My father would make a good film editor, I think. He claims to despise long movies, but what he’s really allergic to are unnecessary sequences and uneconomic storytelling. He likes to see a movie only once, so the clearer the better because he won’t be going back. I thought about this during Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012) because my father’s definitive review of Jackson’s award–winning The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (2003) was “Too much Hobbit-hugging,” referring to the movie’s lengthy, celebratory epilogue.
The Rings movies together took about ten theatrical hours, with three or so hours devoted to each book in J.R.R. Tolkien’s trilogy from which they are adapted. The prequel to the trilogy is Tolkien’s The Hobbit: There and Back Again, the slimmest of the four novels, but Jackson has decided to carve it up into three parts, donating three hours per six chapters. I wonder what my father would think of such detail, such devotion to realizing every moment of the source material. There’s not much hobbit-hugging (the movie really features only the one), but there’s plenty of just about everything else. “All good stories deserve embellishment,” Gandalf the wizard (Ian McKellen) says, apparently uttering Peter Jackson’s raison d’être.
That’s not necessarily a terrible operating method. I’ll never forget seeing The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) for the first time and being absolutely flummoxed at the end of it to discover three hours had passed. It remains to this day the most jarring temporal experience I’ve ever had in a theater, sitting there recognizing that I had absorbed all this information but feeling as if it had been given in a breezy twenty-minute conversation, not in a multi-houred epic. Jackson has an absolute knack for pacing, and when he gives extra detail, he can give it so that it seems positively essential. However, that’s the case when the subject can bear it. Here in The Hobbit, the magician is forced to use every trick he knows to wring meaning and portent out of every character, location and object, and it begins to feel desperately self-important as opposed to easily entertaining. Many moments in the movie work spectacularly, others don’t, but there’s far too many that do neither in between them.
First among what works is Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins, our little man. He’s affable and charming, and though he looks the part, he does most of his best work with his voice, which is a mess of nervous politeness. He’s forced into the uncomfortable position of joining a band of gruff dwarves (a little different from hobbits, slightly taller) in their quest to reclaim their native mountain kingdom, which was wrenched from them by a fearsome dragon. There are a baker’s dozen of them, led by Thorin (Richard Armitage), the heir to the purloined dwarf throne. The dwarves have bad table manners and incredible locks of hair and beards, braided and coiffed in amazing varieties. Dare I say, there’s even a dwarf with a Snooki bump. Along with the band is Gandalf, who as one of the five wizards in the world, adds a cool head, wisdom and mystical protection to the group. It’s actually Gandalf who convinces the shaky Bilbo to join the journey, appealing to the sense of adventure that Bilbo has tried to bury.
That sense will be well served as Bilbo and the band will be hunted by orcs on mutant wolves, nearly eaten by giant trolls and attacked by an army of mountain goblins. Bilbo will personally be attacked by Gollum (Andy Serkis), the fish-eyed creature who stalks the world’s dark places and was the longtime possessor of the evil one’s ring until Bilbo relieves him of it; of course, we aren’t supposed to know that yet (except, of course, we do). In fact, the movie’s attempts to cash in on the imagery of the main trilogy is one of its weaker points. Not only do we have cameos from mainstays of the other pictures such as Christopher Lee, Cate Blanchett and Hugo Weaving, but we also get Ian Holm, who played an older Bilbo in the trilogy, and Elijah Wood as Frodo, his nephew and hero of the other story, shoehorned in the beginning of this movie, as if the audience would get up and revolt if we weren’t constantly reminded of the things we liked 10 years ago.
And does Jackson ever love filming that ring. He loves watching it bounce, watching characters run their fingers along it—it’s truly “his precious.” Bilbo’s finding of it is handled in a few lines in the book, but here we get slow motion shots of it rolling around as if it were a “Baywatch” lifeguard running along the beach. Every noise related to it is a thunderous boom. Got it, it’s an important ring. Anthony Lane wrote, “If Jackson ever films ‘Othello,’ wait for Desdemona’s handkerchief to hit the ground like a sheet of tin.” Because of this, the movie almost exists in two worlds, as if it isn’t ready to give one journey up to focus exclusively on the other.
Still, when the rubber hits the road (I’m referring to the prosthetic rubber Freeman had to wear to give him hobbit feet), there are some incredible sights. My favorite is the “thunder-war” between giant men of stone who emerge from a mountain to throw parts of the range at each other. This was exciting enough and became more so when the group of travelers discovered the path they were standing on was actually the knees of one of the participants. There’s also an effective battle, seen in flashback, between Thorin and a particularly nasty albino orc. What Jackson does especially well is creating intelligible and interesting crowd shots in which action can be followed in the foreground while goodies color in the corners of the screen. This is on full display during this battle. This skill, however, is put to more troubling use in the dwarves’ escape from a goblin–infested mountain. The sequence has good energy and invention (the dwarves traverse structures made of wood and rope attached to rock, and they find clever ways of making bridges and constructions work for them and against the goblins), but the absurdity of their escape is coupled with the savagery of their attacks, giving us unsettlingly realistic renderings of Looney Tunes violence. Slapstick maneuvers and swashbuckling escapes will be shown right alongside nasty decapitations and brutal impalings; I wasn’t able to make them both agree in my mind, less so concerning the degree to which our heroes were enjoying administering the violence.
When the movie has something to do it’s very strong (even if I found the mountain escape distasteful, it was mesmerizingly distasteful),but when it doesn’t it drags, hoping elevated speech and exaggerated acting will create something out of nothing. It’s not enough for the characters to address each other, even in times of high tension when quick communication would be ideal; it must be “Thorin, son of Thrain, son of Thror, King Under the Mountain,” as if there’s another Thorin who might think he’s being addressed. I would make a very bad citizen of Middle-Earth. I have enough trouble remembering people’s names without the necessity of having to remember their ancestors’ names too. It’s the exposition scenes that do the most damage to The Hobbit. In the Rings trilogy, even with their length, those types of scenes had a certain urgency; this one is more leisurely but not as easy. It feels thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread, with nothing but bread left to come. I liked The Hobbit, at times a great deal, but the idea of two forthcoming additions daunts me as I felt as I’ve been there and back again already.