An Unnecessary Film, by David Bax
2001, 2002 and 2003 saw the releases of three films by Peter Jackson, each based one of the books in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. They were The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and The Return of the King. Now, eleven years since the first movie came out, Jackson gives us The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the beginning of new trilogy. This time, however, the three films will all be based on one book. Furthermore, if this one is any indication, they will not be short movies. So the most pervasive question going into An Unexpected Journey is whether Jackson has made a case for the amount of time he’s taking to tell this story. The answer is no, he absolutely has not.
Bilbo Baggins, a Hobbit, has been recruited by the Wizard Gandalf to aid a group of warrior Dwarves on a quest to reclaim the city they call home from the dragon who has occupied it for decades. The journey is a perilous one for Bilbo not only because it’s filled with Orcs, Goblins and Trolls but also because his new companions aren’t convinced that a member of the peaceful, leisurely Hobbit race is fit for their task.
Now, because Jackson has apparently dared himself to wring two hours and forty-six minutes out of this quasi-plot, there’s a lot more to it than is detailed above. In The Fellowship of the Ring, when Jackson needed to employ flashbacks to establish the history of the film’s world, he did so with relative economy. Some well-delivered voiceover mixed with some compelling and informative shots did the trick. Here, however, he dwells needlessly on such things as the accumulation of certain gems in the Dwarves’ mines. In doing so, he slows the film down so much that it changes course. You’re less interested than you were before and you’re not even sure the things in which you were invested are important anymore.
Flashbacks aren’t the only wastes of time in An Unexpected Journey. Jackson also takes every detour he comes across and a few he seems to have imagined up himself. There are action sequences that seem to have no impetus or conclusion. There are indelicately shoehorned appearances of characters from the previous trilogy. Really, the thrust of this entry is itself a sort of detour. The villain of the whole story these films will tell would seem to be the dragon. But since we’re only at the beginning of the tale by the end of this film – and therefore are only afforded a few glimpses of the beast – this story needs a bad guy. So it is that we get this sort of mega-Orc who has a connection to the past of one Dwarf. He is a menacing sight, at least, though he doesn’t leave much of an impression once the thing is over. But the amount of time spent on this plot, which seems baldly invented to give this wisp of a film a bit of its own structure, detracts greatly from the task at hand. Again, it’s unclear just what we’re supposed to be caring about.
Perhaps the most grating distractions are the comedic ones, or at least the ones whose aims appear to be comedy. An Unexpected Journey is more light-hearted and child-friendly than the Lord of the Rings films. That is not a problem on its own until Jackson begins to assert his particular idea of childlike whimsy. It consists of bodily fluid jokes and strained, desperate silliness. The legacy of Jar Jar Binks is draped over this film like a soiled hairnet. Firstly, there are the trolls who sneeze huge globules of mucus into their food or, later, onto our heroes. They also spend a lot of time sitting on things or threatening to sit on things. You know, with their butts. Hilarious. Secondly, and most tragically, there is the wizard Radagast. Not only is he exactly the kind of self-consciously goofy “comic relief” the awfulness of which was perfected by the aforementioned Jar Jar, he also spends the entirety of his scenes with a massive patch of dried bird shit plastering his filthy hair to the right side of his face. It’s disgusting and it’s all in glorious 3D at 48 frames per second.
An Unexpected Journey is already too phony to be invested in. The choice to shoot and present it at double the normal frame rate exacerbates that phoniness enormously. I want to hedge my bets here. Perhaps there will be better uses for 48 FPS in the future (I’m already looking forward to seeing Avatar 2 for this reason). Perhaps the protocol for its use needs perfecting. Perhaps we’ll all get used to it. Or perhaps I’ll enjoy it when it’s employed in a good film. Whatever the case may be, it does not work here, with the caveat that it does seem to make the 3D smoother, more crisp and more natural-feeling. The problems with it, though, are not just the shock of seeing things in a new way. I had nearly three hours to get used to it, after all. Its failure is in the fact that it looks like a particularly expensive episode of Masterpiece Theatre. More accurately, because everyone’s in costume and makeup and saying old-timey sounding things, it looks like a dramatic recreation you’d see in a cheap video in a dark room at a museum. Except with motion capture.
Which brings us to the good parts (or part) of the film. Andy Serkis returns as Gollum and, once again, manages to awesomely lay waste to everyone else on screen despite giving a performance where you can’t technically see him. The only time one of the film’s many halts in momentum is welcome is in the one, longish passage between Bilbo and Gollum. Serkis makes Gollum terrifying unstable and unpredictable, sickeningly violent and craven, darkly hilarious and, most importantly, crushingly sad and sympathetic. It’s got to be the best scene in any bad movie this year.
As much as is possible, Gollum’s appearance does seem to breathe a little life into the film, or at least kick its body hard enough that it moves a bit. Most of the action that takes place after his scene is just that, action. The pacing is consistently accelerated. The set-pieces are innovative and exciting. The swordplay is wittily choreographed. It’s finally, at best, a passable adventure film in its last act. Still, it all feels so hollow.
In The Fellowship of the Ring, Wraiths and Orcs offered palpable danger and the undertaking of the film’s central mission was not a thing done lightly. In short, the movie had stakes. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey has no stakes and, therefore, it lacks any reason good enough to make seeing it worthwhile.