I hate to start my review of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, a pretty cool movie, on a really down note, but I have to ask: what was the point of this movie?
One answer might be that it’s supposed to just be a fun action story. Another might be that it’s necessary set-up for the bigger events unfolding in later films. Either way, the film doesn’t quite get there, instead being too big to be pure fun, and too pointless to be epic.
An Unexpected Journey is, I guess, the first in the trilogy that will make up the story of The Hobbit. I read the book a very long time ago, and I don’t remember enough of it (or care enough about it) to be a purist. But I do remember thinking it was really exciting and really fun. I can’t say the same for this film.
An Unexpected Journey doesn’t really work on its own. It could have. There are things in this movie that would have made for a pretty fantastic, pretty fleet, and actually surprisingly affecting adventure story. Instead it’s flabby, self-important, and intermittently soporific.
Here’s an example: early-ish in the movie, we’re introduced to a brown wizard. He’s skittish and goofy, his voice comically lilting as he throws things around his ramshackle yet whimsical cabin. He seems more like a squirrel than a noble guardian of Middle Earth.
This stuff with the brown wizard is intended to set in motion some important plot machine that eventually (one must assume) leads to the rise of Sauron and the events of Lord of the Rings movies. But the brown wizard is also there, I presume, for a little comic relief.
I don’t think this element succeeds on either front. Tonally, his involvement is mostly goofy, but it also has the burden of having to be important, because the brown wizard is the only one that’s actually seen the coming dark and terrible threat. That mismatch, swinging wildly from goofus to gallant, is hard to stomach.
Note that I called the guy the brown wizard; I can’t even remember his name. His role is limited to babbling about nature, turning some gears in the rise-of-Sauron story, and having bird shit on his face (not a joke; this is an important part of his character, apparently). Each time he showed up, I checked my watch. You’re not supposed to do that in an epic, swashbuckling adventure story.
I checked my watch a lot, in fact. There were some great action shots and sweeping vistas and moderately interesting expository flashbacks. But there were also repetitive and confusing action shots, samey vistas, and uninteresting expository conversations. (My roommate Justin said he had many thoughts about this film, but “the short version is that there should have been a short version. Zing!”)
On balance, about one third of this movie is great. That, unfortunately, leads me to believe that about one third of each movie in the trilogy will be great, and this whole ordeal would have actually made one great movie.
The great one third of this movie happens mostly to be the last third. Near the end of the film, things start happening. Bilbo has a realization that he loves his home in the Shire, and he’ll gladly help the dwarfs fight for theirs, a moment of real emotion in an otherwise emotionally calm sea. Bilbo also has a really great encounter with Gollum, who is the most interesting thing in this movie. But it’s all blended in with kinetic and visually interesting but meaningless chases through what look like the either ruins in The Elder Scrolls games or caves in the Fallout games.
The whole thing, in fact, kind of looks like a video game. In fact, I don’t know that it’s fair to call this a live action film. Pretty much all of the fighting the band of journeymen (and no journeywomen whatsoever) does is against CGI enemies. And there are too many of these swarming goons for us to really even care when the party defeats one (or a dozen). There’s an attempt at a climactic battle against a head orc of some kind, and that could feel important, but instead, it’s messy and fiery and ultimately has no resolution.
There’s a chance that most of the film’s weaknesses come from it being the first film in a trilogy. But remember: it was the film’s choice to be this way. This isn’t Star Wars, where there were three distinct phases in the Hero’s Journey and battle against the Empire. Hell, this isn’t even Lord of the Rings, which had important events in each film to make each one feel like it had stakes. This is just a small adventure story bloated to epic proportions. Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that it waddles more than it flies.