When it was announced that Peter Jackson would be making a movie of “The Hobbit,” the prequel to J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic “The Lord of the Rings,” movie-lovers and fantasy fans everywhere were ecstatic. Jackson’s adaptations of “The Lord of the Rings” ranked among the best in film history, as critics, Oscars and box offices show, so it only made sense to follow suit with the origin story of how a simple hobbit named Bilbo Baggins got himself caught up in a grand adventure across Middle-earth and, in the process, setting in motion events that would decide the fate of all.
When it was announced that Peter Jackson would be making “The Hobbit” into three movies, there was more hesitation and eyebrow-raising than there was jubilation. Problem is, though “The Hobbit” exists in the same world as “Lord of the Rings” does and though the same characters and ideas are in place, the two are entirely separate entities. “The Hobbit” is a simple tale meant for children — it doesn’t base itself in expanded, extensive history and culture like “Lord of the Rings,” and its events don’t carry the same kind of weight as do the world-shattering battles and strategies of its successor (in fact, when those opportunities do arise, “The Hobbit” skips right over them).
So how will these three movies pan out? The book itself is only 300 pages long; how can three three-hour films be made of such a short story? Part 1, “An Unexpected Journey,” laid the framework: Based around the tale in “The Hobbit,” Jackson plans to expand on the portions Tolkien skimmed over, detailing the dwarves’ history, touching on even more of the cultures of Middle-earth and including tales told in Tolkien’s other works, namely the appendices of “Lord of the Rings” and “The Silmarillion,” which describe the legacy of lead dwarf Thorin and the wizard Gandalf’s side battle against the mysterious Necromancer.
How will all that play into the simple quest in “The Hobbit,” in which Bilbo and a group of dwarves trek to the Lonely Mountain to reclaim the dwarves’ home and their treasure from the dreaded dragon Smaug? If the first film is any indication, it will be an enjoyable ride that takes fans right back into the spirit of Jackson’s excellent “Lord of the Rings” films.
The first of the “Hobbit” movies covers all of the events through the company’s escape from the Misty Mountains. The characters are all pulled straight out of the book, as has come to be expected from Jackson’s adaptations. Most of the dwarves are indistinguishable from each other, which is actually true to the book, as well: The only ones that really differentiate themselves from the rest are the leader, Thorin; the eldest, Balin; and the two youngest, Fili and Kili (there’s also Bombur, the fat one, but he’s only really used in two throwaway jokes and you can barely catch his name). The score is as fantastic as ever, and the dwarves’ theme will go right up with the best of the “Lord of the Rings” tunes. Gollum’s return in the “Riddles in the Dark” scene is the highlight of the movie, and the improvements from the past 10 years of motion capture technology really show. Of the many events added on in the movie, the best is one at Rivendell in which Gandalf speaks with several key members of the “Lord of the Rings” movies about what should be done with the Necromancer. Seeing all of those characters hold council is precisely what I was hoping for in padding out “The Hobbit.”
Now, that’s not to say “An Unexpected Journey” can measure up to any of the “Lord of the Rings” movies. By the nature of the source material, it can’t live up to that epic scale. As usual, Jackson creates a work that is touchingly true to Tolkien, but this is sometimes done to a fault. In recreating the darker tone familiar in the other movies, Jackson takes away the idea that “The Hobbit” is a children’s story and turns it into another epic. This is the only decision that would make it possible to turn the story into a big-budget film, and it was the right way to go.
But Jackson still leaves in scenes such as the dwarves singing merry songs as they clean up at Bilbo’s house, the trolls bickering amongst themselves when they capture the group, and all the goblins singing their song after catching the dwarves in the Misty Mountains. These tonal shifts are awkward and seem out of place in something trying to be so serious. As much as it would have drifted from the source (and as much as it would have outraged fans), it may have suited the movie better to do without them.
“An Unexpected Journey” gives hope that Jackson indeed has a plan for branching such a short story into three films. Next December will see the release of “The Desolation of Smaug,” which will show the group’s journey through the forest of Mirkwood and will likely include at least the first encounter with Smaug himself, who audiences have not yet seen in full profile (the movie gives great teases, though). I am also expecting to follow Gandalf’s trail once he departs the company to take on the threat of the Necromancer, and I expect to be introduced to Lake-town and the Men there who will impact the climax in the third film. If nothing else, “An Unexpected Journey” has gotten me anxious for the next one already, which is as good a sign as any.