And so the end of all things came to pass in 2012 when Peter Jackson delivered onto us The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. So mystified were we by bumbling dwarves, lack of a clearly defined protagonist, and sequence after sequence we’d already seen in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, that we decided to end the human race out of sheer boredom. Oh how the Mayans must have wept when they foresaw this calamity!
Ok… In actuality, part one of Jackson’s new Middle-earth trilogy isn’t that bad, but it also isn’t that good. Clocking it at almost three hours and telling the story of just the first 100 pages of J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic children’s book, The Hobbit is a bloated work with terrible pacing and insufficient character development.
Until the end credits rolled, I kept asking myself who the film’s protagonist is. Though the movie opens and closes with Bilbo Baggins, a lot of material in the middle focuses on Thorin Oakenshield, often at the expense of developing Bilbo’s character. The central story often feels like it is about Thorin, not Bilbo, and this is a stark contrast from Jackson’s first trilogy, which always successfully keeps audiences focused on Frodo, even as the story follows the journeys other characters.
The mixed focus might be more forgivable if Thorin was a more complex character, but he is the stereotypical angry soldier seeking revenge. He listens to no one, carries a chip on his shoulder, and is so rough around the edges that I could not begin to care about him or his quest.
The rest of the dwarves are no better. Only one other—and I forget his name—gets anything to say and do. The rest of the bunch are there for alleged comic relief, but their silliness evokes the horrors of Jar Jar Bink’s gags more than it summons a hardy laugh (though they are nowhere near as bad as Binks!). Nevertheless, the movie spends a good deal of time introducing their characters, rendering the beginning of the film rather boring and lifeless. Also, to the disappointment of this fanboy in particular, Gloin, father of the memorable Gimli from LOTR, gets only a single line of dialogue.
Also along for the ride are Radagast the Brown and the Necromancer, but neither character is given enough to do in this film to make their presence seem important. They are pretty clearly set up for part two, but that does not excuse their hallow presence in this film.
Where the film succeeds is in its story nods to the LOTR trilogy. My favorite scene takes place in Rivendell, where Gandalf is reunited with Elrond, Galadriel and Sauruman. The White Council discusses the coming war, but remains focused on the dwarves’ quest. Equally breathtaking is Bilbo’s confrontation with Gollum. In the moment Gollum cries and screams as he realizes Bilbo took the Ring, Jackson finally returns to being a storyteller by connecting the audience to the depths of Smeagol’s twisted soul. It is a moment more compelling than any other in which Gollum has been featured on screen.
However, redundant—perhaps even reductive—thematic connections to the LOTR trilogy, both visual and musical, weaken The Hobbit. Jackson tries very hard to connect this story to Tolkien’s bigger and far superior epic, but the effort falls flat. Visuals of Gandalf saving the day, a fellowship running across a bridge in a dark chasm, and eagles saving the day feel repetitious. Where they were once exciting in LOTR, in The Hobbit they are simply standard. Though handled with beauty and care, Jackson brings nothing new or vital to them. Much of the film’s soundtrack also borrows from the LOTR to the film’s detriment. Some of the musical connections are appropriate, but others simply try to add a level of grandeur to the adventure of Thorin and Bilbo that is simply doesn’t deserve when compared to the life and death struggle to stop the end of the world.
Perhaps the most disappointing thing about this film is that Jackson seems more concerned with its technical aspects than telling its story. However, the film’s saving grace is that, even at its worst, the film does not detract from the enjoyment of the original trilogy. In a few fleeting moments, it even adds some additional lore and breathtaking wonder to the Jackson LOTR world.