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The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey - character poster

The Hobbit is a pretty tough story to screw up. The book was written as a simple children's adventure tale told from a singular point of view, and that is what it is loved for. Peter Jackson doesn't seem to understand what he's trying to do with the film adaptation, subtitled An Unexpected Journey. The movie struggles just to figure out what it is trying to do and tries so hard to pad itself with irrelevant Tolkien lore that it eventually starts to fall apart cinematically.

Not content to simply tell the first-person (well, technically "second person") account of Bilbo Baggins' adventure to The Lonely Mountain and back again, this Hobbit film tries to incorporate other plot threads from the complex tapestry of Tolkien's extended Middle-Earth lore. This creates two problems:

  1. The story loses its narrative focus and suffers cinematically from poor pacing and confusing scene transitions,
  2. The movie's tone shifts wildly from light-hearted fantasy to overly-serious forebodence.

The "bigger picture"

In an attempt to pad out the movie's length into a trilogy, Jackson and company decided to incorporate several independent plot threads from Tolkien's catalogue of Middle-Earth stories. I'm not that big of a Tolkien fan, and have only read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, so there is a lot of material in this movie that I simply didn't recognize as being from the namesake novel. In fact, the primary conflict of the plot revolves around an albino orc seeking revenge against the dwarf Thorin for cutting off his hand in a battle years ago. I don't recall any such orc being a part of the book, so basing the entire first movie's plot around this was a bit off-putting.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey - Gandalf and Radagast

Radagast the Brown makes an unnecessary appearance in order to pad the movie.

Other parts of the movie are also taken from the extended lore rather than the source novel, including a subplot involving a dying forest and a necromancer. This plot point in particular is unresolved in An Unexpected Journey, as it seems to be just a setup for one of the later movies. Unfortunately, its inclusion in this movie screws with the overall pacing and scene progression. About halfway through, we suddenly jump from Bilbo's journey to a completely unrelated wizard named Radagast the Brown, whose investigation of a dying forest leads him to an encounter with a necromancer. Then suddenly, we cut back to Bilbo and company for a few more scenes before they meet up with Radagast. The placement of the scene is just wrong. It would have made much more sense to place that scene as a flashback or story sequence as Radagast tells the tale of his adventure to Gandalf, Bilbo, Thorin, and the gang. This scene screws up the structure and pacing of the film.

It's not Bilbo's story anymore

The inclusion of independent elements of Tolkien lore also takes the focus of the film away from Bilbo, who is supposed to be the narrator. It is no longer his story, as told by him, from his point of view. Because of this, we are able to see events that Bilbo was not a witness to, and which were never in the book, such as the dwarves escaping from the goblins in the mountain pass and the whole sequence with Radagast. We also witness a conversation between Gandalf, Saruman, Elrond, and Galadriel in Rivendell, as they discuss the Necromancer and a foreboding darkness that Gandalf senses in the world.

Is this supposed to be fun or foreboding?

The persistence of a dark and foreboding tone is also a significant problem in the movie. One of the reasons that I prefer novel version of The Hobbit over The Lord of the Rings is that The Hobbit is a much more fun story. It is well-paced, light-hearted, and fantastical. Much of this is owed to the depiction that Bilbo gives of the world and events around him. Having the book being told from Bilbo's perspective also gives the reader a sense of being a small part (literally) of a fantastical journey.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey - Gollum

The scene with Gollum is probably the only appropriately dark scene in the movie, but it's still more cheerful than some other scenes.

This light-hearted tone is present in much of An Unexpected Journey, particularly in the dinner scene in Bilbo's house and the fight scenes with the dwarves. These action sequences have a very "Mr. Magoo" quality to them, in that the characters operate along with the environment as a well-oiled, choreographed machine. The battles are more like dances, and are a lot of fun to watch.

But they're also very unbelievable, and really only acceptable if the movie doesn't take itself too seriously. The problem is that Jackson insisted on throwing in LotR-esque scenes of prophecies of imminent doom and global threat. These scenes take themselves too seriously, and they conflict with the cartooney action sequences involving the dwarves.

I'd excuse the changes to the narrative if they contributed to a better movie

I really can't recommend that anybody spend their money on The Hobbit. It's tonal shifts and needless changes to the original story's plot will likely turn off fans of the book. You'd think that Jackson and the studio would have learned from criticisms of Two Towers and Return of the King; but no. If these changes actually made for a better movie, then I'd be more willing to let them slide; but they don't. Quite the opposite, in fact. So I can't recommend that film buffs go see it either, since it's not a well-crafted movie on its own right either.

If only Stephen Colbert weren't such a gushing fanboy, he might have warned us that the film would be sub-par.

Colbert Report - Hobbit week interview with Martin Freeman

If only you hadn't been blinded by your fanboyism, Stephen; you could have warned us!

Keep some aspirin handy!

In addition to not being a very good movie on its own, An Unexpected Journey also gave me a migraine. I'm not sure if it was the 48 frames per second, the 3-D effect, or having to wear the silly glasses that did it, but something about this movie gave me a nasty migraine. I get headaches from seeing movies in the theater quite often, so I'm used to it. 3-D movies usually aggravate the problem a bit more. But in most cases, it's a mild headache that goes away after I get home and have a glass of water or eat a snack. This time, however, it gave me a full-blown, nearly-debilitating migraine that persisted the whole rest of the evening despite taking several aspirins when I got home.

See the movie at your own risk, and keep some aspirin handy!

Comments (2) -

12/16/2013 19:21:36 #

While I can agree with you on some points, I think you are overly harsh with the review as a whole. If this were a direct adaptation of the book, you would be spot on with many of the observations. The approach in this movie seems to take on Tolkien's lore as a whole. It uses the Hobbit to explain the events that lead up to The Lord of the Rings. The Necromancer, the Witch king of Angmar, may seem oddly thrown in, but his importance should come in to play a bit later. Hopefully by the third Hobbit movie, it will make more sense. If this film had been called "The Hobbit: There and Back Again" I would have been more peeved at the branching out into the various lore. As "There and Back Again" was the title Bilbo gave to his book about his adventure. The different names being attached to the Hobbit, such as "An Unexpected Journey" and "The Desolation of Smaug" help ease the break from The Hobbits narrative based on Bilbo's perspective.

I don't think it necessarily loses it's focus in opening up the rest of the lore to us. If all you really know is The Hobbit, I can understand someone feeling that way. The greater story is being told, the focus is the coming darkness Gandalf is hinting at. The events taking place that will lead into the Lord of the Rings. It's all important, and hopefully Jackson does a good job of wrapping it all up in the third Hobbit movie.

"I really can't recommend that anybody spend their money on The Hobbit." That statement is a bit rough. Anyone who is a fan of Tolkien lore would enjoy the bits thrown in. To see all the events of Middle Earth taking place.

I know I was smiling like an idiot when The Witch King of Angmar was mentioned and shown, and again with Radagast the Brown. If I had seen the movie with someone I probably would have elbowed them "Dude... It's the Witch King of Angmar... holy flippin' Hobbits..."

I know I am looking forward to seeing The Desolation of Smaug.

12/19/2013 06:54:17 #

Thanks for the counter viewpoint, Anthony.

I realize that the movie wasn't trying to be a direct adaptation from the book. That is the whole basis of my criticism. I liked the book "The Hobbit" (moreso than "The Lord of the Rings") specifically because it was a simple, fun, light-hearted adventure story. The movie did not attempt to replicate that, so I feel like it does a disservice to the book.

As someone who is not intimately familiar with Tolkien lore, I can say that the inclusion of so many subplots really does distract from the main plot (and I know I read several other reviews that agreed with me). At the time, I couldn't recommend the movie to anybody because:
a.) non-Tolkien fans would be confused and off-put by the awkward pacing and subplots,
b.) Tolkien fans (purists) may not like the change in tone / content from the book.

I didn't know if Tolkien fans would be angry that the movie is different from the book whose title it is borrowing, or if they would be giddy for all the fan service. Maybe I misjudged.

In any case, I'm glad you enjoyed the movie. I'm sure that the first movie will look better in retrospect once the whole trilogy is complete and everything makes more sense.

Fans might get upset with Desolation though, since it does include cmpletely new content that wasn't in any book...

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