings films for anyone but himself, he’d like to think he made them for Tolkien. I can’t speak to his intent, but Unexpected Journey plays for me like it was made primarily for kids who’ve grown up watching The Lord of the Rings — and it winks at them every chance it gets, referencing the trilogy whenever possible.
Gandalf can’t distract the trolls with ventriloquism, not only because Bilbo is given an increased role here, but because the filmmakers want to echo Gandalf’s iconic “You shall not pass!” moment at the bridge of Khazad-Dûm. Even Bilbo’s “Riddles in the Dark” scene with Gollum, though among the more faithful and better bits, is marred with echoes of one of Gollum’s most fan-pleasing scenes, the schizophrenic Sméagol/Gollum debate from The Two Towers.
Oddly, the film doesn’t echo the one moment from the trilogy it should have: When Bilbo picks up the ring, it’s nothing like the flashback of that moment in Fellowship. Freeman doesn’t even murmur “A ring?” like Holm did. It’s a bizarre mismatch in a film otherwise constantly preoccupied with its predecessors.
What about the realization of Middle-earth? The production design seamlessly merges with the trilogy, and the returning actors generally step right back into character. (I hate to say it, but I’m a bit disappointed with McKellen’s Gandalf. It’s very close to his Rings performance, but duller. There’s no winking mischief in his opening “Good morning” exchange with Bilbo, for instance.)
The character design for the dwarves is a mixed bag. I can give the filmmakers the benefit of the doubt on some of the more whimsical bits, such as Bombur’s horseshoe beard and Nori’s tripartite hairstyle, but there is just no excuse for some of the dwarves, including Thorin, having less beard than I do. It’s like hobbits wearing shoes. It doesn’t fly.
There has been a lot of discussion, much of it critical, about Jackson’s decision to shoot at double the normal frame rate, 48 frames per second rather than 24. Some viewers find that the heightened clarity actually detracts from the illusion: One is too obviously watching actors in costumes with props on a set, rather than characters inhabiting a world. I have to say I found this to be true, at least for stretches. The 3-D, too, did nothing for me. If I were seeing it again in theaters, I would search out a 24 fps screening in 2-D.
Unexpected Journey does get some things right. Most crucially, there is the moment of grace when Bilbo, wearing the ring, has Gollum at his mercy but makes another choice. Perhaps this is one instance where having made the Rings films first impressed on the filmmakers the importance of this moment, and it pays off beautifully.
Sometimes even something added by the filmmakers works. Gandalf has a nicely Tolkienesque speech that’s not in the book but feels like something Gandalf might have said:
“Saruman believes that it is only great power that can hold evil in check. That is not what I’ve found. I found it is the small things, everyday deeds of ordinary folk, that keep the darkness at bay. Simple acts of kindness and love.”
Alas, the movie has no time to actually celebrate such “small things,” “everyday deeds” or "simple acts.” (For instance, if you're going to go beyond the book to include characters whom you can extrapolate into the story, why not include a friendly exchange between Bilbo and his gardener, Sam's Gaffer?)
Even when it diverges from the source as wildly as, say, the Narnia sequels, Unexpected Journey isn’t bad moviemaking. It’s rollicking, better-than-average action fantasy. That’s still a big step down from the Rings trilogy. The journey will continue, but the magic is greatly diminished.
Steven D. Greydanus is the Register’s film critic.
Content Advisory: Intense fantasy-action violence and battle sequences; scary images and creature menace; some rude humor; a couple of comic drug-culture references. Teens and up.