Wait, This Film Is How Long?
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
For fans of Middle-earth, the Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings films were everything they'd ever hoped for. While those movies weren't necessarily a one-to-one translation of the original books, they were at least as close as fan could hope for. For a while, after the release of those films, movie nerds had a new Trilogy-with-a-capital-T to gush about (replacing, in the hearts of many nerds, the Star WarsThe modern blockbuster: it's a concept so commonplace now we don't even think about the fact that before the end of the 1970s, this kind of movie -- huge spectacles, big action, massive budgets -- wasn't really made. That all changed, though, with Star Wars, a series of films that were big on spectacle (and even bigger on profits). A hero's journey set against a sci-fi backdrop, nothing like this series had ever really been done before, and then Hollywood was never the same. original trilogy as the "Trilogy").
The Hobbit is not that trilogy. If we want to equate The Lord of the Rings to Star Wars then Peter Jackson's second Middle-earth trilogy is a equivalent boondoggle to Lucas's prequel trilogy. Both sets focus on a story that, arguably, is worth telling but goes about it in the worst way possible for the subject matter. They're driven by a director who, in the end, felt they were the only one worthy to tell the story and, as we'll slowly explore as we go through these Hobbit films, clearly that was the wrong opinion. The trilogy of Hobbit films are inessential viewing, movies you watch one (or suffer through twice) and then try as hard as you can that they don't exist so they don't taint the films you actually like.
The trouble with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey starts right at the beginning when the film gives us not one, nor two, but three introductions to the film to come. We begin with the dwarves who forged a kingdom of such wealth and power that it became the biggest rival in the land. That all came crashing down, though, when Smaug, the biggest and nastiest red dragon ever seen, was lured to the dwarven kingdom because of all their wealth. He crashed the party, took over the great halls, and made the kingdom his all, incinerating all the dwarves that didn't immediately flee. Cast to the winds, the dwarves have been searching for a way to reclaim their home ever since.
You'd think that would kick off the movie but, instead, we then cut to the Shire, home of the hobbits, as an aged Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) and his nephew, Frodo (Elijah Wood), prepare for Bilbo's 100-and-something birthday party. Those that have read the book (or at least watched the 1977 The Hobbit) might be confused as to why Frodo is here and why Bilbo is so old. This section is here to say, "hey, this is a prequel guys, but here's characters and actors you know as they go about business that's already happened decades from now". It serves no other purpose at all. The film doesn't really get going for another ten minutes when we cut back 60 years to a young Bilbo (now played by Martin Freeman) at his home in the Shire.
This is where Gandalf comes to hire Bilbo as the 14th member of a crew of dwarves, lead by their king, Thorin Oakenshield II (Richard Armitage), as they prepare to invade Smaug's lands and find a way to reclaim their kingdom. Why do they need Bilbo? Honestly, no one is certain. Gandalf just thinks the hobbit might be useful and he has a good vibe about it. So, after some kvetching, all 14 party members (plus Gandalf) head out on a journey that will take them out of the Shire, across the elven lands, and into the heart of orc-contested territory all before... well, not reaching their goal because this film only covers the first third of the story.
As the triple-introduction illustrates, this film is padded out in a way that's both impressive and tedious. It's impressive because J.R.R. Tolkein's The Hobbit is a slight book, really more a novella, that tells a fun little tale about a hobbit, some dwarves, and an adventure with a singular focus. The Hobbit in the hands of Peter Jackson, though, takes that book and turns it into a nine-hour epic split across three movies. An argument could be made that no one could turn The Hobbit into that long of a series of movies, and while Peter Jackson showed everyone that he could do it, the fact remains that he really shouldn't have.
To pad out the story, Jackson spends a lot of time on events outside the purview of The Hobbit. That's why we get the setup of elderly Bilbo and Frodo; this section doesn't have any bearing on the movie we're about to watch (hell, if anything, it shows that Bilbo survives the journey we're about to watch which, arguably, deflates a lot of tension), it's just there to setup the "next" trilogy. It's the reason why we cut away from Raddaghast the Brown, a nature wizard that realizes the forests of Middle-earth are dying, and it's the reason why we cut away from the party again to see a council of elves and wizards talking about a great evil working it's way across the land. That great evil is Smaug, the dragon that has already been established as the villain of this film; the villain is Sauron, and his story is told in a different trilogy, so all this setup doesn't even pay off in this film (or it's two sequels).
The Hobbit: And Unexpected Journey spends a lot of time thinking about the stories yet to come, and it has to because the film really only has about 45 minutes of story stretched out to three-hour length. Think about it this way: by the end of this film the party has gotten to the same part of the story that the 1977 animated feature managed to cover in about 35 minutes (and that film already felt slow). Peter Jackson was committed to telling this as a nine-hour epic so the only way to get this story there was to pad, and pad, and then pad some more. Sometimes it works -- I actually found the tale of the dwarves and the invasion by Smaug to be quite compelling -- but most of the time it's just a distraction that takes away from what should be the focus of the story: Bilbo, the dwarves, and their adventure to the old Dwarven kingdom.
Inserting items related to The Lord of the Rings isn't the only way the movie pads for time. We also have a number of action sequences inserted to lengthen the story. As a fantasy film the Hobbit is expected to have a certain number of action beats -- an attack by the trolls, the party getting captured by goblins, and battle with some orcs -- but the film not only inserts more of those than were in the original story, in makes each and every one of these sequences way longer than they need to be. Most of the action sequences start promising enough, but then they just go on, and on, long past the point where I cared. None of them are dynamic or interesting, and their long length only helps to drag out these beats before we can get back to (still not seeing) the dwarves make their way to their home.
One of the biggest flaws with the action (and, really, with the movie as a whole) is the fact that so much of it is reliant on obvious CGI. I've noted in the past, about any number of movies, that practical effects look better than CGI; when it comes to action, to making the hits feel real and giving the sequences real weight and heft, you need to use practical effects. The Hobbit, though, uses CGI for just about everything. A good 90% of the movie is filmed with the actors working against a green screen while all their foes are digital constructions added on later. None of the orcs, or their wargs, or the goblins the dwarves fight in this movie are real and it's all painfully obvious how fake everything in every long, drawn-out sequence. It's painful to watch.
None of the action has any weight. Watching the big battles, like the dwarves taking on the goblins in their underground city, feels like watching a giant cartoon. Everything feels floaty and unrealistic, with physics that doesn't actually make any sense. I get that the film is a fantasy but it has to still have proper rules for how the basic function of the world (like gravity) work. When those rules get violated (especially when it's done in an inconsistent manner) the action loses all it's impact. The action (and CGI) here feels incomplete, like it needed another pass or two through the hopper before it was actually complete. It needed more time to be developed, more time to feel realistic. It just needed more time (and, of course, a fair bit of editing to make it move faster).
What's most painful, though, is that it didn't actually have to be this way. When it was conceived The Hobbit was planned to be two films under the direction of Guillermo Del Toro. If you've ever seen any of Del Toro's films (The Hellboy movies, Pan's Labyrinth, The Shape of Water among others) then you know that Del Toro is a director with a particular vision. His version of The Hobbit was have been a visual feast and, more than likely, would have relied heavily on practical effects. After working with Jackson's production team for two years, though, Del Toro left over disputes of the financing for the film as well as it's creative direction. In essence, when you hire Del Toro you have to expect him to make a Del Toro film and the studio, and Jackson, apparently didn't realize what that meant.
Del Toro leaving the movie caused a big issue because Warner Bros. was committed to having their trilogy start in 2012. After a few months of back and forth, Jackson reluctantly came on as director and his first move was to throw out what Del Toro had done and start fresh with a vision more in line with his first trilogy. Of course, Del Toro took two years to (not) make his vision a reality while Jackson only had four months before filming had to start. As the stories about filming go, pre-production was still going on the first day of filming and the whole process was a mess, start to finish.
That does go a long way to explain what happened with this film; it had a studio with certain demands, a complicated production process that had to be restarted, and a shortened time frame to get the film done. And while I understand all that I don't think we can absolve Jackson of the blame. Yes, he only had four months to start up his movie and get everything going but he didn't have to be in this position. He could have worked it out with Del Toro and kept the director's vision going or he could have gone to the studios and said, "look, we need more time or these films are going to fail. Give me another year or I walk." Jackson made the original trilogy a huge success so if he'd threatened to leave the movies the studio likely would have given him the time he needed. That didn't happen, so while it's nice to say "this film had this issue or that one" going in, blame still rests with Jackson, through and through.
It is sad because, when the film gets going at times, it can be quite good. The opening sequence of the movie is fantastic, and the sequence of Bilbo going up against Golum (in a game of riddles) is tense and interesting. But these are two scenes that make up, maybe, 20 minutes of the movie, and then the rest of it just feels like so much noise. Buried under all the references to the "next" trilogy, all the bad CGI, all the pointless story diversions and scenes that don't matter, is a film that actually could have been good. If Jackson could have just focused on the 45 minutes or so of story that worked and ditched the rest, he probably could have come up with a good first act to a single film. Right when the credits roll is when the film should just get going.
Sadly, we still have two more films of this to go. Even if I hadn't already seen the movies before I'd still be wary of how much worse this could get...