The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was definitely too long and perhaps too ambitious, but then I wasn’t expecting a masterpiece. It’s barely a fresh tomato (65%) as opposed to the gourmet ratings of each of the Lord of the Rings films (92%, 96%, 94%), and while I often cut against critical consensus, the reviews in this case are a pretty reliable gauge. The film is bloated like King Kong and proof that Peter Jackson needs an editor. Yet there’s a lot I liked about it, most of which doesn’t even come from the book, which makes my feelings paradoxical; I’m complaining about an oversized length while commending material that by rights has no place in the story.
My favorite is Radagast the Brown, and he fits perfectly in a plot involving the Necromancer of Dol Guldur. Tolkien’s story had no room for this menace. The Hobbit was written for children, and it certainly never explained why Gandalf abandoned Bilbo and the dwarves once they hit Mirkwood Forest. You have to read Lord of the Rings to learn what his “pressing business” was in the southern neck of the woods. Jackson isn’t sidestepping that business, in fact, he’s making Sauron the villain as much as Smaug — an ambitious project, to be sure, one that dramatically divides our interest, and it could turn out a mess. But meanwhile I love Radagast, who keeps a watch on the Hill of Sorcery, where the Necromancer (= Sauron) rolls out his poison against the forest.
Purists, to be sure, are already howling over the way Radagast is so “disrespectfully” portrayed. In Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, he is dismissed as a crank only through the scorn of Saruman, while Jackson goes out of his way to make him a half-baked lunatic who lets birds nest in his hair and shit down his beard. This last gratifies me immensely, and I can’t see what the fuss is about. (Perhaps being a purist entails not only a fundamentalist worship of the text, but also an unyielding disdain for anything vulgar like feces.) I adore everything about Jackson’s Radagast. We’re introduced to him as he tends to a dying hedgehog while his house is attacked by giant spiders; he remains tenderly focused on the hedgehog to its last gasp. Later he rescues Gandalf, Bilbo and the dwarves from a warg attack, by running tails around the beasts with a (yes) rabbit-pulled sleigh. This sleigh has already become famous, and is admittedly quite silly, but only in the same appropriately silly way that hobbits dance to frivolous songs on barroom tables.
My second favorite part is that which is actually most faithful to the book: the riddle game between Bilbo and Gollum. I retain a special fondness for the Rankin & Bass animated treatment of this scene, so it’s saying something that I think Jackson’s is just as good. He delivers the exact same riddles from Tolkien’s story, and a flawless depiction of Gollum’s schizophrenia — his hate and desperation mixed with loneliness and a craving of the company of his own kind. It’s the heart of Unexpected Journey and carries a tense introspective thrust that resonates across future decades.
The final scene of this episode even outdoes the riddle contest, in spotlighting the “pity of Bilbo” which will of course become the basis for Gandalf’s sermon to Frodo. Greg Wright summarizes the lesson nicely:
“The important point is not entirely that Bilbo finds room in his heart for mercy, motivated by pity. It’s that, through that merciful act, the larger Providential arc of Divine movement is worked out. Neither Bilbo, nor Frodo, nor even Gandalf, Elrond, or Galadriel, are powerful enough to save Middle-earth from great Evil. Evil will ultimately destroy itself through its own evil impulses, and Gollum is the agent of that demise — in spite of the best intentions of others.”
Bilbo’s pity, here and now in The Hobbit, is what saves Middle-Earth in The Lord of the Rings — not Frodo (who will be a foreordained failure, unable to resist the Ring when it matters most), nor Gandalf (who can only aid the Free Peoples per his charge), and certainly not Aragorn (who will rule as a mere reminder of man’s past glory and not a promise of any future glory). Bilbo’s compassion makes possible what no member of the Fellowship can accomplish, and Jackson foreshadows the euchatastrophe beautifully. Gollum’s tortured look is heartbreaking, and carries none of the cheesy melodrama that mars some the interactions between, say, Bilbo and Thorin.
There’s more that I enjoyed in Unexpected Journey, but Radagast and Gollum stole the show. The Southern Mirkwood plot involves the White Council (Elrond, Galadriel, Saruman, and Ganalf) meeting at Rivendell, another delight for Tolkien fans, even if centuries of Necromancer history are outrageously condensed into a single year. I also liked the prologue of Smaug laying waste to Erebor; we don’t get to see the dragon yet, and this somehow made the fire attack even more terrifying. What I didn’t like was all the self-indulgent air front-loading the story in the Shire. The return of Frodo left me nonplussed (and Elijah Wood is looking too old now), and it took too long for the dwarves to assemble in Bag End, sing songs, gorge themselves, and get Bilbo to sign their bloody contract. Mind you, I love Bag End and am not averse to lingering in the Shire per se. In the extended version of Fellowship of the Ring I savored every moment of the 40-minute first act, as none of it dragged, even when doing little more than fleshing out character moments. The theatrical Hobbit, by contrast, gives us a 45-minute Shire episode which feels twice the length it needed to be — a hyper-extended version that wouldn’t even be warranted on DVD.
Then there is Goblin Town. If Bag End made me yawn with its vacuousness, Goblin Town bored me twice as much with its ridiculous excesses. Jackson’s Spielberg-sickness has plainly gotten the better of him since King Kong. Granted there’s always some suspension of disbelief required in fantasy blockbusters, but once dwarves are leaping over crumbling bridges like Olympic athletes, and falling down chasms with hardly a scratch, suspension of disbelief is a non-sequitur. It’s the same as Ann Darrow plummeting through hundreds of feet of tree branches while doing impossible trapeze artistry, or King Kong whipping her to and fro enough times to snap her body like a twig; or like Indiana Jones bailing out of a plane with a goddamn river raft. It’s adolescent fanboy nonsense that recognizes no laws of physics whatsoever, and makes acrobatic superheroes by sheer wish-fulfillment.
And that’s not all. The Goblin-King himself is a major offense, resembling Jabba the Hut and speaking like a toad out of a lame Tim Burton film. Ironically, the other orc baddie, Azog, is impressively fearsome, and he doesn’t even belong in the story; in the Tolkien canon he was killed by dwarves over a century ago. But in Jackson’s revisionism Azog only appeared to die at the Battle of Azanulbizar, so he can now resurface and wreak vengeance on Thorin. I enjoyed this invented storyline far more than the “legitimate” Goblin-Town drama, and I’m sure purists will hate me for approving Jackson’s liberties.
Those who complain that Jackson has made The Hobbit too much like Lord of the Rings miss the point. The Dol Guldur plot involves the Lord of the Rings and is the other half of the story I always wanted to see. (Then too I have fond if brutal gaming memories of Southern Mirkwood.) In the grand scheme of things, the White Council’s strike against the Necromancer is more epic than the dwarves’ against Smaug. The question is whether or not Jackson bit off more than he can chew and can make these two threads mesh well. The next two films will tell. This one is really an over-extended journey, a bloated stage-setter, that simultaneously engages and divides our interest.
Rating: 3 stars out of 5.