Probably the most compelling thing about the entirety of Peter Jackson’s return to Middle-Earth with The Hobbit lies buried within the depths of the exhaustive making off that lurks within the multiple extras of the Extended Edition. During this fascinating documentary, Jackson goes on record to say that he never actually wanted to direct The Hobbit but unfortunately had to once the proposed Guillermo Del Toro, two-film version finally fell through after years of postponement and false starts. With Del Toro eventually dropping out, Jackson found himself in the rather odd situation of having to direct a series of movies (that got bumped up to a trilogy once he committed) he didn’t really intend to and this goes a long way to explain the tangible tonal shift between The Hobbit and Jackson’s seminal and insanely beloved Lord Of The Rings trilogy. While making the first movies, Jackson was noticably hungry and had a concrete vision concerning exactly how he wanted to bring J.R.R. Tolkien’s legendary story to the big screen – fast forward to a few years later and he’s somehow found himself at the forefront at yet another grueling back to back cinematic endeavor and his sullen face literally tells the entire story.
We are introduced to a younger, but far more pernickety Bilbo Baggins as he is approached by benevolently scheming wizard Gandalf the Grey and asked to join an expedition that could help the settled Hobbit to the worlds of high adventure, but the grumpy little man refuses. Never one to take no for an answer, Gandalf invites the members of the expedition along anyway and later that night, Baggins finds himself being visited by a company of thirteen dwarves who need him to accompany them on their quest to reclaim their homeland, the subterranean kingdom of Erebor after the fearful dragon Smaug violently set up residence many years ago.
After some initial disagreements, Bilbo finally agrees to be their stealthy “burglar” and the dwarves, led by the enigmatic and determined king in waiting, Thorin Oakenshield, head out on their quest. While they suffer slight entanglements with hungry trolls, dark forces seem to be amassing in the darker areas of Middle-Earth with bird-shit entrusted eco-wizard Radagast discovering the existence of a “Necromancer” in the abandoned ruins of a lost, evil, civilisation and alerting Gandalf to his fears. But even worse, the huge white orc known by the cheery moniker as Azog the Defiler has turned out to be not quite as dead as Thorin hoped and their bitter history together looks set to continue as the bestial leader hunts the Dwaven company with his battalion hunters astide big-ass wolf monsters.
As the group avoids Azog’s Warg Riders while having continued run-ins with Elves, brawling Rock Giants and an entire kingdom of Gobins, Bilbo finds both his desire to be there and the Dwarves faith in him failing, but lost in the depths of the Misty Mountains and engaged in a fatal battle of riddles with an emaciated creature called Gollum, Baggins stumbles upon a trinket that could change the world.
So, there are numerous issues here that makes this much ballyhooed return to Middle-Earth feel so comprised, but before we get into the thick of it, props have to be given for how lush everything looks, because for all its faults, An Unexpected Journey is by far the most “fantasy” fantasy movie of the entire Middle-Earth saga. Trolls speak, Radagast has a rabbit-pulled sled and Barrie Humphries’ grotesque Goblin King even gets to belt out a musical number which hews closely to the more child-friendly nature of the original book, but this playfulness come at a cost and that’s that The Hobbit is a very diffrent beast to Lord Of The Rings.
A trilogy of releases with extended editions wasn’t even enough to contain Tolkien’s hefty novel back in the day with certain aspects of the book falling by the wayside in order to keep focus on what was legitimately important (see you in hell, Tom Bombadil), but The Hobbit might as well be a fucking pamphlet compared to its bigger brother and a trio of movies featuring bladder testing run time is simply too much for the story to take as it’s mercilessly stretched in order to fulfil the epic expectations. As a result, we treated to various plot extensions, embellishing and full length songs that serve to keep the characters embarking too far, too soon and makes the slow trudge of the Fellowship seem like they caught an Uber in comparison. Yes, in order to create the world we’re exploring fantasy movies need ample room to breathe, but Jackson gives his epic so much space to manoeuvre it’s a wonder the bloody thing doesn’t die of exposure.
Elsewhere, in an attempt to not put himself through the ringer too much this time, Jackson opts out of some of of the filmmaking techniques such a prosthetics for the orcs and “bigatures” for the model work that originally made the original trilogy so starkly tangible and instead uses copious CGI to lighten the load. As a result, we get that slight feeling of shiny weightlessness we got with George Lucas’ Star Wars prequels and some questionable physics in some of the action scenes.
Another issue is that, for all of it’s relaxed length, we never really get a real feel for over half the of the thirteen Dwarves (even Snow White only had to keep track of seven) with most of them reduced to running gags, random one liners and the occasional fat joke as the movie stains to give us numerous call backs (technically call forwards, actually) to orginal cast members such as Elijah Wood, Ian Holm, Hugo Weaving, Christopher Lee and Cate Blanchett, but they don’t actually do anything that adds much to the story as this Necromancer stuff is blatantly for the long game.
Still, on the other hand, Martin Freeman – despite lapsing occasionally into his schtick from The Office – is a fine choice for the fussy Bilbo as his square peg in a round hole addition to the team slowly merges into a mutual respect and the movie finally reaches the mythic heights of the franchise when realising the truly tense Riddles In The Dark Sequence as a returning Andy Serkis gives Gollum’s return to the screen enough Shaft to avoid bring just another random cameo. Elsewhere, the gloomy visage of Richard Armitage fits Thorin like a shield made of oak and he gives the Dwarves a much needed pathos in the face of endless scenes of plate juggling and bickering.
We will forever be left in the dark about what a Gullimero Del Toro Middle-Earth movie could have looked like and the movie really shouldn’t have ventured out of its original, two film format, but it’s just fun enough to make us honestly feel glad to be back in these realms; even if the real unexpected journey was ultimately the one taken by Peter Jackson. It shows.