Film Reviews / By now, we’re all familiar with Peter Jackson’s long, drawn-out, expositional style of filmmaking, in which the first hour–the so-called “popcorn hour”–amps up to a majestic battle of good versus evil, or in one case, a giant primate going berserk in Manhattan. At best, the long lead-in creates suspense and excitement, but when the droll fluff begins to cloy, we moviegoers suffer.
The premise of Middle-earth is not hard to grasp (even for those unfamiliar with J.R.R. Tolkien’s universe): Elves, dwarves, hobbits and other creatures keep to their dominions without much fuss until a dark enemy threatens their livelihood (or their gold). But with so many characters (more than a dozen, plus Lord of the Rings actors who reprise their roles as Elrond, Galadriel, the elderly Bilbo, Frodo, Gandalf, Saruman the White and Gollum) and such a grand task at hand, a little feasting and storytelling is in order before our heroes can set off for Erebor. Time drags, but in movie theaters, you can’t just go for the remote and “skip to the good part.”
That’s when, much to my chagrin, I began to understand what it meant that The Hobbit is divided into three films–An Unexpected Journey is the beginning of a two-year commitment I didn’t realize I was making. Worse, it only touches on what magnificence we hope lies ahead.
This first installment begins with Bilbo Baggins preparing for his eleventy-first birthday, hunkered down to write out his adventures for Frodo. We flash back 60 years to when Gandalf came to Bag End to recruit him for a dwarves’ quest: to reclaim their Lonely Mountain home. The dwarves were chased out by the chrysophilist dragon Smaug, who was attracted to King Thrór’s tremendous treasure hoard (Note to self: avarice doesn’t pay). Thirteen dwarves, led by Thorin Oakenshield, accompany Gandalf to Bilbo’s house in search of a burglar to help them. Though quite upset by the intrusion, Baggins can’t help but agree, and off they go.
Trolls, goblins and orcs liven up the trek, but it’s not until our old pal Gollum gets into a battle of wits with our fifth favorite hobbit that things get interesting. Yes, Gollum has the precious. Who knew six films could be made about one piece of jewelry?
Despite almost three hours of runtime, the film feels incomplete. Even with the many adventures the company faces, it’s not a full story, unlike the films that make up Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. Batman versus the Scarecrow, Batman versus the Joker and Batman versus Bane are all stand-alone films. Each uses the underlying growth of the characters to connect them as parts of a greater whole; each ends with a satisfying conclusion. Journey doesn’t conclude anything. It’s a placeholder until The Desolation of Smaug (2013) and There And Back Again (2014) tie it all together.
And perhaps it has to be this way. The Hobbit is a very long book. Translating it to one film would either result in an eight-hour test of your bladder or an extreme simplification of a complex and thrilling journey. But if you’re not already a Tolkien fan, Journey may not be the best place to start–you’re better off waiting for the complete trilogy before diving in.
Don’t get me wrong–Journey has its moments, just not enough of them. Though not as exciting as, say, Frodo’s quest, Bilbo’s is by no means a snore. As expected, the New Zealand scenery is breathtaking, the antagonists are ugly as hell but beautifully realized, the likeable characters have their endearing quirks and the story is wondrous. After the film, I’m not left thinking about how cool the mountain giants are as much as what is going to happen when the dwarves, Bilbo and Gandalf reach Erebor. I’m thinking how much darker and much more frightening (and satisfying) it will be.
Chances are, if you’re already invested in LOTR, you’ll see this one (and Smaug and Back Again), because Peter Jackson is the best at what he does and he’s the only one tackling Tolkien’s realm. Like it or not, you can’t bail now. But you can grumble.