The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is entry one in a three-part series that introduces us to the prelude, so to speak, on what we experienced with The Lord of the Rings. It is the story of Bilbo Baggins and a company of dwarves intent on slaying the dragon Smaug that, some years prior, laid waste to the dwarves’ home city. That’s the main story. Underneath, it’s the story of Bilbo maturing into the hobbit he wants to be instead of the one he is; of Gandalf the Gray entering the dangerous game of politics; of the importance of home; and, ultimately, though with subtlety, the seedlings of the story behind the One Ring to Rule Them All.
Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) is a carefree hobbit in the Shire. His life is rudely interrupted by Gandalf the Gray (Ian McKellan) – one of five known wizards (we finally learn) – who sees opportunity in assisting the wandering prince of the dwarf-people in reclaiming a city lost to the gold-loving Smaug. Because there are thirteen dwarves in this company, I will spare the recitation of names. But, in some ways, they could be designated the same monikers from Snow White. There’s a fat, red-headed one. Two boy band-handsome ones, an old, wise one, a few nameless ones that don’t do much but eat, and a small, feckless-looking one all led by the dwarf prince (Richard Armitage). Once joined, the thirteen, Gandalf, and Bilbo make way toward the Lonely Mountain to face Smaug. While the dwarves are motivated by a desire to return to their home, Bilbo by a desire to do something adventurous (against every good sense he has), it’s Gandalf’s motivations that are the most intriguing as they connect The Hobbit with The Lord of the Rings: the “necromancer” - a powerful spirit capable of raising the dead (read: Sauron) – could harbor Smaug’s allegiance in some unknown way (of course we know: Sauron’s all-out war on Middle Earth), and there’s no way that could possibly end well for the people of Middle Earth not living near or around Mordor.
During this journey, the company faces mountain trolls, infighting, mountains that battle each other, goblins, and an Orc Army led by an unbelievably terrifying Albino named “Azog the Defiler.” It all sounds amazing when I write it out, but this movie – close to three hours in length – is bogged down with dialogue and exposition. And, that’s where the issues come in. I referenced length and characters above. The movie is too long. And, it’s too long because Jackson has to balance thirteen dwarves, a hobbit, a wizard, a second wizard, villains, and everyone’s motivation so we know what’s going on. It’s possible this is deliberate – lay the groundwork with the first entry and hit the ground running with entries two and three – but that remains to be seen with numbers two and three.
Nevertheless, most of us at one point read The Hobbit. As a child – I read it in seventh grade English – you were drawn into the fairytale without appreciating the bigger picture. The riddles, the dragon, the hobbits and dwarves, orcs, fighting, elves, and new languages – this is the stuff a seventh grader cares about right before that moment when you notice the girl you’ve been sitting next to since Kindergarten is actually pretty and you have a little crush on her. As an adult, The Hobbit speaks to greater notions: that what we all want and need, at the end of the day, is a place to call home; that getting out of one’s comfort zone is the only way to mature and become a more rounded individual; and, ultimately, that evil exists in the world whether in your face and loud (Smaug) or whether through the little foxes that ruin great vineyards (the Ring of Power).
I wrote that Peter Jackson “obviously falls short” in delivering the magic he forged in The Lord of the Rings. Let me qualify: it’s not that he misses the mark objectively; it’s more that he misses the mark he himself previously created. By any other director, The Hobbit would be an impressive feat of storytelling. By Peter Jackson, with the noticeable inputs from Guillermo Del Toro (ancient languages; creature design), this movie rises to acceptable escapism without quite touching the apogee of epic so easily designated to The Lord of the Rings. There is one noticeable exception – the famous riddles-scene between Gollum and Bilbo Baggins – that shows what an unbelievable production company Peter Jackson runs (Weta) and what a talented and criminally-underused actor Andy Serkis is.
It’s a movie worth seeing if only to prepare for a greater entry – I imagine – that will come in the next round.
Also, apparently Gandalf has giant eagles on speed dial. It seems like they’re always saving him at a moment’s notice. Tolkien’s books could have been finished in four sentences:
“A dragon seized a mountain while a dark sorcerer with evil intentions grew even stronger. Bilbo Baggins – a fun-loving hobbit whose got thirteen dwarves but an elf ain’t one- found a ring more powerful than both. He had Gandalf the Gray – a wizard who rarely uses his powers – to call giant eagles to fly him over Mt. Doom where he dropped the ring into the only fire that could destroy it. And, they lived happily ever after.”