Film review: The Hobbit – An Unexpected Journey (Director: Peter Jackson)
By Sascha Krieger
With all due respect: The title is somewhat misleading. This journey was far from unexpected. In fact, there are many in all corners of the globe who have been waiting for this journey to begin ever since Peter Jackson groundbreaking trilogy adapting J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series to the big screen ended in 2003. Soon it was announced that an adaptation of Tolkien’s earlier novel The Hobbit was to follow but it took nine years before it would hit the screen. First, Guillermo del Toro was to direct but then the project hit financial difficulties and del Toro departed. So Jackson took over again and what was once a single film and later two has now turned into yet another trilogy. An interesting choice, considering the fact that not only is The Hobbit only one book compared to the three of The Lord of the Rings, it is even shorter than the shortest of the latter’s volumes. A cheap ploy to earn three times instead of once or a chance to do some intricate and detailed story-telling? If the first part is anything to go by, Jackson’s choice might turn out to have been a good one.
For if the earlier trilogy had any fault, it was that it did feel a bit rushed at times, that characters were not fully developed, that every now and then the story took a far too sudden and slightly arbitrary turn. It had its narrative holes that could not entirely be filled with stunning scenery, overwhelming special effects and action sequences never seen before. Having said that, The Lord of the Rings did write film history and reaffirmed what used to be a consensus, once upon a time: that the cinema was a place were stories were told that could take the viewer and listener to different worlds and fantastic places, made them see things they had not seen before. Film’s power to create its own universe was once thought to be its one great power and The Lord of the Rings brought this back to our time as no film (or three for that matter) had done before.
Peter Jackson is aware of this and of the expectations this entails. And so he throws a long flashback sequence at us that not only tells about the origins of the story to be told but is clearly meant to overwhelm. It takes the audience into a long lost underground kingdom of endless halls, uncounted inhabitants and unimaginable treasures. However, it becomes a little to clear what Jackson tries to do here: first, he wants to outplay the earlier films, show how much more computer animation can do now, that he can still surprise and render the viewer speechless. Secondly, an abundance of elaborate (and fully computer-generated) tracking shots are designed for one thing only: to make the most of the high-end 3D technology the film was made with. It is an uneasy start. Too much surface, too little substance.
And it has another weakness: The charm of The Hobbit has a lot to do with that which makes it different from The Lord of the Rings. It is a much lighter, simpler tale, an old-fashioned adventure story, far removed, from the vast world vision of the trilogy, with its philosophical and metaphysical undercurrent, its many interweaving stories, countless characters and the ultimate war between good and evil. The Hobbit, in contrast is basically a treasure hunt that does not have much more in common with the later novels than its setting and personnel. Jackson, however, seems to distrust its ability to hold its own. So he stresses the connection with the heavier tale and inserts quite a few that weren’t in the book. It is no coincidence that it starts on the same day as the trilogy did, that he takes every opportunity to insert characters from it that aren’t part of the Hobbit’s story, like Frodo, Saruman or Lady Galadriel. He also includes various and increasingly annoying hints and dark insinuations that not all is as simple as it seems that there is something darker and more meaningful and more dangerous working in the background. This is no simple fairytale, Jackson keeps telling us, as if that were a bad thing.
Thankfully, we soon find out that it is not by any means. Because the longer the film lasts, the more its maker seems to trust Tolkien’s imagination and does what he does best: translate it into a unique cinematographic language that can suck the viewer right into this strange world full of odd yet mostly loveable characters. And this is where he uses the chance he has given himself by dividing the film into three: he takes the time to tell stories, detailed, elaborate, full of fascinating colours. The sequence in which the dwarves raid the title character’s house and eat up all he has, is a masterpiece of warm-hearted, three-dimensional (in more than one way) and highly comical story-telling. Once Jackson accepts that he is telling a fairytale, the film works its magic. The characters are much more worked out than in the earlier trilogy and Martin Freeman is an ideal Bilbo Baggins: no hero whatsoever but a pompous, nervous, selfish and fearful little everyman, a hero against his will, a perfect fairytale hero.
For The Hobbit is a tale about an ordinary, totally unremarkable person who is able to do great things, not out of heroism but just because he has to. The more Freeman takes over the more The Hobbit separates itself from The Lord of the Rings, shakes off its burden. And suddenly, we find ourself in a fascinating universe that is even more colourful and considerably more alive than that of the trilogy. So much so that in the end, The Hobbit – An Unexpected Journey though not quite being the masterpiece Peter Jackson might have hoped for, is at least one thing for certain: a great promise.