|Bilbo (Martin Freeman) and his band of fun-size Klingons|
«« The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Written by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson & Guillermo del Toro, based on the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien. Directed by Peter Jackson.
When the first installment in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy appeared in 2001, it was just two months since the shock of 9-11. Tolkien’s classic, though set in a Middle Earth of hobbits, elves and orcs, turned out to be perfectly in tune with the zeitgeist—a dark, sprawling epic about decent people preparing for an existential struggle against an utterly alien, implacable enemy. This surprising topicality, and Jackson’s sure control over his massive material, helped make the Rings movies both box office and critical successes. Nobody questioned why he needed three long movies to tell this story, and nobody minded waiting three years for the epic’s conclusion.
The unexpected thing about Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is that this writer was bored not by the third year, but by the second hour. The main problem, alas, is more-or-less baked into the project: because The Hobbit was written before the Rings, and is set before the momentous events of the trio, Jackson is essentially giving us the appetizer after the meal.
Indeed, the literary Hobbit is a different sort of work than the others. It’s a light book, almost whimsical in the telling, and it tells a story with stakes that are far, far lower. The story, about a band of merry dwarves who enlist the reluctant hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) to steal some treasure from a nasty dragon, clearly called for a different kind of tone. No existential struggle, no ancient evil. When characters are dubbed “Fili” and “Kili”, “Oin” and “Gloin” and “Nori” and “Dori”, we aren’t talking On the Beach, are we?
Like in the other movies, there’s a lot of wandering over big landscapes here, and a few big action set-pieces that are, alas, never quite as involving. Once again, we break our journey in Lórien, the Elvish empyrean that looks like an all-inclusive five-star resort, and meet the enchanting Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), whom Jackson poses against the sunset like a piece of garden sculpture. There are a few compensations: Freeman is just fine as the modest, level-headed Bilbo, who hungers for an extraordinary life while suspecting he’s too far over (or under) the hill to pull it off. Unlike the eager-beaver Frodo, Bilbo is like a forty-five year-old struggling with the urge to join the Peace Corps. Ian McKellen is back as Gandalf, and is welcome merely for being exactly as he was before. We also get to see what a decade of additional development in motion-capture technology has done to make Gollum (Andy Serkis) an even more remarkable creation.
But let’s clear away the pipeweed and face facts: in almost three hours, this movie gets through less than half of a book that was already light to begin with. In the annals of movie adaptations, this is unique—a script twice as long as the number of prose pages it adapts. If someone had turned the first half of The Little Prince into a ninety-minute cable TV event, it would not be as overblown a project as The Hobbit.
For that, we get the set-up for what is essentially a heist story, but no actual heist. Instead, we’re expected to care naturally for a band of dwarves who look a little too much like fun-size Klingons. Add to that a few other dubious creations, such as a jowly Orc king who looks too much like a similar character in The Phantom Menace, and we have to wonder not only if Jackson believes we’re seen any other movies, but whether he’s seen any himself.
The world feels different since 2001. Sauron is dead—shot in the neck by Seal Team Six. Mordor has a shaky but real democratic regime. There are still wars going on, but not so much fear that our struggle has existential stakes. Tolkien fans are, of course, delighted to see anything set in Middle Earth reach the big screen. The rest of us, however, have moved on, and are ready for a different take on the Tolkien universe. Jackson insists on sticking to the formula of the other movies, shoe-horning material from other Tolkien writings that have little directly to do with the dwarves or their quest. In a sense, Jackson disrespects The Hobbit by making it an excuse for a new series of highly lucrative Ring prequels. It seems it’s not only Smaug the dragon who covets treasure above all else.
Early in The Hobbit Gandalf tells Bilbo “Every good tale deserves embellishment.” Perhaps—as long as we’re convinced there’s a good tale in the offing. Jackson hasn’t made his case yet.
© 2012 Nicholas Nicastro