When The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey ended, I turned to my brother in the theater and said, “Well, Peter Jackson sure took liberties with that one.” I knew going in he had to. After the runaway success of the far more serious Lord of the Rings trilogy, Jackson had to find a way to provide the audience with the experience they would want in this world he so vividly created. The Hobbit is a silly and straightforward fantasy adventure story about a hobbit helping a group of dwarves reclaim their fortune stolen by a greedy dragon.
Screenwriters Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, and Guillermo del Toro make a bold choice to combine The Hobbit with other story threads from J.R.R. Tolkien’s extended universe. Characters from The Lord of the Rings that do not appear in The Hobbit novel arrive to provide guidance on the main journey before setting the big subplot in motion. The tone of the film is kept quite light despite the much darker subplot to come. Darker encounters from The Hobbit are replaced with fights that don’t come until much later in the novel. The film is The Hobbit remixed to craft a much more morally complex story than the novel presents.For some, the approach will be off-putting. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey does take a long time to get going. Each of the 13 dwarves are introduced one by one at an extended meeting at hobbit Bilbo Baggins’ hole. He reacts with increasing frustration as the dwarves and Gandalf the Grey eat all of his food, drink all of his ale, and dirty up every inch of his house. I thought it was a great way to introduce the group dynamics and conflicts that define the story, but I could see where the slow build in the hole could leave people wanting more action.
The action is not delayed that long and that is where Peter Jackson’s vision really comes to life. Jackson feels like a man obsessed with telling story through physical conflict. From the Radagast the Brown’s defense against black magic in his forest home to the dwarves battling the underground society of trolls, the action itself is where the real story is told. There’s the linear plot–get the dwarves to the mountain for their gold–and then there’s the actual story. Once the characters are established and on their way, the action sequences are used to shift the power in relationships, bring out the nuances of Tolkien’s world, and actually craft a memorable film.
Filled with great performances and greater effects, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a charming fantasy/adventure film. The one major flaw is that the ending guarantees its status as the start of something rather than a standalone film. One shot less before the credits could have made all the difference.
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