Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012) has received at best mixed reviews, so imagine my surprise (well, not really) at enjoying it--at rating this the best of the series so far, and the first I have actually liked.
Why? Because--because Jackson's Ring trilogy was such a reverent slog through Tolkien's novels I found myself nodding off on the first hour of the first movie; because the trilogy was so much bigger, grander, and louder all notions of character nuance and eccentric humor was lost in the vast scale involved.
An Unexpected Journey (calling it that because Jackson and company in their inexplicable--well not all that inexplicable--need to draw things out have divided the book into three movies) gives us back some of that intimacy, reacquaints us with the story that started it all: respectable hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm as the solemn elder, Martin Freeman as his younger though no less thoughtful self), visited by the mysterious Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and his thirteen raucous dwarfs, who tempt him with adventure and the promise of treasure. Jackson shoots and stages the visit as a sneaky slapstick sketch, each dwarf making his own distinct entrance; Jackson, confined to Baggins' comfy little home with its perfectly circular wooden door, seems to have gone back to his indie filmmaker roots, resorting to good ole-fashioned filmmaking as opposed to computer prestidigitation (setting aside the software--damn if I can spot any at least in this scene--that makes most of the actors so short). Suddenly the charm of unforced Tolkien, free of the bother of creating a history of the Third Age, of The Passing of Elves and Coming of Men and all that crap, shines through--it's a lovely moment, something I missed in the three subsequent books, and those endless movies.
I don't think I'm nitpicking. The small stuff is important in fantasy, that ability to create a convincing 'normal' world (normal with four-foot creatures of oversized bare feet), a foundation upon which the fantasy is able to gain traction and take off into whatever fantastic adventure is in store--the more real that normal everyday world is, the more startling and memorable the contrast. For every Wonderland there's a riverbank with a rabbit hole; for every Neverland a London apartment with open window, for every Narnia a wardrobe with door left ajar. Tolkien had Bag End located in The Shire, and for the first time Bag End is brought to life as a lived-in home, one which we become familiar with and, if not exactly love, develop affection for on the big screen.
Tolkien had a similar problem with his massive sequel, which must be why he set the beginning of the first novel--The Fellowship of the Ring--again in The Shire, with the preparations leading up to Bilbo's 111th birthday; by the third book's end the story comes full circle when our trek weary heroes return to The Shire and take in all the changes wrought there--a revelation much blunted in the movie, when both beginning and finale are shortened to the point of sketches, mere concessions made because they were in the book, not much else.
A serious mistake, I submit; a classic and to my mind emotionally potent trope of the fantasy novel is the home beloved by the hero, constantly yearned for, finally returned to after long adventure changed or unchanged. You don't got much of that in Lord of the Rings; with Unexpected Journey Jackson has the chance to do the trope properly, with hopefully more force.
It helps to have cast Martin Freeman, who's familiar to us mostly from his role as John Watson to Benedict Cumberbatch's Sherlock Holmes in Steven Moffat's brilliant Sherlock, where he functions as steadying tether to the mercurial detective. Here he is confronted with a more daunting challenge--to be the lonely voice of reason who regards his motley companion of dwarves and wizard with skepticism, if not alarm. Unlike Elijah Wood's Frodo Baggins, whose relentless nobility and suffering weighed him (and the trilogy) down, Freeman's is essentially a comic performance, his hobbit a johnny-come-lately trying to live up to the dwarfs' expectations; their spiky, part-adversarial dynamic recalls the boy and dwarfs in Terry Gilliams' 1981 Time Bandits (sadly Tolkien's adventures aren't half as inventive).
And it's moving; don't get me wrong, Freeman doesn't just play the clown. He provides the wide-eyed perspective that lends all the digital wonders their luster, gives this film a viably dramatic heart. Frodo, having been raised on his uncle's stories, is more jaded; the function of being awed is relegated to his companions Sam, Merry, and Pippin; unfortunately, unlike Frodo they don't dominate the movies' nine hour running time.
This Everyman quality stands Freeman in good stead later when he meets Gollum, the film's standout villain. As played by Andy Serkis (who seems to have made the digitally composed creature all his own) Gollum seems as vivid as ever, by turns paranoid and obsequious, his erratic self filled with an all-encompassing need to possess his 'precious.' He's both disturbing and pathetic the way a drug addict with a knife might be disturbing and pathetic--you know he can barely help himself the same time you know you better watch that blade. When Bilbo meets this monster is the first time Bilbo is thrown on his own resources, and you can see Freeman as the presence behind Bilbo steeling himself for the effort. It's easily more character development than in the three Ring movies put together and a far more interesting progression than that damned ring's snail-like journey from forest to volcano.
The two sequences, Serkis, Freeman (with able help from McKellen and the rest of the cast, though mention must be made of Sylvester McCoy as the eccentric Radagast the Brown, whom Saruman (Christopher Lee) dismisses as having an unhealthy interest in mushrooms) represent the best part of An Unexpected Journey--accidentally so, I suspect. Jackson, not knowing what he has, does his best in the film's latter half to pull down much of what he has wrought. The rest of the picture, alas, is filled with bloated action sequences, with hurtling wolf chases and epic mountain treks, and entire cliff faces coming to life to bash each other (More mushrooms?).
Admittedly the escape out of the trolls' lair has some entertainment value, a non-stop, fairly inventive if rather unlikely chase through wood bridges and runways that recalls the subterranean passages of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, only afoot. Jackson has improved his direction of action sequences; he's even improved the clarity of his hand-to-hand combat sequences, going easy on the incoherent handheld footage.
One wants to ask, though--do we really need all this, however improved? The opening in Bag End, the initial trek where we get to know Bilbo, Gandalf and the different dwarves, the wonderful Radagast and even more wonderful Gollum are enchantment a-plenty; adding Orcs and some 'Necromancer' and Galadriel reduces the adventure to a Lord of the Rings lite, with ambitions of approaching if not exceeding that monstrous so-called epic; not happening, wrongheaded to even try. An Unexpected Journey is basically small beer, at its best when it stays that way; why Jackson would want to top his previous three-picture epic, possibly screwing this one up in the process--it's well nigh inexplicable. Well, not really.