It’s been several years since I’ve read The Hobbit, so I can’t remember what was in the story and what was embellished, borrowed from The Silmarillion or passages from The Lord of the Rings, or invented outright. What I do remember, though, is that there wasn’t enough material in the book for three movies at three hours a piece.
Before I saw An Unexpected Journey, I said that stretching a simple story into an epic was pure self-indulgence on Peter Jackson’s part. Or even worse, a crass attempt to cash in on the Lord of the Rings success three more times. Or a hollow attempt to get some of that magic back, trying to get lobsters back into the pot.
After getting to spend another three hours in The Shire and various parts of Middle Earth, and looking forward to doing it again for the next two years, I think I should never have let myself turn into such a grouch. It’s absolutely transparent that they’re stretching a children’s story out to epic length just for the sake of spending more time in cool places with actors and crew that they like. And how could anybody think that’s a bad thing? You just have to see the wide (and completely unnecessary) shot of Bilbo running through all of Hobbitton to realize of course they built it just to get to play around in it again, and anybody else with a few Academy Awards and production company money would’ve done exactly the same thing.
While the novel formed the basis of The Lord of the Rings, the movie’s made in full-on prequel mode: fully aware of what’s going to happen in the “bigger” story, and what everything in The Hobbit is building up to. An Unexpected Journey starts just before the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring and has Bilbo recounting the story of his adventures to Frodo. It stays close to the events of the novel — at least as far as I remember — but seems less interested in telling the story of The Hobbit as meandering through the places that we didn’t get to see more of during the last three movies. Again, I’m definitely not an expert on Tolkien, but I don’t remember so much time spent with Radagast the Brown, or an ominous and foreshadowing discussion with Galadriel and Elrond at Rivendell.
And it’s actually pretty great that we get to see that. In The Lord of the Rings, the screenwriters had to be very economical with the material, cutting stuff that seemed unnecessary, or moving people and events around for the sake of each movie having an arc and coming in under three hours running time. Here, it’s the opposite. We get detailed, action-packed flashbacks to battles that would otherwise be mentioned in passing. Bits of lore and back-story get elevated from supplemental material to being included in the main plot. And we get to see brilliantly imaginative details, like Radagast’s team of rabbits, or the fantastic courier to the Goblin King. In a way, it’s a chance to see all the stuff we never would have otherwise, a kind of Filmarillion.
Since it’s being done as a prequel series, I would’ve expected everything to center on Bilbo’s finding the One Ring. And while it’s not the climactic moment of An Unexpected Journey, it is the highlight of the entire movie. The riddle contest plays out in full, and the work done on Gollum is absolutely flawless. (Even more than the Smeagol/Gollum argument in The Two Towers, which at the time was the best motion-captured animation could ever get, I thought). The expressions on his face as he struggles to come up with the answer to a riddle, or his panic when he discovers he’s lost the ring, make you completely forget that it’s an animated character.
But it’s just one scene of many. The story is structured not so much like an epic fantasy tale, as an 80s movie about the wacky misadventures of a lovable bunch of misfits, crossed with a Dungeons & Dragons campaign. There’s not really a clear progression, just a series of seemingly random encounters, each of which culminates in a bunch of dwarves falling on top of each other. Through the whole thing, you spend time with Martin Freeman — who I’ve realized is actually impossible not to like — and a bunch of genuinely pleasant actors, including the vampire from Being Human who’s nice to look at. Every once in a while, they’ll remember they’re in an epic fantasy tale, and someone (usually Thorin Oakenshield) will face the camera and say something dramatic and foreboding, and then quickly they all resume stabbing and/or stumbling.
Before the movie, every review I’d read had a problem with that, so I’d gone in expecting to be a little disappointed. More than one reviewer took advantage of the pseudo-pun of calling it “middling.” It was supposedly meandering and directionless. I say it’s supposed to be meandering — not because it doesn’t know where it’s going or because it’s stretching its material too thin, but because it’s savoring every moment it gets to spend in such a fantastic place.
I loved it, and I’m already making arrangements for how many times I’m going to see it again, and how often I need to space the viewings apart. At least one of the times is going to be in the new high frame rate mode — every reviewer who saw it in that mode said it was jarring, but they were wrong about the movie itself so maybe they’re wrong about that as well. I saw it in IMAX 3D (and the 3D was well done, incidentally), and there were several scenes I found myself wanting to see in the creepy hyper-clarity of 48 fps.
I guess ultimately, my opinion of the high frame rate version is pretty much the same as my opinion of the movie itself. Even if you treat it just as an experiment, it’s fantastic that it’s out there. One account said that the higher frame rate made it difficult to be immersed in the story, and made it feel like being on a film set. But who has seen these movies and not wanted to hang out on the film sets? Clearly, everyone involved in making the Lord of the Rings movies wanted to, and for the next three Christmases, they’re inviting the rest of us to join in.