Middling Middle-earth

Unexpected Journey gets Hobbit trilogy off to spectacular but bumpy start.

There is an early moment in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey that captures the evocative poetry of J.R.R. 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, ably 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.

Tolkien’s The Hobbit is a different animal from The Lord of the Rings, more fairy tale than epic 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 aimed toward a younger audience, as in a 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 belching and trollish rear-scratching and a thuddingly vulgar line ostensibly about croquet. Bizarrely, there’s overt drug 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). (Saruman has a derisive line about the deleterious effects that mushrooms have had on Radagast’s 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 an epic 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.)

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 uncle Nain, and Azog’s offspring Bolg is killed at the Battle of Five Armies at the end of The Hobbit. Jackson and company have essentially conflated Azog and Bolg — in a greatly expanded role.)

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. 

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 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.

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.

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.