As beloved and popular as J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit has been in the seventy plus years since its publication, the simple adventure story has never been much more than prologue, a light and sunny rain compared to the epic hurricane force of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, the transformative high fantasy quest narrative which C.S. Lewis once said contained "beauties which pierce like swords or burn like cold iron."
The worst thing that could be said about Peter Jackson's fourth cinematic foray into Middle Earth, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, is that it follows suit, being merely good when greatness was anticipated or expected.
As with Lord of the Rings, but perhaps never more so than in The Hobbit, Jackson brings a plain earnestness to the material which matches Tolkien's direct and straightforward narrative voice. There's awe and wonder to be found beyond The Shire as the eponymous hobbit, Bilbo, (Martin Freeman) and a band of fierce but merry dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), embark on their adventure towards the dragon Smaug's stronghold deep within The Lonely Mountain, but never any slyness or irony, no winks at the audience behind cynical detachment. (One earnest sequence in particular, in which Bilbo takes his leave of Gollum and then talks of what home means to the dwarves, recalls Sam's speech at the end of Two Towers and will leave viewers' hearts aching.)
Jackson's unwillingness to embrace anything other than earnestness in his original Lord of the Rings trilogy is in part what made those films resonate so strongly with early 21st century audiences. They contain silliness and laughter, but a silliness and laughter always carefully calibrated to service a delicate tonal balance. In those films, as in Tolkien's original works, the story begins in Fellowship with the comical idea of an old hobbit's birthday party, gradually elevating its register until, by the end of Return of the King, it becomes one of the greatest quest narratives ever filmed (or written).
The problem with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey as quest narrative, however, is that, for Tolkien, who wrote the story long before he ever put pen to paper on Lord of the Rings, that register never changes or elevates. Although in later years he would go back and make minor corrections to the original text to reflect updated plot points or characters, what starts with "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit" ends quite matter-of-factly in the same style, never going much beyond a simple and unpretentious adventure story for children.
Jackson, taking on the task in reverse (creating his Hobbit after his Lord of the Rings) occasionally missteps in his desire to combine the two stories into a tonally consistent whole, bringing silliness to moments that should be of great portent, and vice versa.
For example: Many will point to Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy), with his jackrabbit sled and bird poop-bespotted hair, as an example of comic relief that goes too far. It doesn't, but the general dottiness of the character comes at a moment in the film of great peril, when it is revealed for the first time that the villainous Necromancer who is troubling the borders of Mirkwood might, in fact, be the villain — the evil Sauron.
Tolkien could avoid the confluence, but not Jackson, who in his fierce desire to make The Hobbit as tonally consistent with Lord of the Rings as possible mixes the two and finally pushes his finely-tuned and hard-earned cart over, unbalancing the film in this and other parts as he tries too hard to align it with his earlier work.
Where Jackson might occasionally misstep tonally, he takes the reigns from the episodic original and runs with generally fantastic results through several narrative additions, all of which give the characters more agency in their own affairs. After the film's somewhat meandering first half (which includes two separate dwarf musical numbers), Bilbo and Thorin succeed in, for instance, escaping the trolls and wargs with actual actions and choices, instead of a Deus Ex Gandalf. Though hardcore fans might scoff at the blasphemy of adding anything to the source material, even those things written by Tolkien himself in the appendixes, Jackson succeeds cinematically in pulling off the Orc/Dwarf Battle of Nanduhirion and the fleshing out of Azog as a dominant and recurring adversary.
Less successful are scene additions consisting of actors reprising their roles from Lord of the Rings. While the stuff with Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and Sarumon (Christopher Lee) at the White Council works like gangbusters, an early scene where Frodo (Elijah Wood) stands around and does nothing smacks of prequel-itis.
Even with all these additions, or perhaps because of them (the film clocks in at a staggering 166 minutes, or about a minute for every two pages of text in the original — and there are two films left) An Unexpected Journey feels less like a self-contained narrative and more like a partial installment, in ways the Lord of the Rings films never did.
Like Bilbo reflecting on his long path from The Shire and what it means to fight for a place to call your own, however, returning to Middle Earth feels right. And if it doesn't quite soar as high in transformative joy or ecstasy as we thought it might… it's still home.
Note: I saw the film in 3-D at 24 fps. The 3-D adds nothing to the film, and is a surcharge to be avoided.
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Shawn Adler is a film writer and interviewer based out of NYC. For his in-depth writing on genre films, Shawn was once called "The Harold Bloom of superhero trailers" by the "Hollywood Reporter." It would be a mistake to simply think that nobody cares about that now. Nobody cared about it then either. You can follow him on Twitter @Lethrup.