As of late it seems that media is in no shortage of epics. Game of Thrones is still running strong (as it should), Star Wars is going to have three more installments (that will hopefully redeem and serve as an apology note for the atrocious prequels), the Batman franchise just wrapped up a trilogy, and Superman is still, somehow, getting films made about it. Boredom will not be visiting the silver screen too often in the next few years, though sighs of disdain and ‘been there, seen that’ moments will visit some as vividly as acid flashbacks. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is the final epic of the year and happy stamp on the final few days of 2012 for those that have been waiting for the prequel to the Lord of the Rings series.
Long ago before Frodo (Elijah Wood) and company set out to destroy the One Ring, there was a great dwarven empire that mass produced gold, until a dragon named Smaug came and destroyed their great city and claimed the treasure as his own. The dwarves, now homeless, seeking to reclaim their lost empire in the Lonely Mountain, believe the signs are saying that they can finally return. However, the group, lead by Thorin (Richard Armitage), and accompanied by Gandalf (Ian McKellen), need a burglar because the front door is sealed shut and the only way in is a secret door. Nominated by Galdalf, the hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) joins the group on an adventure that is sure to change the lives of everyone involved. And maybe even the fate of Middle Earth.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey finally comes to us after many disputes between Peter Jackson and New Line Cinema, nine years after Return of the King. The result is definitely something you would expect Jackson to do nowadays (though not something you would expect him to do twenty plus years ago). The Hobbit is epic in scope with vast, expansive shots, chaotic battles, and just about anything you would expect to see from the Lord of the Rings films. These are things most will come into the theater already expecting which moves the question to: what has been done different? And perhaps even more pressing, why is this book important?
For those that do not know, The Hobbit documents how Bilbo came to possess the One Ring and the adventures that follow. The source material it is based off is actually a rather small book, about three-hundred pages long and roughly one-hundred pages shorter than The Fellowship of the Ring (the first Lord of the Rings book). Some of you may be wondering how New Line Cinema and Jackson are going to squeeze three films out of a three-hundred page book. The answer comes to us throughout the movie, draped in cinematic bravado: very, very slowly.
Let one thing be immediately clear: The Hobbit is not a bad film. It is not even a very difficult film to get through if you allow yourself to be lost in the beauty of the world and accept that it is generally a style-over-substance approach. Those that do not find themselves constantly lost in the scenery will end up finding themselves very, very aware of that ticking watch on their hand or those accumulating text messages on that cell phone that s/he decided to put on vibrate. To say that the film spins its wheels would be on the money. The accumulating story is just that, it is something that is building but does not come with any real closure. What made the Lord of the Rings films a solid split, much like the old Star Wars flicks, is that they each managed to have enough closure once the credits rolled but still kept the audience thirsting for more. It felt okay to get out of that chair and move towards the exit. Here instead we have a film that tells us all this stuff is happening and that may as well be where they cut the celluloid. The attitude is a ‘save it for later’ approach since there are going to be two more films. Why not just shoot some more pretty pictures and fill out the run time instead of filling in the story gaps? Everything would just feel more acceptable and enjoyable if there were less filler and more killer.
What is also strange is how grossly dark and serious The Hobbit takes itself. Everything feels so dark and depressing that it seldom seems to have a good time. The stabs at humor actually come off as awkward more often than not with strange moments where there will be a big, serious face off only to have the villain make a wise crack before being defeated. It is so off kilter that the audience cannot laugh because there is no build to the moment. And this happens throughout the film, but strangely not on any consistent basis. It is like hearing an inside joke get cracked between two people you are passing in the street. It is not funny, just out of context. And it does not serve to lighten the depressing mood either.
The Hobbit does deserve its brand of epic in every sense of the word though. Beyond the glum atmosphere and strange stabs at humor, the film still feels like it is bigger than any landscape you have ever flown around. What is happening at hand, despite how little is actually revealed, feels important and like it is always building to more, even when filler overruns the screen. Jackson has managed to bring the story to the screen with great success, though one cannot help but wonder if he and New Line Cinema are over-extending themselves by turning a three-hundred page book into three films. There is much enjoyment to be had here but everything feels like it is being stretched like taffy. Hopefully future installments will make up for the rocky start because we have a long way to go.