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The Hobbit has always been different. Despite J.R.R. Tolkien’s revisions, changes which made the story fully cohesive with The Lord of the Rings books that follow, The Hobbit still has a unique flavor and style aimed at the child readers for whom the work was intended. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were written by one author capable of childlike innocence and imagination, as well as deep philosophical, spiritual, and artistic heights. But adaptation is a far different task than creating an original work. Can the same person who captures the essence of The Lord of the Rings in an adaptation to a new medium do as well with The Hobbit?
In the case of director Peter Jackson, the answer sadly seems to be no. Beautiful cinematography and some impressive (though not at all flawless) CGI cannot disguise Jackson’s attempts to tell a very different story from the Tolkien tale he claims to be bringing to the screen. Even viewed as a stand-alone film (disregarding failure as an adaptation) the film has pacing issues and inconsistencies in content that leave no one age bracket of viewers well-served, as there seems to be no clear target audience.
Die-hard fans of Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) who are determined to see The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey should brace themselves for the battle violence and gore that marked the trilogy and leave the kids safely at home.
The young Bilbo Baggins is a quiet, normal hobbit who takes pride in avoiding adventures, as every self-respecting hobbit should. Naturally, when Gandalf the Grey, a suspicious wizard whom every hobbit knows is responsible for uncomfortable adventures, shows up at Bilbo’s home, the hobbit does his best to dismiss the bearded old fellow as politely as possible.
Gandalf doesn’t leave easily and not before making all sorts of bothersome comments about adventures and the like. Bilbo barely has a chance to set himself to rights after the unsettling visit before dwarves he has, of course, never met start showing up at his door, one or more at a time. They seem to know why they are there, but Bilbo hasn’t a clue and can only watch in befuddlement while a dozen dwarves pile into his home and stuff themselves with the hobbit’s food, making an intolerable mess.
When Gandalf returns and another, distinguished and kingly dwarf by the name of Thorin arrives, Bilbo learns that Gandalf has chosen him to be a burglar on a dangerous adventure. Bilbo refuses as hard as he can but somehow soon finds himself part of the dwarves’ quest to reclaim the home of their ancestors from a murderous dragon named Smaug.
The journey will not be easy and many obstacles lie in the noble band’s path. Trolls and goblins are not the only dangers, as there are also fearsome orcs to contend with. The dwarves soon learn of an unanticipated threat, a group of orcs that seem to be hunting them led by a legendary warrior, The Pale Orc. This dreadful orc once swore to end Thorin’s royal family line and killed Thorin’s father in battle. Thorin attempted to avenge his father’s death and cut off The Pale Orc’s arm, leaving him to die, or so Thorin had thought. The Pale Orc’s narrow escape left him alive to seek revenge against Thorin at the untimely moment at which the dwarves are traveling to reclaim The Lonely Mountain.
Does a reluctant, peaceable hobbit belong on such an adventure? Bilbo and the dwarves doubt it, but, as Gandalf says, there is more to the small hobbit than meets the eye, more than even Bilbo himself realizes. Those hidden qualities may be just what this adventure needs.
Anyone familiar with Tolkien’s The Hobbit will notice merely from the plot summary that this film is not The Hobbit they read. The introduction of orcs to a tale that had none in its written form is a dead giveaway that Jackson’s emphasis is on matching An Unexpected Journey to his LOTR films. As some critics predicted, that aim results in something very like a LOTR reboot. For people who love the movies and not the books, that news probably won’t be bad. But the reality of An Unexpected Journey still might be.
Although Jackson comes closer to making Unexpected like his LOTR movies than like The Hobbit book, he does make a few unfortunate attempts to render the movie lighter and more child-pleasing. Unfortunate, because apparently what Jackson thinks of as kid-friendly is crude body humor and slapstick. Odd to find in even a film version of LOTR, this content actually accomplishes the opposite of Jackson’s likely intention, instead adding another reason for parents to keep their kids away. At the same time, this ill-fated attempt to appeal to children may repulse the adult viewers that the rest of the film is aimed to please.
Thus, Unexpected bobbles with faltering pacing and inconsistent style, seemingly hopping across genres without warning, particularly in the opening sequences of the film. At times, the drama that Jackson does so well falls flat because it is so suddenly plunked down in an otherwise comedic or light scene. As a result, what should have been either lighthearted or dramatic is neither and the underscoring emotional music seems almost (unintentionally) funny.
This particular problem does not plague all of the film, however, because Unexpected becomes more completely a “grown-up” tale as it progresses. The adult-viewer shift is most clearly accomplished in the amount of violence that occurs as the characters fight with orcs and goblins. Much of the violence is in the fast-paced style Jackson employed in the LOTR trilogy, which often does not allow viewers to see extensive detail. Like in those movies, though, the flurry of the battle sometimes halts to highlight particularly gruesome moments.
In Unexpected, such scenes add up to no less than four beheadings (one with the head being shown afterward and another intended to garner laughs), one dismemberment, and a grotesque slashing of a goblin’s stomach and throat (again in a moment meant to be comedic). This brutal violence is particularly disturbing because of the noted intent for viewers to perceive these moments as funny.
So much action violence is possible thanks to Jackson’s adjustments to the original plot of The Hobbit. Apparently deciding that Bilbo is not enough of a hero, Jackson transforms Thorin from the enjoyable, rather pompous, and humorously ridiculous dwarf he is in Tolkien’s tale to an Aragorn-like action hero. Such a change requires a violent antagonist for Thorin to face, and Jackson supplies that villain with The Pale Orc, who brings plenty of orcs and wargs (evil wolves) along for the battles.
The Hobbit as Tolkien wrote it had plenty of obstacles, dangers, and scary antagonists, including the goblin king, Gollum, the Wood Elves, and especially Smaug. A fire-breathing dragon must not be sufficient for Jackson, but perhaps that’s understandable given the situation of needing to extend the series. Since Jackson is committed to making three films out of the one novel (which is shorter than the LOTR books), he has to create more antagonists to pack in the space, keeping things interesting for viewers until Smaug can finally enter the picture.
The invention of such villains does increase the pace and action of the story, which makes good material for a Peter Jackson film. But several drawbacks come along with the change. In addition to the aforementioned increase of violence, the story’s themes get revamped.
Thanks to the meaningful spiritual and ethical messages that Tolkien wove into his novels, conservative viewers turned out in droves to watch the three LOTR films. Assuming they will find the similar uplifting depth in Jackson’s version of The Hobbit, they are likely to do the same with Unexpected. Keeping in mind that this is Jackson’s tale and not Tolkien’s, it’s less of a surprise to find that the story emphasizes different themes than those found in the original source material.
Jackson’s messages are not all bad, but are certainly less pivotal and profound. The most obvious theme is that of finding a place to call home, a place of belonging. In a manner that will make any artists, particularly writers, in the audience cringe, the characters essentially announce this theme to viewers, which at least ensures that the harmless message won’t go unnoticed. Other positive messages include courage, sacrifice, compassion, and a condemnation of judging by appearances. In one scene, Gandalf also speaks of “acts of kindness and love” being the power that can “keep the darkness at bay.” Only a hint of Tolkien’s primary themes of good versus evil, sin, temptation, etc., can be detected in the all-too-few scenes that are preserved from the novel version (scenes which are by far the best in the film).
The reinvention of Thorin as an action hero brings up a potentially dangerous set of themes, introducing an emphasis on pride and revenge. Additional content that could be problematic includes implied marijuana-like substance abuse (by a wizard), reference to prophecies and omens, and a sorcerer who can bring people back from the dead.
It is probably a given, considering the director and budget, that Unexpected reflects the highest production quality in many respects. Magnificent CGI creatures fill the scenes, showing how advanced that technology has become. Even so, it is worth noting that top-level graphics are still not able to create a fully realistic representation of an actual existing creature. This deficiency is apparent in a sequence that shows several animated animals like those that exist in reality (rabbits, squirrels, hedgehogs, etc.) interacting with a person. While these animals in the film are very cute, they are still quite far from looking real and do not appear as authentic or “real” as the invented orcs and goblins.
The movie’s astounding cinematography can easily make one forget any CGI blips. A few gorgeously composed sequences at the end of the film seem nearly worth the price of admission. The battle sequences also live up to the high standard Jackson has established, with a fluid, fast, and thrilling blend of camerawork and complex fight choreography that makes these scenes flawless from a filmmaking perspective.
True to the precedent set in LOTR, the crop of actors brought in for Unexpected (which includes some from LOTR) add much to the film. Ian McKellen returns as Gandalf and is as solid as one would expect in this story which, at least in this installment, provides little opportunity for anything remarkable. Richard Armitage proves to be an appropriate casting choice in the recharged role of Thorin, a character that is well-suited to Armitage’s intensity. The standout of the cast is Martin Freeman, who plays Bilbo. Freeman’s approach to the role is understated, natural, and relatable—everything that Bilbo should be.
Yet the excellent acting isn’t enough to fix the screenplay’s issues, thanks to Jackson’s departure from the incomparable material he had in Tolkien’s work. The story that is subsequently created lacks substance, cohesiveness, and depth. The film also becomes predictable in several sequences, particularly with Jackson’s tendency to portray certain events the same way every time they occur (such as scenes of death or loss).
Peter Jackson is an extremely gifted filmmaker. But, at the heart of the greatest films are always great stories. With An Unexpected Journey, Jackson forfeited the opportunity to tell one of the best, timeless tales and instead chose a lesser one—his own. The resulting flaws include negative content and weaknesses that make this film dangerous for kids and a disappointment for adults who know all that The Hobbit story could have been on the big screen.
If you were looking forward to experiencing the wonder of The Hobbit for the first or hundredth time, this reviewer suggests that you grab a copy of Tolkien’s book and enjoy.
Check out these movies instead:
The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising (Walden Media, 2007)
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (Walden Media, 2005)
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (New Line Cinema, 2001)
For more ideas, visit our What to Watch page!