'The Hobbit' 3-D Early Review: Back Again, But Not Quite There
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.