AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY
A Long Time Ago, In A Shire Far, Far Away...
Does anyone remember when certain fans of The Lord of the Rings were upset that the first part of the trilogy film adaptation, The Fellowship of the Ring, didn't include the character of/adventures with Tom Bombadil, or when the final part, The Return of the King, didn't have the battle at the Shire with Saruman having enslaved the hobbits? No, and the film versions don't suffer none the worst for it. At the time, The Lord of the Rings trilogy director Peter Jackson got away with it by saying that they weren't saying there were no adventures with Bombadil or other things from the source novel(s), but that it wasn't relevant to the larger story they were trying to tell.
Well, it looks like Jackson and Company have all but forgotten that when tackling author J.R.R. Tolkien's first foray into Middle-Earth, The Hobbit. Here, they decided not just to include every adventure Bilbo Baggins has on his journey with the dwarves, but throw in a few more that came from outside The Hobbit itself but instead are connected to the narrative by means of other writings of Tolkien's fantasy world. The Hobbit itself may be a remarkably short book (especially compared to the massive work The Lord of the Rings is) but now it finds itself the subject of a trilogy of its own. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey has received unkind comparisons to The Phantom Menace, the first prequel to the Star Wars series. While it's nowhere near as bad as all that (and yes, Phantom Menace was pretty awful--thanks Jar Jar), there is a case to be made comparing the two. The first part of The Hobbit Trilogy, like the first Star Wars prequel, goes through a lot of material, takes a long time going through it, and ultimately ends up saying very little.
Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm, reprising his role from The Lord of the Rings trilogy) tells us that while he may have told us (or rather, Frodo, with Elijah Wood making a cameo) the truth about his previous adventures, he didn't tell us all. He now proceeds to do so, first with a story of how the Dwarf Kingdom of Eredor came to be lost to a dragon named Smaug.
Around fifteen minutes after we get this background story, we go 60 years prior, to where we meet a young Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman). He is visited by the wizard Gandalf (Sir Ian McKellen, again reprising his role...there's a lot of reprising in The Hobbit). Gandalf is known to the Shire-folk, but Bilbo is none too pleased to hear he's been selected for an adventure. Bagginses are not the adventurous sort. Soon, however, Bilbo finds his comfortable hobbit hole invaded by 12 dwarves, last but not least, their leader, Thorin Oakenshiled (Richard Armitage, making for lack of a better word the hunkiest dwarf in history).
The dwarves have gone on their way while the big-wigs do a lot of talking about some growing power or something and they are captured by the Great Goblin (Barry Humphries), who is going to give Thorin's head to Oakenshield's bitter foe, Azog (Manu Bennett), whom he has fought before. Meanwhile, Bilbo got separated from them, and here he not only encounters the mysterious figure of Gollum (Andy Serkis, reprising), but finds a peculiar ring...
Eventually, the dwarves and Bilbo escape thanks to a little help from Gandalf, and after a confrontation with Azog, the dwarves and hobbit are spirited away on literal wings of eagles, reaching a peak not too close or too far from the Lonely Mountain, where Smaug lies dormant.
There is simply no excuse (apart from naked greed) why The Hobbit HAS to be a trilogy. There's barely enough of a case to excuse it being being a two-film adventure. That could be tolerated, but not extending and adding foreshadowing to The Hobbit from The Lord of the Rings that won't tie things in as much as Jackson and his co-writers Philippa Boyens, Fran Walsh, and Guillermo Del Toro think it will. It almost seems a betrayal of Tolkien's original book to suggest that The Hobbit had the early rumblings of Sauron's rising.
The entire Council at Rivendell scene (which really is irrelevant to The Hobbit overall and serves only to connect it with The Lord of the Rings...as well as lengthen the film) could easily have been cut without affecting the story. In fact, it might have made An Unexpected Journey flow more smoothly.
The same can be said for everything involving another wizard, Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy). Now, I love Doctor Who as much as the next guy, but unless he is going to play a VITAL role in both The Desolation of Smaug and There and Back Again (Parts II and III), there is simply no reason for him to be in An Unexpected Journey at all. Perhaps he was there for comic relief, or to provide the dwarves another fortuitous way out with his wabbit-drawn sleigh (yes, I said WABBIT), but it just seemed to be too much. Not to mention also, Radagast is a really creepy being: dirty, stuffing birds under his hat with a bird nest in his hair, having what appear to be bird droppings dried in his hair.
I can't say McCoy wasn't good or right for the part: he plays unhinged better than anyone I can think of, but given he didn't do much in the story (and from what I remember, is barely mentioned in The Hobbit), why get distracted with a whole scene involving spiders when he disappears to let Cockney trolls menace our dwarves for another twenty minutes and then pop in again?
Let me go on about those trolls. TWENTY MINUTES of the trolls arguing about how to eat first the horses, then Bilbo, then the dwarves who couldn't rescue him. Now, I do remember THIS being part of the Tolkien work, but again, TWENTY MINUTES! I simply do not understand why Jackson and Company didn't decide that it would be worth our time to trim this whole sequence.
Again and again things felt unnaturally stretched out and added which had the effect of making this nearly three hour spectacle far longer than it should have been.
This isn't to say one doesn't get one's bang for one's buck. Certainly there are moments that are genuinely thrilling. There is a short sequence with Stone Giants that is visually impressive and the final confrontation between Azog and Thorin (along with his dwarves) is exciting, but a lot of the in-between is what causes us to pause and wonder if perhaps the overenthusiam of LOTR fans pushed its prequel to give more than it could.
The unfortunate thing about An Unexpected Journey is that in all the madness and mayhem, something gets lost. What that something is turns out to be...Bilbo Baggins himself.
For a story that is so centered around how this very domestic hobbit finds himself in the midst of all these adventures, the character of Bilbo is remarkably not a central part of An Unexpected Journey. It's a sad commentary on how epic this first part of the created trilogy is when the main character could have been almost completely removed from the film without affecting the story as a whole.
That is an even greater shame in that Foreman is actually quite good in An Unexpected Journey: his perpetually flustered, befuddled, and genuinely shocked Bilbo, experiencing all sorts of adventures when he is the most domestic of beings, has a strong mix of comedy with some genuine sense of wonder and awe at the situations he finds himself in. Freeman's real showcase is in his Game of Riddles with Andy Serkis' Gollum, and for those minutes, away from the mayhem and battles, the tension as to who will win out shows both how Serkis, even in animated form, dominates the entire Lord of the Rings series and Freeman's ability to play the every-hobbit in dangerous encounters.
I should point out now that Bilbo has come into possession of the ring (which didn't play as much of a role in The Hobbit as it would in The Lord of the Rings), Gollum should in theory not reappear in Desolation of Smaug or There and Back Again. Should he make a return appearance, we will have MAJOR issues with how Jackson went from Champion of Tolkien to Bastardizer of the Same.
If I may digress a bit, the focus on Oakenshield than on Bilbo is like how Doctor Who focuses more on River Song than on the Doctor himself. Ostensibly the star of the show, Doctor Who sometimes not only centers an episode on the supporting character of River, but makes HER the smarter and more important character (at times even in a series of stories). Similarly, it is a sad commentary on how far An Unexpected Journey and those behind it fell when the character of Bilbo, on whom the story is suppose to center around, could almost be entirely cut from An Unexpected Journey without affecting the film we've been presented.
Due to the nature of An Unexpected Journey, the other dwarves don't really stick in the memory; that isn't to say they weren't individuals: you had the wise elder one, the fat one, the funny pair, but they never became individuals. Rather, the dwarves were a collection whom we didn't get to know.
All the other cast, returning to familiar ground, were adequate but perhaps too wrapped up in how 'important' this all was versus how 'relevant' they were to the actual plot.
Going on to some technical matters, it is amazing what a leap back The Hobbit is to The Lord of the Rings. A whole sequence of the dwarves comically 'cleaning up' the Baggins family plates (to Bilbo's great fear) was patently fake-looking, almost as if were done on the cheap. Moreover, when we come upon Rivendell, this mythical and mystical home of the Elves, there really is no sense of awe, of wonder, of magic upon entering a fabled land. Instead, Rivendell looks like a high-end version of Medieval Times.
Ultimately The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is, to quote my beloved Shakespeare, a tale 'full of sound and fury, signifying nothing'. It is long, expansive, and stretches beyond anything that the source material can hold for three films. The central character gets lost in all the Sturm und Drang of trying desperately to make more out of The Hobbit than it is. The Hobbit IS a story that precedes The Lord of the Rings, but it is not exactly a prequel to that epic. It is the story of a simple hobbit who has an adventure involving dwarves and elves, fights battles, and in the midst of all that finds a ring that has powers but which ultimately is only a part of Bilbo's story.
This is pretty much what I imagine Tolkien's reaction would be if he knew what was going on with The Hobbit's film adaptation...