Fantasy film fans can be a funny lot. Could it be that the people complaining about writer-director Peter Jackson for expanding bits of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, requiring them to sit through three films rather than two, are the same people who condemned the makers of the Harry Potter films for excising bits of the source novels? It’s possible, even though the same fans most likely enjoyed the Extended Editions of Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, which stretched the original trilogy’s endurance-stretching nine-hour running time to a patience-testing 11 hours, 22 minutes. (They’ll also spend hours watching their favorite fantasy TV shows, even if they’re several seasons past their best.) Most objections seem to be that Jackson’s principal reason for segmenting The Hobbit into three films, rather than two, is that he has unashamedly, or at least unapologetically, expanded upon minor elements of the novel, and invented whole sections of his own, apparently on the basis that (as Gandalf says, knowingly, at the beginning of the new trilogy) “every good story deserves embellishment”. So could this be a case of having too much of a good thing?
If you’re Warner Bros, definitely not: The Hobbit franchise is now projected to gross three billion dollars theatrically, rather than two. Yet those invested in a non-financial sense should also cheer Jackson’s now-even-more-epic journey through Tolkien’s fantastically rich fantasy world, Middle Earth. After all, the last episode of the Lord of the Rings trilogy is more than a decade behind us, and An Unexpected Journey is a film that nearly wasn’t made at all. Besides, compared to the previous trilogy’s heavy three-course meal, The Hobbit is a light buffet, a Smorgasbord (or Smaugasbord) of encounters on the reluctant road taken by curmudgeonly hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), in the company of thirteen boisterous and uncouth dwarves, sixty years before the fellowship’s journey to Mount Doom.
As befits a man making three three-hour films out of a three-hundred-page novel, Jackson takes his time getting into the story itself. It’s almost an hour before Bilbo, at the urging of Gandalf, leaves the comfort and safety of his “hole in the ground” and joins the dwarves (played with relish by assorted Brits, including Richard Armitage, Ken Stott and James Nesbitt) on their quest to reclaim Moria from Smaug the dragon. Only when the journey itself begins, does the film come fully to life – and only during the best sequence, in which Bilbo bravely bets his life in a riddle game with Gollum (Andy Serkis), does it reach its dramatic potential.
This may be Jackson’s biggest disadvantage: that everything we see in The Hobbit is being reflexively referenced back, either to Tolkien’s novel, or to Jackson’s other films. Nevertheless, in tackling The Hobbit after The Lord of the Rings, he has an advantage Tolkien never had – knowing where the story is going – and he makes the most of it, establishing characters and foreshadowing events from the later trilogy, ingeniously or indulgently (depending on your point of view) playing the Lucas-minted prequel card. As a result, several scenes (not to mention returning composer Howard Shore’s music) invoke a frisson of recognition, or precognition, giving the proceedings the feel of a family reunion – except that you’re happy to see everyone.
For better or worse, this is a lot of baggage to bring to a film, and perhaps it is unfair to assess the first part of The Hobbit through the prism of the other films. Those who haven’t seen the Lord of the Rings trilogy may get more out of the Hobbit films – after all, people whose experience of Star Wars began with The Phantom Menace have been known to find the original trilogy hokey and old-fashioned. For established fans, however, it’s enough that Jackson’s latest journey into the mythic world of J.R.R. Tolkien has begun not with a misstep, exactly, but with a less sure-footed first step than they may have expected. It’s still very much a journey worth beginning. ★★★★
EXTRAS Given past release strategies of LOTR movies, an extras-packed extended edition (if it’s possible to stretch An Unexpected Journey any further) may be released this fall. In the meantime, you can re-watch all ten of Peter Jackson’s video blogs (a lot less interesting in retrospect, and already freely available online), a New Zealand: Home of Middle Earth featurette, and trailers. Blu-ray buyers can gain access an exclusive online preview of the second film, The Desolation of Smaug, introduced by Peter Jackson, while those opting for the 5-disc combo also get the 3D version. (No high frame rate/48 fps release is currently planned.) ★★★