The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey Tried and Failed to Rekindle Peter Jackson’s MagicMovies Features The Hobbit
Paste’s Jacob Oller asked me (provided I was not “already Tolkiened out”) to look back at either 2002’s The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers or 2012’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, as the former turns 20 this month and the latter 10. Because I am never Tolkiened out, I took him up on it. And because I can’t look away from a train wreck, I picked The Hobbit, the most disappointing franchise film in more than a decade when it came out. I did it because every last damned thing we’re seeing in theaters now pretty much is An Unexpected Journey to a T: An overproduced, underthought, obligatory continuation of a franchise that is a blithe waste of everybody’s time, more an excuse to sell themed tie-in meals at chain restaurants and licensed videogames than an actual movie.
Here it comes, you must be thinking: A guy who is going to go on about a movie he hates for no reason. I’m not doing that. I’m actually going to talk about what there is to like in The Hobbit, Valar preserve me. The core of all Tolkien’s work is tragedy: The kingdom that has fallen, the light that has faded, the song whose last echo has been lost to the void. All we can do is our best, and it will never be as great as Annuminas, which was but a pale imitation of Westernesse, which couldn’t hold a candle to Gondolin, and so forth. The tree that grows atop Minas Tirith will never be the equal of its sires in the Undying Lands. It’s kind of fitting that The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was never going to be as good or as important as Peter Jackson’s original trilogy of films. I’m also quite sure nobody at Warner Bros. grasps the irony.
You, the person reading this, are also dragging your feet through the end stages of capitalism. And so you, too, must understand the unbearable situation of having before you a task that you do not want to complete, and yet must. Money has changed hands, promises have been made. There are any number of ways you might try (just try) to make it better in defiance of all the ways the person paying you demands that it must suck. So you ask the right questions, try to push the scope of the project toward something that might be useful or, failing that, at least beautiful. Something you, personally, can be proud of, if nothing else. Something the folks working under you won’t actively resent you for making them create.
Peter Jackson is on record as saying that he had not conceived of The Hobbit as a trilogy, that he was doing it because it was going to be made one way or another once the original director, Guillermo del Toro, departed from the project. Jackson is on record as saying that he basically winged it: He did not have the long pre-production time that he had on LOTR, a trilogy that looks every bit as if someone spent long years agonizing over how it would look and feel. His interviews are those of a broken man. He did not want to make this fucking thing, and yet he not only made it, but made an appalling amount of it. But it is worth acknowledging that you can really see where he was trying.
Those who watch The Hobbit trilogy and then fire up Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings are treated to a story that seems like a cohesive whole, even in light of the difference in quality. Howard Shore’s score, the reappearance of Ian Holm as Bilbo and Elijah Wood as Frodo, a million other little bits of continuity, all hang together surprisingly well for films that were started a decade apart from each other. Prequels pretty universally feel off-kilter in comparison with the movies they follow. The Hobbit trilogy’s tone may veer wildly where LOTR is consistent throughout, but the Hobbit movies do still manage to feel of a piece with LOTR a lot of the time.
Martin Freeman, as the younger Bilbo, is inspired casting. Freeman’s entire career has been one of portraying put-upon British gentlemen who are in some stage or another of getting dragged unwillingly on some errand: Tim from The Office, Watson in Sherlock, even his character in The World’s End. Besides bringing that necessary prissiness, he also sells the dramatic moments, as in the scene where he stays his hand rather than slaying poor Gollum. (Andy Serkis reprising his role to perfection is another thing, by the way, that works and makes the movies feel as if they all hang together.) We already know the deep significance of this mercy—that Bilbo is not only sparing Gollum, but saving his nephew’s life and causing Sauron’s downfall. But Bilbo doesn’t know this, and Freeman plays the moment like what it is: He’s just unwilling to bushwack a miserable creature who probably doesn’t deserve it—the sentiment at the very core of Tolkien’s entire work.
There was much ink spilled about all the stuff Jackson and his team added to these movies. He did this because he had to make three movies, which is ipso facto a directive that the movies must suck. The innumerable folks who labored to make these films—there are 10 minutes of credits at the end of this first movie—did this because Bilbo needs to make paper for Warner Bros. I feel the need to at least try to defend some of it, though, because there’s method behind what’s there. You can categorize most of these additions in three broad areas: Stuff Gandalf said he was doing that we didn’t see, stuff that calls back to appendices in LOTR or The Silmarillion (or is connective tissue that didn’t exist between the two, such as Legolas showing up) and stuff Jackson and his team completely made up. It’s mostly the latter category that is straight-up unwatchable: Of course the prettiest dwarf has a romance with an elf who is made up.
Things like the White Council’s subplot, in which all the super serious actors deliver big portentous dialogue, or Radagast being added into the story, flesh out the wider world of Jackson’s treatment of Tolkien’s work, and use stuff from Tolkien to do it. The orc Azog being an antagonist of Thorin’s company during the film call back to the epic shit Tolkien just couldn’t help but hide in the appendices of The Lord of the Rings. Legolas appearing in later entries of this trilogy make him seem older and more formidable in the context of the other movies.
The trouble, of course, is that while these addendums definitely serve the Tolkien super-fans, they do not serve this particular movie, since these scenes slow down the pace, detract from Bilbo’s story and stretch the runtime of a movie that didn’t need to be longer. They would’ve done so had they been in the book, too.
I think it may have been inevitable that such a movie, just by virtue of being connected to Jackson’s Rings trilogy, was going to be bad. The Hobbit was a silly adventure story J.R.R. Tolkien wrote for his children—the children who devoted themselves to preserving and honoring it, even as it’s grown further and further from their control. The Lord of the Rings is not really the book Tolkien wanted to write: He needed to turn in something to his publishers, though, while he struggled to imagine the entirety of the fantasy world that he always spoke of as if it were real. The Hobbit was not written as if it was leading into The Lord of the Rings, but now we live in a world where the two must be reconciled: Not so much for artistic consistency, but because Warner Bros. needed something to fill the winter release schedule once those Harry Potter movies were done.
Jackson tried. We all try our best to fight the doomed battle against the implacability of mediocrity, that insidious force that was there when the first note of the first song left the lips of the first singer, and that lives on in the frown of every middle manager and the red pen of every private school English Comp teacher. For some bosses, your best is the worst thing you can give them. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and its sequels are what happens when you give them a beloved intellectual property, a talented but overwhelmed director, and whip-cracking shareholders who want another billion dollars by Q1 of next year.