A director returns, after several years and more than one lackluster attempt with other kinds of movies, to a genre he redefined. He had some little known but modestly successful works before his big breakthrough, but since then he just has not been the same man who gave us such an epic, fantastic spectacle full of industry-defining special effects, wonderful music, thrilling action, and, above all, a new world to explore with characters we wanted to accompany. Special effects have come a ways since his magnum opus was crafted, and if used correctly they have the potential to enhance the visual experience even more than before. What could possibly go wrong?
Peter Jackson’s latest project is out in theaters. I wish I could say it was called The Hobbit, but honesty compels me to report that the name is actually The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. The reason for the alteration is that The Hobbit will be brought to us not as a short adventure thrill ride, in keeping with the pace and feel of the source material, but rather will be extended into a movie trilogy that, when finished, will outlast a typical BBC miniseries. The motive behind this sort of reverse editing, whereby Tolkien’s notes were raided for things to stuff into the story and plump it up, is Mr. Jackson’s belief that we are stupid enough to triple his box office take if he triples the number of movies to be made from the story. He is probably right. I know I bought my ticket.
Even with his triumphs Jackson had a tendency to let a project get bloated. The best example, I believe, is the sudden barrage of scenes that hit us in The Two Towers right as we should be, could be, would be cruising toward the third act if a drawn-out and apocryphal love story were not fed to us by way of flashbacks, many in a languid, dreamy style that makes one wonder if one has just witnessed something shot wholly in slow motion. When Jackson had over 1,000 pages of material to convert to nine hours of footage this was an annoyance. With The Hobbit, he has fewer than 300 pages to make into nine hours and the filler has now surpassed the beef in the hotdog.
It is blatantly obvious, too, when we are watching scenes newly minted for the movie and when we are watching something adapted from what Tolkien first created. Given that the first movie only gets us to chapter seven of the book, there are precious few scenes from the source material, but the ones that are there work. The angle they take is unique: Bilbo challenges Gollum to a high-stakes game of riddles, or he tries to distract some trolls so the sun will catch them unawares with its morning rays.
For me, these are superior to giants throwing boulders and a scrotum hanging off the chin of a goblin king. Although he debauches the old scenes, a thing he usually managed to avoid in The Lord of the Rings, they yet crackle with the vitality of creativity, not to mention the kinetic energy of plot momentum. The added scenes in An Unexpected Journey usually just add action, special effects, and some bland dialogue. Not a one of them would harm the movie with its absence. Contrast that with the troll scene, without which Sting does not get found. Contrast that with the riddle scene, without which Bilbo never finds The Ring. It is almost as if Tolkien planned out his story pretty well and already included every scene he needed to make it work.
A prequel like An Unexpected Journey presents some dangerous temptations to a director. Lucas fell for them all when he made a prequel trilogy; Jackson’s record is mixed. He does nothing so grotesque as making R2-D2 fly through the air, but he does include a lot of characters from the first trilogy who have no business in this one, and they enervate the proceedings. The story is fine without them, yet they are given screen time anyway and lines of dialogue that we must get through so the story can get going again. Saruman’s role in LOTR was both crucial and engrossing; here it is just a mundane visit from an old friend.
It cheapens Saruman, I think, and even worse it subordinates the newer film to the older ones. The older ones had no characters to borrow from other films, and so had to develop their own and make us care. Of course, An Unexpected Journey has new characters, but it leans for support on a few roles from another tale, and in so doing it becomes a me-too, a tag-along. The moment Jackson decided to stretch the work to over 500 minutes, he was committed to trying to repeat LOTR, trying to equal or even best it. The Hobbit is a fine and entertaining tale, a true delight, but it simply is not suited to take on LOTR in epic territory. Jackson should never have tried, but by borrowing on the credit of that trilogy’s characters, he made a difficult job nearly impossible. He was at once trying to match LOTR with The Hobbit and subordinating The Hobbit to LOTR. It is as if Jackson were stepping on the accelerator and the brake simultaneously.
Another manner in which Jackson makes LOTR the dog and The Hobbit the tail is his reuse of magical moments from the trilogy. The Ring first finds its way onto Bilbo’s finger in exactly the same fashion as it will do to Frodo at the inn in Bree. In The Fellowship of the Ring, this moment, a small but positive deviation from the book, was an indication that The Ring was indeed an acting entity and wanted to return to its master. Now it is unavoidably diminished, like a joke that was funny in the moment the night before. Gandalf the Grey also uses his moth trick again, the one that summons giant eagles to carry him away to safety. It does not matter that it technically, in the world of the story, happened first in The Hobbit. It happened second in the real world, and that is the one I live in. To say nothing of the fact that it was simply done better in Fellowship, it stands out as an obvious homage to the older film.
There are certain directorial touches that mark the film as Jackson’s. He continues his fascination with sloppy eating, for instance. It is not enough to eat a tomato, but its juices must squirt forth and dribble down the chin. It is not enough to tip back a mug and drink ale, but the ale must spill over the sides and wet the drinker’s whiskers. To this day I cannot decide if this helps paint his picture or if it is merely distracting. I think I would appreciate it more if it were a bit less flagrant, but the attention given to characterization, both of person and location, is welcome.
Also present is the juxtaposition in the battles of gritty, gory wounds with cartoonish physics. This was something that always bothered me about LOTR, whether it was Legolas breezily climbing an Oliphaunt to kill it or horses at Helm’s Deep marching through goblins and knocking them aside as if the horses could act on the goblins without the goblins acting on them. No matter how far-fetched the fantasy, Newton should not be cast aside lightly. After one viewing, it seems to me the problem is worse now.
Not all his usual touches are accounted for, however. Gone are the abundant, stylized, close-up, slow-motion reaction shots that permeate the films from a decade ago. Like the sloppy eating shots, they would be more effective if they were toned down. In the present film they have been toned down to the point of disappearing, or so I remember it.
The shortest summary is to say that The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is an overly long work that should have clung to the cannon, the presence of which in the movie constitutes its best features. However, its best features are good features, and there is much of the new stuff that feels like setup. While I doubt I shall ever be convinced that Jackson has navigated his course wisely, the movie does leave the story in a position to do more in the sequels. If the movie got sidetracked now and then, these diversions have built something of a foundation for the future. It is almost enough to give one hope.
Until one remembers that there are only 12 chapters to go, and it is going to take us six hours to get through them.