The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

There might be a few spoilers here, but nothing major. Also, for reference, I saw the film in 2D with the standard 24 frames per second. MoviePass does not allow fanciness.

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I have a feeling that years from now, when we look back at the legacy of Peter Jackson's Middle-earth saga, history is not going to look kindly on The Hobbit, especially if the next two films are just as frustrating as this first installment. Watching The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a maddening experience, and easily one of the most self-indulgent films in recent memory. The reasoning for this is simple. We all know The Hobbit was originally supposed to be split into two films. While this seemed a little on the extreme side (The Hobbit is only a shade over 300 pages after all), Harry Potter, Twilight and The Hunger Games are making this the en vogue thing to do at the moment while at the same time adding an entire extra film worth of box office goodness. What threw me (and everyone else) off was when Jackson made the call to split it into three films. Jackson claimed that he wanted to add elements from various appendices and the like to bridge The Hobbit to the Lord of the Rings trilogy. It's a nice sentiment, and a perfect option for a DVD extra or some of Jackson's famous extended editions. But in the theater? That's a dangerous proposition.

It's so dangerous, in fact, that Jackson has gotten completely lost in his own opulence. The word of the day is "decompression." To whit, "Riddles in the Dark," the famous Gollum chapter that helps set the stage for wonder in the early parts of The Hobbit, doesn't actually make it to the screen until over two hours have passed.It takes the group nearly an hour just to leave the Shire, partially due to an extended and unnecessary prologue of a scene that takes place just before the first scene of Fellowship of the Ring. So we get Elijah Wood's Frodo and Ian Holm's Old Bilbo, which is a bit bit of nostalgia. But it's chiefly fan service. And it's long for what it is. It sure does manage to be an excellent primer for the languid pacing that is to be endured over the next two hours and forty-five minutes. As a point of comparison, the film version of The Fellowship of the Ring is 178 minutes long. Fellowship is approximately 600 pages long, a good meaty book. The Hobbit AUJ's 169 minutes gets you to page 110 of a 300 page book expressly written for children to get interested in the fantasy genre. This is inexcusable.

Fellowship is a great film because it could actually be intelligently paced over its 3 hours. It has a lot of story to tell, and sure, it left some story on the cutting room floor, but that's to be expected. We have learned in the past that films that slavishly attach themselves to the source material tend to be poorly paced, awkward checklists instead of legitimate films (see, for example, the difference between the first two Harry Potter films and Prisoner of Azkaban). Peter Jackson's job as a director/writer/producer/guru is to present a coherent story that works on its own merits. The easiest way to lose oneself is to be too slavish to the subject matter and idolize the book, getting lost in the details and minutiae instead of recognizing the strengths and weaknesses of film as a medium compared to a novel and adjusting accordingly. Jackson actually goes even further in the opposite direction, adding entirely new subplots from other parts of the LotR canon that just wreck the pacing of the film (the most egregious example is the utter bore that is Radagast the Brown, a tedious and unnecessary detour away from the action just as things are getting moving). This is The Hobbit AUJ's sin. It ignores the desires of the viewer to placate the obsessions of the director and a rabid minority fan base of Middle-earth-philes. This is irresponsible film-making at best, a long, bloated and terribly placed misfire. It is only a few minutes longer than Les Miserables or Django Unchained (and think about that for a second. It's longer), tells one tenth of the story of those films and feels approximately ten hours longer. One of the parting shots of the film, a wide shot of Middle-earth with The Lonely Mountain feels like an insult because they're still nowhere near the freaking thing. At the pace they'e going, it's going to take six films before we see any sort of dragony goodness.

But what's arguably the most aggravating thing about this is the fact that the disparate individual strands of the film are legitimately excellent. Martin Freeman is the perfect Bilbo, a wonderful mix of humor and charm peppered with that irresistible thirst for adventure that sets him away from the Shire in the first place. Ian McKellen is the same old Gandalf (though he does play him younger and more rambunctious than his LotR trilogy counterpart), and Richard Armitage gives off the same sort of hero vibes we got from Viggo Mortensen's Strider. The dwarfs are brimming with personality. Andy Serkis continues to shine as Gollum, and indeed the entire "Riddles in the Dark" scene is fantastic and easily the highlight of the entire film. This should be the last appearance for Mr. Serkis' Gollum, but I'm sure Jackson will find some way to awkwardly shoehorn him into the next two films regardless. The production design, costumes, props and sets are an opulent feast for the senses. Howard Shore's score lovingly weaves the themes established in the LotR trilogy in and out of his new pieces. I felt legitimate chills when the ring theme flowed out of the cinema's speakers the first time the ring appears during "Riddles in the Dark." The dwarfs' theme is grand and lovely. And because of all of this, all of the delicate artistry that invades every shot, I can't bring myself to call the movie bad. But at the same time, the actual experience of watching it in the theater was terrible. It is a grueling experience. I have literally never seen so many people get out of their seats to leave the theater and come back (often multiple times) than I did during this film. And this was after I spent two straight days seeing Django Unchained and Les Miserables, two incredible polarizing films in their own right. It's a maddening dichotomy.

In total, the film just collapses under the weight of its own bloat and pretensions. Jackson never should have been allowed to split this out into three films (and to be honest, it should have just been one), despite all the money on the table. My hope is that the ensuing films see a noticeable decline in box office totals to demonstrate to both Jackson and New Line that we should not have to stand for this. And what's just as annoying is the fact that the second film, The Desolation of Smaug, is probably going to be pretty awesome, what with Sherlock Holmes the dragon and all. Which means I'm going so see it. So I'm part of the problem. But really, we are not getting The Hobbit that we deserve. We are not getting the sort of fun, breezy and fast paced tale designed to get the young ones interested in the fantasy genre. What sucks is the fact that we're never going to get that film. That ship has sailed. We are being done a disservice, and that is truly a shame.