I have put off writing this review for a long time. I could pretend I wanted to wait until the Extended Edition came out, but that’s not the real reason. I could pretend I was not interested in writing it, or that I had not given the topic a lot of thought, but those aren’t real reasons either.
The real reason is that I really, honestly did not want to have to write a negative review of a Peter Jackson Tolkien adaptation. But he left me no choice.
Criticize this film online and you will get a very negative reaction from fans of the Lord of the Rings film trilogy. Hey, I get it. We all wanted to love this film. We all wanted it to be as amazing, as powerful, as life-changing as the LOTR films. Believe me, I get it. You’re still in denial. I sympathize.
I remember how I felt on May 17th, 1999, two days before the public premiere, when I attended a free industry-only screening of Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace. I grew up with Star Wars, just as I grew up with Tolkien. I loved Star Wars almost as much as Tolkien. I had waited 16 years for this. I thought I was about to have one of the greatest cinematic experiences of my life.
Instead, the movie was a pile of shit.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is not a pile of shit. It has a great deal to recommend it. In fact, if taken on a scene-by-scene basis, there is very little to complain about. AUJ is composed of a great many excellent scenes. There are a number of wonderful performances. The production design, while not up to the standards of the original LOTR trilogy due to the overuse of CG elements, is nonetheless very good.
But a movie is not a collection of scenes. A movie has to join together to form a cohesive whole. Plotting and timing are two vital elements. In these two elements, especially the latter, AUJ fails.
Before I lay out my reasons for being deeply disappointed in AUJ, let me present my usual, patented Bitingly-Sarcastic Plot Synopsis™, which in this case is less of a plot synopsis and more of a list of grievances. I was informed that my last Bitingly-Sarcastic Plot Synopsis™, for Prometheus, was too long, so I made a conscious effort to keep this one moving along. It would be pretty ironic for me to write an overlong synopsis for this particular film. But still, it’s a very long movie, so the synopsis is not brief.
But if you want the too-long, didn’t-read version of my review, so you don’t have to slog through the rest, here it is:
TL;DR: This movie is too long.
If you’re not a Tolkien fan, then I should tell you that fans, academics, and Tolkien himself refer to the entire corpus of his Middle Earth mythology as the “Legendarium.” Recently, I started calling the version of events presented in the films the “Jacksondarium.” Because I’m that clever.
I’ve chosen to review the Extended Edition of AUJ, because when your main complaint about a film is that it is too long, why not review the longest possible version?
Here’s my Bitingly-Sarcastic Plot Synopsis™:
Do I really need to say “spoiler alert?” Okay, spoiler alert.
Let’s begin. I have little problem with Ian Holm’s Bilbo appearance at the beginning, serving as a bridge between the two film trilogies. Such a bridge is really unnecessary; The Hobbit already gives us Gandalf and Gollum, and Jackson has found a way to include other LOTR characters, either through the Necromancer storyline (Galadriel, Sauron, Elrond), or via simple logic (of course Legolas should be at the Elvenking’s Halls, it’s his freaking house).
It helps that Holm Bilbo has something to do — he narrates the story of Smaug’s attack on Dale and Erebor. Sure, the Dwarves could tell this tale at the Unexpected Party, but this introduction works fine.
I notice that Dale is located 14 feet from the gates of Erebor, but whatever.
And here, at three minutes in, is the first serious problem — not with AUJ as a film, but as an adaptation of the book. Almost every character in the LOTR film trilogy is faithful to the corresponding character in the book. Yes, yes, I could write a lengthy blog post on the ways various characters were changed. But in essence, the characters leapt directly from the page, especially in appearance. And no character from the book, with the possible exception of Sauron, can be said to have been utterly transformed.
Thorin Oakenshield has been utterly transformed. The cantankerous and greedy old Dwarf of the novel has been discarded, and a handsome, young, virile, charismatic, heroic warrior prince with no discernible Dwarven features (apart from his height) has been inserted in his place.
From a filmmaking perspective, this is not a problem. Sure, make the audience care about Thorin, make him a compelling character. But this is supposed to be Tolkien’s The Hobbit. And believe it or not, an elderly and cantankerous character can be charismatic, likable, and engaging. Can anyone say “Gandalf?”
Jackson’s Dwarven city far surpasses anything I had in my head when I read The Hobbit. It’s almost too much; Erebor seems to be the most spectacular city ever constructed in Arda, far surpassing Minas Tirith or any other work of the Dúnedain. Still, it’s beautiful; and Dwarves are supposed to be Endor’s greatest workers of stone.
We are introduced to the Arkenstone, which will be important later. Much later. Much, much later. It appears that King Thrór stores the Arkenstone in some sort of wall-mounted Arkenstone dispenser, which is weird.
The Extended Editon adds a scene discussing how the Dwarves and the Elves became estranged. This is nicely done, and should have been included in the theatrical version, especially considering all the unnecessary nonsense that did get included.
Smaug attacks. People who don’t know how movies work have complained that Sir Peter doesn’t show us Smaug, but just teases us. Of course he does. The dragon should remain a name and a rumor until Watson finally comes face-to-face with Sherlock. Sorry, sorry, until Bilbo comes face-to-face with Smaug.
Why does Smaug break down the doors of Erebor, when they are too small for him and he just bursts through the entire wall anyway? Just asking. And how did Smaug get past Thrór and into the hoard hall ahead of him?
In the Jacksondarium, King Thranduil rides on elk-back all the way to Erebor with his entire army, just to give Thorin a dick look and ride away? I know Jackson wanted to present the Elvenking’s refusal to help visually, but this was just stupid. There could have been a quick scene of Thorin asking Thranduil for help, and Thranduil shaking his head. That would have been a good setup for their canonical encounter later.
The end of this flashback leads, in the Extended Edition, into a brief scene of Bilbo as a child encountering Gandalf. This should have been in the theatrical; it clarifies the two characters’ initial relationship.
“This was a hobbit-hole, and that means good food, a warm hearth, and all the comforts of home.” No, it means “comfort.” COMFORT! Don’t rewrite one of the most famous opening lines in all of English literature, Sir Peter!
Oh, here’s Frodo, serving absolutely no purpose whatsoever. Look, I enjoy a nice bit of fan service as much as anyone, as long as it serves a story purpose and doesn’t drag things down. This is gratuitous. Warning — no one will be seating during the gripping Frodo-fetches-the-mail scene!
Here’s an entire scene dedicated to introducing the Sackville-Bagginses. Is anyone going to remember this when the Sackville-Bagginses actually show up, 18 hours of movie from now?
Fourteen minutes in, Holm Bilbo transforms into Arthur Dent, and the story finally begins.
Gandalf shows up at Bag End. It’s pretty silly that Bilbo doesn’t recognize the only person who ever appears anywhere in the Shire wearing that particular outfit; but it didn’t make sense in the book, either.
You’ll notice that this scene is pretty whimsical and lighthearted. It can’t help but be — it’s from a whimsical and lighthearted book. It’s just the first thing that doesn’t seem to fit in this overlong, over-serious, over-plotted mess of a movie, for the simple reason that it’s from the book.
The Extended Edition includes a nice scene re-introducing us to the Shire, and showing Bilbo trying to avoid running into Gandalf. I liked this a lot — too bad we don’t have time for it.
The Unexpected Party. I understand that the Dwarves-at-the-door sequence from the book needed to be truncated, as it would take far too long to depict onscreen. But then why do we spend so much time meeting Dwalin and Balin?
Martin Freeman’s very good here, at least at first, portraying Bilbo as befuddled and annoyed, but too polite to stand up for himself. Very quickly, though, Bilbo turns un-Bilbo-ish. Yes, any modern non-English person would start yelling at the confounded Dwarves. But Bilbo Baggins is not modern, and he is decidedly English (Tolkien himself said that The Shire represented the West Midlands). As a rural English squire, he is imprisoned by the bonds of propriety and politeness. He has not had his adventure yet, so he has not learned to stand up for himself. Why is he doing it here then?
The sequence in which full-size Gandalf interacts in a variety of complex ways with all the half-size characters, with the camera swooping around and tracking the action, is brilliant filmmaking. Ian McKellen almost quit acting while shooting it, though; so I’m not sure it was worth it.
Okay, they’re eating, I get it.
Wait — it’s the “that’s what Bilbo Baggins hates” song! Did Peter Jackson finally use one of Tolkien’s songs? I’m astonished. The tune’s terrible, but at least he used it.
Oh look, it’s Thorin Timberlake. I do like the way even Gandalf treats Thorin with respect, and worries about what Thorin is going to do or think. Thorin should be haughty; and he’s central to Gandalf’s plan.
I do not think that JRR Tolkien would ever in a million years have put the words “I’ll give him a taste of the Dwarvish iron right up his jacksie!” in a character’s mouth.
The Dwarves discuss the situation; with the backstory already handled in the introduction, this is rather different than the book, and Jackson uses the time well, covering the characters’ motivations and doubts.
Then the Dwarves express their reservations about Bilbo re: burglary. In the book, Gandalf has chosen Bilbo, and Gandalf’s choices are forgone conclusions. In the movie, Gandalf uses his frightening “Dark Gandalf” powers, established in the scene in Fellowship where he scares Old Bilbo into giving up the Ring. It’s out-of-place here. It implies that Gandalf casts the level 1 Magic-User spell Frighten Player Characters every time someone questions him.
It’s 34:14, and the dinner table conversation between the Dwarves, Gandalf, and Bilbo is dragging. It’s not that Jackson isn’t covering important ground; but no one paid to see My Dinner with Gandalf.
The lengthy contract is an effective site gag, but Jackson belabors it.
Is Jackson putting Tolkien’s golf reference into Gandalf’s mouth an anachronism? I dunno. It’s charming, anyway.
There’s a nice conversation between Thorin and Balin, who is being set up as his second-in-command. Lots of these little scenes are nice. But it’s taking SO LONG. Sometimes, for pacing’s sake, you have to cut things that are nice. This isn’t about editing things to fit more showings into a theater’s schedule, or to fit on two Blu-ray disks. Pacing is about timing; it’s about keeping the audience’s interest. Peter Jackson understands pacing. He has a demonstrated ability to keep an audience’s patience and good will through a very long movie. Why isn’t he doing it here?
Now, let’s take a break from this Bitingly-Sarcastic Plot Synopsis. We now go LIVE and DIRECT to a story meeting at Wingnut Films, circa 2008.
Walsh: What a lovely day it is, here in New Zealand. Let’s eat some Weet-Bix with Watties tomato sauce and Marmite, while we work on the script for The Hobbit.
Jackson: I want to use another song. Let’s go with “Far Over the Misty Mountains Cold.”
Walsh: Oh yes, that’s a good one.
Jackson: But I’m worried this movie is moving along too briskly. The action is just overwhelming, what with all the sitting, and the talking. So let’s have the song be really, really slow.
Walsh: Like this? (singing very slowly) Far over the Misty Mountains cold…
Jackson: Oh no no, that’s much too quick and upbeat. The Dwarves aren’t OMC you know. I want it really slow, and dour. Super dour.
Walsh: Like this? (singing very, very slowly) Far… over… the… Misty….
Jackson: Slower. Dour-er. And make your voice super-deep, like Barry White.
Walsh: Far………. over………. the………. Misty………. Mountains………. coooooooooooold……….
Jackson: That’s it!
In the novel, Bilbo goes along on the journey out of little more than an overly-developed sense of obligation. He basically abandons his ordinary life and risks certain death to avoid disappointing a group of total strangers. If that seems like an unrealistic or trivial motivation, well, it is. But The Hobbit is a fairy tale. The motivations of its characters are actually somewhat sophisticated for a fairy tale, but they still operate on a fairy-tale level. When you try to stuff The Hobbit into a Poké Ball and evolve it into a Grand High Fantasy Epic a la The Lord of the Rings, the characters motivations may not make sense any more.
Martin Freeman does a great job of selling Bilbo’s newfound enthusiasm. At first he is thrilled to find Gandalf and the Dwarves gone. Then his disappointment that they left without him fills his face. Freeman doesn’t have to say a word — we know exactly what Bilbo is thinking. But why does Bilbo change his mind? We never find out.
Bilbo catches up with the Dwarves and tells them he wants to come along, which is a completely unnecessary scene since we already know that. He complains about ponies and pocket handkerchiefs, which is fine, it’s just taking too long. We’re 46 minutes in, and nobody has done anything yet that wasn’t in a flashback. Every single scene so far has been backstory and set-up. Something has to happen now.
The party is camping, when they awakened by the sound of wolves. Something is going to happen now, right? No, it’s another flashback and ten minutes of backstory. Jesus Christ. (I like that Jackson gave the name “Oakenshield” an origin. Very cool and clever. )
Okay. So. Azog the Pale Orc. What can we say about Azog? The Hobbit has a single real villain, the dragon Smaug, and he doesn’t make an appearance until three quarters of the way in — and then he’s gone before the climax even begins. Jackson decided that his trilogy needed an ongoing villain who would last throughout all three films, and (I assume) provide a leader for the Orcs and Wargs at the Battle of Five Armies.
This makes sense. I understand it. Of course, in any sensible 3-4 hour version of The Hobbit, it wouldn’t be necessary. But when you’re going to make The Hobbit 22 hours long…
Lots of people have complained that the CGI Azog character is poorly done. I disagree. I think it’s fine. While I am hardly an enthusiastic supporter of introducing Azog or of making him CG, neither is on my list of complaints.
“And then there are the two Blue Wizards. You know I’ve quite forgotten their names.” No you haven’t, Gandalf. But the Tolkien Estate won’t sell you the permission to say their names, because most of Tolkien’s family are dicks. They are called Alatar and Pallando. The Blue Wizards, not Tolkien’s dick family.
Alright, here we go. Radagast the freaking Brown. First off, let me go out of my way to defend poor Sylvester McCoy. I do not blame the Seventh Doctor for the complete travesty that is Radagast the Brown. Indeed, if this character possesses any charm, and if he does it is in quantum mechanical amounts, it is because of Sylvester McCoy.
Radagast gets two pages in The Lord of the Rings. Peter Jackson cut him and replaced him with a moth. If the Hobbit movies are going to have the White Council versus the Necromancer storyline, then we’re going to see Radagast, since he’s on the White Council. But does Radagast have to be a ridiculous cartoon character designed to appeal to small kids? A lot of people have complained about the bird crap on Radagast’s face. That is not what they should be complaining about.
Critics have compared this character to Jar Jar Binks from the Star Wars prequels, and the comparison is apt, except Radagast is not a racist caricature or poorly CG’ed. Like Jar Jar, Radagast is a superfluous character injected into the story solely to appeal to grade-school children. Like Jar Jar, he is ludicrous without being humorous. Like Jar Jar, he is grating and intrusive. The Hobbit should be whimsical, but Radagast, as presented, is not. He’s like a black hole of whimsy, a whimsy sink.
Absolutely nothing involving Radagast in this film, apart from the fact that he’s a nature-oriented wizard, is from Tolkien. It’s all Jackson’s invention. So let’s try to break this down.
Some kind of black goo has killed a lot of forest animals, and is infecting a bunch of mushrooms —and Radagast is going batshit crazy over it. (I’m trying to imagine Gandalf discovering that Frodo’s ring is the One Ring, and running in a panic all over The Shire muttering to himself.) He discovers that a hedgehog named Sebastian is dying. (Someone named “Sebastian” in Middle-Earth? Well, to be fair, there’s a troll named “William.”) He takes Sebastian back to his Escherian hovel, and discovers the hedgehog is sick due to “witchcraft.” Suddenly, giant spiders are surrounding the hovel. Why? Are they after Sebastian? Is there an arachnid-erinaceid war we haven’t been told about?
Sebastian dies, which is quite moving, because we’we’ve really come to care about Sebastian and Radagast as characters due to this deep exploration of their relationship.
Radagast pulls a magic stone out of the tip of his staff, and uses it to draw black goo from Sebastian’s mouth. Sebastian wakes up, and becomes the Tolkien first character since Beren and Lúthien to return from the dead. I’m sure that’s how Tolkien imagined it — Beren Erchamion the Man, Lúthien Tinúviel the Elf/Maia, and Sebastian the Hedgehog, returning from death.
The spiders take this moment to retreat, because… um… yeah. Radagast wonders aloud where the spiders might have come from. (In the novel, Mirkwood has been beset by evil for a long time, hence the name change from Greenwood; but in the Jacksondarium, the rise of the Necromancer is a new thing.)
A bird tells Radagast they come from a nearby fortress. Since a bird relaying information to characters is going to be very, very important a very, very long time from now, one wonders if Jackson should have used it for no reason here.
And then… bunny sled.
Walsh: Did you see Outrageous Fortune last night? Siobhan Marshall is such a westie chick.
Jackson: I have a great idea!
Jackson: This is my best idea since turning Sauron into an evil lighthouse!
Walsh: Uh oh.
Jackson: Two words.
Jackson: Bunny sled!
Walsh: … What?
Jackson: Radagast drives a sled drawn by a team of giant rabbits.
Jackson: Well, what do you think? Oscar gold, am I right?
Walsh: Okay, well, no. For one thing, it’s not snowing, so he can’t drive a sled.
Jackson: It moves along the ground!
Walsh: A… dirt sled?
Jackson: It’s magic or something! He’s a wizard! He can do whatever he wants!
Walsh: Well, magic, yes, but it still has to make sense…
Jackson: I already have Gandalf talking to moths and pulling Eagles out of his ass. I want a bunny sled! I tried to put one in The Frighteners, but Michael J. Fox sounded just like you do! And I even shot the bunny sled scenes for King Kong, but the studio made me cut them out! This movie is going to have a bunny sled!!!
Walsh: Yes, dear. Whatever you say, dear.
Bunny sled. Jesus fucking Christ.
This is the first time, in either the LOTR films or The Hobbit trilogy, that Peter Jackson has introduced something completely foreign to Tolkien; something that Tolkien did not even hint at. And it sucks.
Radagast rides his bunny sled to Dol Guldur, but we cut back to the main character party. What is up with the pronunciation of the character names? Filly and Killy? It’s Fee-lee and Kee-lee! Oyn and Gloyn? It’s Oh-in and Gloh-in! We didn’t have to put up with this shit in LOTR.
Gandalf wanders off after he and Thorin have a fight, which is an improvement over Gandalf’s convenient and incessant wandering off for no reason in the original book.
Now for the encounter with the trolls. The build-up to this is rather more complicated than in the book, but I think Jackson’s purpose was to give the Dwarf characters, in this case Fili and Kili, more to do — and that can only be a good thing.
But as for the encounter itself, it’s clear Jackson felt the need to take the original chapter, which worked quite well, and extend it, complicate it, and make it more “epic.” This was unnecessary. The seriousness and “epicness” that Jackson tries to accomplish here collide with the whimsy of the original story. Frightening trolls right out of the Lord of the Rings films are speaking with broad Cockney accents, being generally silly in a broad “Three Stooges” kind of way, and making booger jokes. I don’t think Tolkien would have approved of booger jokes.
Also, the way the scene is rewritten, there is absolutely no reason given why Bilbo, Fili, and Kili, upon discovering that ponies had been stolen by trolls, would not have run back and immediately informed Thorin. Sending Bilbo in alone to deal with the problem, in this instance, is ludicrous.
The only really bad change here, though, is how Gandalf saves the day. In the book, he’s merely clever, using ventriloquism to distract the trolls until the sun rises and turns them to stone. Here, it’s Bilbo who does the stalling, while Gandalf uses his Level 3 Bigby’s Sundering Fist to crack a boulder in half and let the sunlight through. If Gandalf can destroy a boulder with with his staff, why doesn’t he use this power on the half-dozen future occasions when it would come in handy? Is he low on mana?
I don’t understand. Thorin clearly figures out what Bilbo is doing with the trolls, and encourages the other Dwarves to play along. Ten minutes later, he is complaining to Gandalf that Bilbo did nothing to help. Are there two identical Thorins?
The novel The Hobbit glosses over the fact that Gandalf acquiring Glamdring in the troll hoard is pretty much the equivalent of someone finding Excalibur in a cellar in Staffordshire. Glamdring is the blade of Turgon son of Fingolfin, the Noldorin King of Gondolin during the First Age, which he wielded in the Nirnaeth Arnoediad. Orcrist, the blade taken by Thorin, is of only slightly lesser lineage.
At least the movie emphasizes that they’re nice swords.
Gandalf presents Sting to Bilbo, and tells Bilbo that “true courage is about knowing not when to take a life, but when to spare one.” Oh my Eru — does Gandalf know that very soon (in about three hours) Bilbo is going to have the opportunity to kill someone, and his decision not to kill that person will LITERALLY save the world? I guess he does.
Suddenly, Jar Jar Binks shows up, presumably because he and Gandalf both have Find My Friends on their iPhones. In the original books, Tolkien is very good about making sure people can’t find each other unless they have a very good reason for knowing where the other person is at a particular moment. No one just “shows up” — you know, like Elrond did to deliver Andúril to Aragorn in the Return of the King movie. Ironically, about the only exception in the Legendarium is when Radagast finds Gandalf on the Greenway in Fellowship. But Radagast knew that Gandalf commonly used the Greenway, and he was checking Gandalf’s usual haunts.
Here, Gandalf and the Dwarves are in some random spot in the wilderness. They’re not even following the Great East Road, which they did in the book. So how did Radagast find them? Maybe a bird told him.
I won’t even mention the stick insect.
Radagast relays to Gandalf that he saw the Slender Man at Dol Guldur. He mentions Ungoliant (Hooray! Screw you, Tolkien family!).
The party is attacked by Wargs. In the LOTR films, Jackson transformed these giant talking (and singing) wolves into zombie hedgehogs, and he keeps that change here. I guess this mean we won’t get the “Fifteen birds in five fir trees” trees song. (Spoiler alert: we won’t.)
Orcs attack, and Radagast zips around on his bunny sled, like a Warner Bros. toon, to draw them away from the party. Gandalf and the others find a tunnel in the middle of a field, which conveniently teleports them directly to Rivendell. This makes sense because of course it does.
Okay, seriously, why is Ori’s only weapon a slingshot? Is this supposed to be funny? He’s a freaking Dwarf. Dwarves shit out ten high-quality steel blades before breakfast.
Rivendell. Given that the party’s stay in Rivendell is a lacuna in the plot and in the action, it should be dealt with swiftly. But no. It lingers, like the pleasant taste of a rich food you know you’ve eaten far too much of, and which will later make you vomitously ill.
Not “son of Thrayn,” Elrond. “Son of Thray-in.” Where’s the Tolkien languages adviser? Probably hanging out at the craft services table, hitting on Evangeline Lilly.
The bit where the Elves serve only salad is a bit on-the-nose and a bit E. Gary Gygax, but it’s okay. In the Extended Edition, there’s a scene where Kili hits on an elf-maid, and then accidentally conveys his sexual appreciation for an Elf who turns out to be male. This should have stayed on the cutting room floor.
You know what else should have stayed on the cutting room floor? The bit in the Extended Edition in which, in the middle of Rivendell, Bifur leaps on a table and sings Bilbo’s “The Man in the Moon Stayed Up Too Late” song. Sorry, Sir Peter — you had your chance to use this in the Fellowship movie, and you squandered it. No dice.
Gandalf lies to Elrond. This is not something I see ever happening ever. It’s not much of a lie; he tells it only to please Thorin; and Elrond figures out the truth about two minutes later when Balin blabs. But no; the only one of the Wise who ever tells a lie is Saruman, and this story takes place before Saruman starts lying. Gandalf is not a liar; and he does not keep secrets from Elrond or Galadriel. Indeed, we learn elsewhere that Gandalf revealed his true identity to Círdan the Shipwright, Elrond, and Galadriel when he first arrived in Middle Earth. These are his allies, the very people Gandalf came to Middle-Earth to aid, not people to be misled or manipulated.
Good thing Elrond has a special Moon Rune Reading Podium on his Moon Rune Reading Balcony.
Here’s Azog. It’s the typical scene where the evil villain kills his henchman for bringing him bad news. Yawn. One wonders how these villains keep any henchmen at all; or why the henchmen don’t just run off any time there’s something unpleasant to relay.
Many have complained that good and evil in Tolkien are too stark; the good people are all good and fair and noble, and the bad people are all irredeemably bad. One wonders if these people have ever actually read Tolkien — his views on morality, and his characterizations, are far more nuanced than that. Even Sauron started off with good intentions.
But his Orcs are pretty one-dimensional, monsters of pure hate and violence. In inventing Azog, Sir Peter had the opportunity to give us a nuanced Orc character, one with a backstory and a motivation. Someone we might have respect for, that we might even have some feeling for.
He did not do that. Azog is just a nasty, murderous baddie who wants to kill Dwarves because he hates Dwarves. He’s probably pissed that Thorin cut off his hand; but he’s got that cool branch stuck through his forearm, so really Azog came out ahead on that one. Anyway, it’s a missed opportunity, unless we get some Azog character development in the other two films.
In the Extended Edition, there’s a pointless scene between Elrond and Bilbo, in which Elrond offers an invitation to come live at Rivendell. Sure, because Lord Elrond Halfelven the Wise of the White Council, last surviving son of Eärendil and Elwing, great-grandson of Lúthien Tinúviel, born in Beleriand in the First Age, captive of Maedhros and Maglor, last great protector of Eriador, invites random itinerant halflings to come live in his house. In the books, Bilbo only receives that invitation after his heroics in the East and his naming as an Elf-Friend. But here, hey, sure, come live at Rivendell, strange Hobbit running around the Wild in his smoking jacket.
The Extended Edition also has a scene depicting the Dwarves bathing naked in a Rivendell fountain. BWA HA HA HA HA HA HA HILARIOUS! You know, the Extended Edition scenes in the LOTR films usually improved the story.
Finally, there’s an additional scene that depicts Gandalf and Elrond blabbing about important matters at full volume while Bilbo and Thorin overhear. If this scene has any benefit, it is that it explains something that was never covered in The Hobbit but was explained in the appendices of The Lord of the Rings — why Gandalf wanted Thorin back in Erebor in the first place. (Spoiler alert: to aid in the inevitable war when Sauron returned.)
Gandalf learns that Galadriel and Saruman are at Rivendell. I guess they were what — hiding? Hanging out in the game room? Gandalf winces when he learns that Saruman has come. What is Jackson implying about their relationship? In the following scene, Saruman is a dick to Gandalf. Wouldn’t this have been an opportunity to present the original Saruman, the wise and trustworthy Saruman that Gandalf believed he could turn to for help? If Saruman was always a dick, is it really a tragedy when he turns to evil? Just as we should have liked and admired young Anakin Skywalker, we should like and admire young(er) Saruman. But alas, no.
While we’re on this topic, I think this movie should also have featured a younger, happier Gandalf. Let’s see Gandalf transform from peppy and facetious to careworn and bitter when he discovers the Necromancer is actually Sauron. You know, like a character arc?
The Extended Edition introduces a bit about the last of the seven Dwarf-rings, and how it has gone missing. Supposedly, Thráin (Thorin’s father) bore it. I have no idea where Jackson is going with this. It’s not from Tolkien.
Gandalf, Elrond, Galadriel, and Saruman have a really, really long conversation about the Necromancer and whether he represents a threat. Can any scene with Cate Blanchett in it ever be too long? As it turns out, yes, it can. Trim out about half of this, Sir Peter. There’s not much interest in a scene in which Saruman tries to convince the others not to do something that we the audience know for a fact they are going to do.
Everyone in this scene is an excellent actor. So how can these four people talking be so dull?
The Dwarves sneak out of Rivendell. Why? In the book, it would never occur to the High Elves to ever interfere with anybody anytime. (The Wood-elves will later interfere with things, of course, but they’re not High Elves.) In this movie, it’s made clear that Elrond does not approve of the Dwarves’ quest. But no indication is made whatsoever that he would try to bar their way. Maybe Saruman would try to stop them, or would order Gandalf to do so? Except no one knew Saruman was even there. This makes no sense.
I like that Jackson’s Gandalf has such respect and admiration for Galadriel. He should — she’s older than the sun and moon, after all. But let’s not forget what Gandalf really is, either. As Gandalf, he’s far younger, and conceivably even less powerful, than Galadriel. But as Olórin, he is primeval and immortal, and one of the highest order of beings in the universe. What, you didn’t know that? Read your Silmarillion, people.
Stone giants. For years, fans of Tolkien’s books have argued about the stone giants discussed in The Hobbit — were there really stone giants in the mountains throwing rocks at each other, or was Bilbo, as the author of the Red Book of Westmarch (aka The Hobbit), making things up? Fans suggest this because stone giants don’t seem to have any natural niche in the established taxonomy of Tolkien’s races.
Personally, I have no problem with the giants being real, and I would have been shocked if Jackson had not leapt at the opportunity to portray them. (I notice that another item in The Hobbit that readers have suggested was Bilbo’s fabrication, the trolls’ talking purse, does not appear in this film.)
Are Jackson’s stone giants a bit over-the-top? Sure. But for some reason, to me, this scene was one of the few in this film that actually felt like The Hobbit — adventurous rather than epic, fairy tale rather than high fantasy. I liked it.
When the Dwarves and Bilbo survive the stone giants’ battle, you may have thought to yourself it was a tad unrealistic. Heh heh. Yeah, you just wait. There’s a far, far worse example of the party surviving something ridiculous just ahead, only a few hours from now.
In the mountain cave, Bilbo decides he’s heading back to Rivendell. Alone. Through stone-giant-infested mountains. Sure, that makes sense.
In the book, the goblins’ “Front Porch” was in the cave, a secret door that led to Goblin-town. Here, there’s a massive trapdoor in the floor, which drops into a lengthy tunnel that deposits anyone in the cave into a giant trap. Why was this built? Do large parties of Dwarves usually stop in this particular cave? Did E. Gary Gygax design the cave? Bilbo Baggins is a Halfling Thief — did he fail his Detect Traps roll?
In the book, Bilbo does not get separated from the party until after Gandalf shows up to rescue everyone; and it happens by accident. Here, Bilbo is clever and manages to evade the goblins. I’m sorry, but Jackson’s Bilbo simply has too much agency this early in the story. He’s supposed to be a grocer, bobbing and puffing on the mat, not an action hero. His heroics should come later — otherwise, what’s his story arc?
Bilbo is attacked by a goblin, and falls down a bottomless pit — a fall that would kill anyone, even a member of a mythical race in a fantasy story. I shouldn’t have to point out to someone with Peter Jackson’s résumé that one has to be more concerned with realism in a fantasy setting, not less.
Goblin-town looks a whole heck of a lot like Saruman’s subterranean caverns from the LOTR films. That’s fine. But you know what I think would have been better? In The Hobbit you get a sense of Bilbo’s fear and claustrophobia, being trapped deep beneath the earth in a vast maze of small tunnels. That feeling might have served the story better here.
In the Extended Edition, the Great Goblin sings a bit of the “Clap! Snap! the black crack!” song from the book. This is genuinely terrible. Using Tolkien’s songs is great; but in this case, it is presented like a musical number. And at the end, the Great Goblin makes an anachronistic fist pump. Jesus. I am so glad this wasn’t in the theatrical version.
There’s also an implication that the Dwarves stole a bunch of valuables from Rivendell. Really? Aren’t we supposed to like them? Aren’t the Dwarves supposed to be honorable? Tolkien’s original 13 Dwarves were pretty greedy, but they never stole anything. The Great Goblin’s line about the treasure, “Second Age — couldn’t give it away!” is pretty funny, though.
The Extended version of this scene drones on and on. Even the Great Goblin gets bored, no joke.
Somehow, the Great Goblin recognizes Thorin Oakenshield. I’m not really sure how this works. Do they belong to the same club or something? Do all the local good and evil kings get together for a potluck? I know — maybe they did amateur dramatics at Cambridge together.
The Great Goblin sends a message to Azog by pushing Salacious B. Crumb off along a pulley (I hated this in the theater), and off we go to where Bilbo Baggins lies dead, every bone shattered, after his ridiculously long fall.
I guess it can’t be pitch dark in the goblin mines because this is a movie, and long sequences in a movie where you can’t see anything don’t tend to go over well with audiences. So I won’t complain about how beautifully lit the mines are.
Here’s Gollum, making his welcome appearance. I like that Jackson worked in an allusion to Gollum’s cannibalism, which was discreetly edited out of the LOTR films.
Bilbo’s encounter with Gollum is the centerpiece of the book, and rightly is the centerpiece of this film. In general, it is well-handled. But Eru Ilúvatar help me, it’s just too long. Like everything else in this film, it drags, and the viewer ends up checking their watch and wondering if a $6 bucket of popcorn might just this once be worth the money.
Freeman is very good, and of course Andy Serkis completely owns the role of Gollum for all time. We get all the riddles from the book, which as a fanboy I’m thrilled by. As a moviegoer? Not so much.
How did the literary Gandalf know where to go to save the Dwarves? He was present when they were kidnapped. How does the cinematic Gandalf know where to go? How does he know they were captured at all? Why isn’t’t he still following the mountain trail, hoping to catch up? I don’t know. Maybe he has a copy of the script.
Now the Dwarves and Gandalf recreate the famous Ore Cart Chase from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. I don’t mind that Jackson decided to create an action set-piece here. I do mind that the set-piece is so ridiculously over-the-top. I do mind that the goblins are so hapless that there is no real sense of menace. And I do mind that… yes, you know what I’m going to say… it’s too long.
Gandalf uses his new Magical Rock-Breaking Ability again. I guess there’s nothing wrong with this, except it would really come in handy 60 years later in Moria. I dunno, maybe all the Middle Earth magic-user classes get nerfed in the Lord of the Rings expansion pack.
Gandalf kills the Great Goblin, and the section of bridge that he and the Dwarves are standing on collapses. This segment falls about 3,000 feet into a crevasse, bouncing and skidding along, without once flipping over or shattering, before smashing into the bottom. Everyone is completely fine, not even a scratch. It’s just like the ridiculous Inflatable Raft Scene from Temple of Doom, except twice as ridiculous.
Gollum unwittingly leads Bilbo to the Back Door. Bilbo spares his life, which would be pretty cool if it hadn’t been telegraphed in the scene at the troll’s cave. Couldn’t Bilbo have decided to do the right thing without having been told to by Gandalf?
Here’s a nitpick — Gollum’s pupils were tiny in the darkness of his cave, but here by the sunlit door they are huge. I guess that’s because for cinematic CGI characters, pupils dilate based not on the ambient light, but on whether the audience is supposed to empathize with you at that moment.
Literary Gollum does not exit the mountain to look for Bilbo, because he’s terrified of the Yellow Face; it takes him years to get up the courage to leave and look for the Bagginses, even traveling at night. Cinematic Gollum has no fear of the sun — this was established in the LOTR trilogy, because Sir Peter didn’t want all of his Frodo, Sam, and Gollum scenes to take place at night. So why doesn’t Gollum go after Bilbo now? He knows what the Ring does; and he undoubtedly knows that someone wearing the Ring in full sunlight gives off a faint shadow, so he might even be able to locate Bilbo. Yet he does not try.
Bilbo invisibly catches up to the Dwarves, and overhears Thorin complaining about him and his longing for the hearth and the comforts of home. In the book, this would have been a valid complaint — literary Bilbo was always complaining. But cinematic Bilbo has not complained, not even once. Was there a scene cut that involved Bilbo complaining?
BWA HA HA HA HA HA NO THERE WAS NOT. Nothing at all ever got cut from this film.
Bilbo gives a nice little speech about why he’s decided to stay with the Dwarves (as if going home at this point were even an option). Some of the best screenwriting in cinema history has involved characters plainly stating their true motivations, rather than acting out on motivations or having them revealed through story. I’m being facetious.
But Bilbo’s smoking jacket gets increasingly tattered and worn as the film progresses, so that’s nice.
Azog and his Warg-riders attack. Remember them? Now we get to “Fifteen birds in five fir trees,” except there won’t be any singing. This encounter was both whimsical and frightening in the book — frightening because there did not seem to be any way for the characters to escape being burned horribly alive, or eaten to death by a pack of Wargs. Frightening, because it had yet to be established that Gandalf could summon Eagles out of his ass any time things got scary.
Let’s talk about the Eagles for a moment. They’re important, and it comes up a lot.
First of all it’s the Eagles, not the eagles, because it’s the Race of Eagles, giant talking Eagles. Not ordinary eagles. In The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, there are three instances in which main characters are rescued by Eagles. This is the first.
Please note that in The Hobbit, Gandalf does not “summon” the Eagles, using a moth or otherwise. The Eagles keep watch over the mountains; and when they notice Orcs and Wargs starting a fire in the woods, they swoop in to investigate. Discovering Dwarves, Wizards, and Hobbits in danger, they pluck up the Orcs’ intended victims and carry them a short distance away, before returning to whatever Eagles do all day. Record shitty, overrated pop-rock songs of the 70s, I guess.
Let me be clear on this: Gandalf almost dies in The Hobbit, along with Bilbo and the Dwarves, at the hands of the goblins and Wargs. They are only saved, through sheer luck, at the last minute, because the Eagles happened to be watching. Gandalf was not expecting the Eagles. And he could not summon them.
Spoiler alert: the Eagles will be back in the Battle of Five Armies, but again not because Gandalf calls them up on the Mothline. They show up because it’s a battle against Orcs, and Eagles hate Orcs.
In the novel The Fellowship of the Ring, an Eagle appears and rescues Gandalf from the top of Orthanc, but again NOT because Gandalf summons him. The Eagle is bringing Gandalf a message from Radagast, who is, yes, a friend to animals, including talking eagles. The Eagle knows Gandalf is at Orthanc because Gandalf told Radagast that’s where he was headed. The Eagle (he has a name, Gwaihir the Windlord) does not know that Gandalf is a prisoner there; but upon learning of Saruman’s treachery, Gwaihir rescues Gandalf and takes him away — not far, not to his next appointment, not to find Frodo, but far enough to elude Saruman’s forces.
Then, finally, at the end of The Lord of the Rings, the Eagles show up for the Battle of the Morannon, again because they get to fight Orcs, and not because Gandalf summoned Braviary from his Poké Ball. When the Ring is destroyed, the Eagles are conveniently on hand to help Gandalf rescue Samwise Gamgee and the traitor Frodo Baggins from the fires of the exploding Mount Doom. They help rescue the halflings because the halflings just saved the world, and not because Gandalf told them to.
This is the situation in the literature. The Eagles are a noble race, servants of Manwë Súlimo, who like to help out the enemies of darkness when they happen to be in the neighborhood and have the time. They cannot be summoned like servants, and do not constitute some kind of Middle Earth Airlines.
If you only know Tolkien from the movies, you do not know any of this.
In the Jacksondarium, Gandalf has the bizarre magical power to summon a moth, which can instantly teleport to the nearest Eagle, which will then itself teleport directly to Gandalf and rescue him. It appears that cinematic Gandalf can do this at any time, and one wonders why he failed to do so on the Bridge of Khazad-dûm. Or at the the Battle of the Pelennor Fields. Or at Helm’s Deep.
When people ask why, in the book The Lord of the Rings, the Eagles don’t just fly Frodo directly to Mount Doom, they are idiots. When viewers of the movies ask, it’s a fair question.
I can imagine that when a non-fan viewer of this film, at the end of this lengthy sequence, when the Dwarves and Gandalf are about to burn to death, AND be eaten by Wargs, AND fall off of a cliff; when Bilbo has behaved in a thoroughly un-Bilbo-ish manner by facing off alone against Azog; I can imagine that when Gandalf pulls the moth out of his ass and the Eagles magically appear, their reaction must have been what the fuck? Again? And they probably blame Tolkien, not understanding that it’s Jackson who has turned the Eagles into a ridiculous deus ex machina.
Enough about Eagles. Why is it a big deal when Thorin decides to face down Azog alone? He already defeated Azog once in battle already.
But Thorin’s doing poorly, so who decides to come to his rescue? Bilbo. Sure, why not? Somehow, Bilbo manages to tackle the Orc Lieutenant, even though the Orc Lieutenant is three times his size. He actually kills the Orc. Now, I‘ll grant you that Sting is a +30 Elven Letter Opener of Orc Slaying, but still, in the hands of a 1st level Halfling Thief, that’s a bit much. I guess he rolled a crit.
Now all the other Dwarves decide to attack, because before, they weren’t, because… I don’t know.
And so the Eagles show up, and the day is saved. Why don’t the Eagles fly the party all the way to Erebor? I explained why they don’t do so in the book. In the movie? I have no idea.
Did you notice that the summit of the Carrock is bear-shaped? Foreshadowing!
Thorin, who was just used as a chew toy by a Warg, is going to be fine, without any major medical care, because he’s a main character and why not. Gandalf appears to cast some sort of spell on him, which is pretty stupid, because Gandalf doesn’t cast spells. No one in Middle Earth “casts spells.” In the FotR movie, it looks a lot like Arwen is casting a spell at the Ford of Bruinen, and this pissed off a lot of Tolkien fans. Magic doesn’t work that way in Tolkien. At all. It’s not freaking Hogwarts.
Bilbo and Thorin have a rapprochement and become best buds, which is pretty stupid, since there’s still about 37 hours of movie left. Where’s their relationship supposed to go from here? The equivalent scene in the book comes at the very, very end.
We follow the thrush to Erebor, take a look inside, and get a glimpse of Smaug. End of Part One.
End of Bitingly-Sarcastic Plot Synopsis.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey suffers from two major problems, both of which I fully expect to continue through the rest of the trilogy.
The first, and less serious, problem is one of tone. JRR Tolkien wrote The Hobbit in the early-to-mid 1930s for his children, particularly his third child, Christopher, who was 12 when it was published. It is a children’s book. It is a fairy tale. It is whimsical, light-hearted, and fast-paced. While it has some serious and epic elements, particularly at the end, these are exceptions to the general tone of the book, and they manage to work organically. Indeed the ending, in which little Bilbo becomes swept up in the great events in the world, was part of what made the little book so special.
Tolkien wrote the sequel to The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, between 1937 and 1949, largely in serialized chapters for the entertainment of the now-adult Christopher. The Hobbit is 95,000 words; The Lord of the Rings is 481,000. The Hobbit is a children’s book; The Lord of the Rings is decidedly for adult readers. The Hobbit is a fairy tale; The Lord of the Rings is high fantasy, and created an entire new genre of fantasy fiction.
The two books are very different in tone. But when Peter Jackson decided to make a film adaptation of The Hobbit, he decided that it should have the same dramatic high fantasy tone as his Lord of the Rings films.
This was a major mistake.
The story does not lend itself to epic fantasy. The events, the characters, the motivations — they are for the most part simple and whimsical. As I mentioned above, Bilbo Baggins goes on a quest to be polite. This is not the serious motivation of a serious character. This is a fairy tale.
Can a lighthearted story like The Hobbit be transformed and adapted into an epic, nine-hour fantasy? I doubt it — but of course, it isn’t contravened by the laws of Physics or anything. Did Peter Jackson successfully accomplish that transformation here?
No, he did not. In theme and tone, the film is a complete mess. Slapstick collides with drama, whimsy with pathos. The tone wretches around violently within scenes. Characters break into song at inappropriate moments. The jokes aren’t funny, the whimsy’s not charming, and with few exceptions the monsters aren’t scary.
If you’re going to make The Hobbit, make The Hobbit. Just as The Lord of the Rings would not have worked as a drug-fueled romp starring The Beatles (yes, this almost happened), The Hobbit does not work as a less-rapey Game of Thrones. Let The Hobbit be The Hobbit.
The second problem is timing.
When Peter Jackson announced that The Hobbit would be split into two three-hour films, I was worried. There’s just not that much going on in The Hobbit. But he was adding in the Necromancer storyline, which is not in itself a bad idea at all. So, okay, six hours. Seems long, but fine. The LOTR films were excellent. Let’s trust Sir Peter.
Then he announced he was giving in to studio pressure, and adding a third film. I knew at once this was going to be a problem. I prayed I was wrong. But I wasn’t.
When Jackson made the LOTR films, he had the problem of too much source material, even for a nine-hour film. (He did make some problematic choices, such as adding an unnecessary extra “death” scene for Aragorn, while cutting out vital things like the death of Saruman. But that’s another article.) He cut Tom Bombadil and the Barrow Downs, Glorfindel, the Hobbits’ conspiracy, the flight from the Shire, — and that’s just the first half of the first book. Lots of other events were cut, like the Scouring of the Shire and the encounter with the Woses. Prince Imrahil and the whole War in the South were cut, as were Arwen’s brothers Elladan and Elrohir. Jackson had to cut things to make it in under nine hours.
Here, Jackson has the opposite problem. He has to fill nine hours with four hours’ worth of material. Some of it is brand new, like Radagast and his god-dammed bunny sled. Some is woven out of Tolkien’s notes about the battle between the White Council and the Necromancer. I’ve noticed that Elrond’s brother Elros, of all people, is a character in The Desolation of Smaug. What’s up with that? And some of the time is taken up with events from The Hobbit, padded, extended, and cut together very, very slowly.
Any filmmaker, any film critic, and film school instructor will look at this film and tell you it’s too long, too slow, and badly paced. Yes, there’s a certain subjectivity to these things — but a certain objectivity as well. Filmmaking has rules, technical rules, and if you’re going to break them, and you can, you need a good reason. “I want to make three three-hour movies” is not a good reason. It doesn’t work.
This movie, for all of the well-executed and entertaining pieces that comprise it, is just bad. Dull, slow, ponderous, silly, and above all, disappointing.
When Peter Jackson made The Lord of the Rings, he was an independent horror filmmaker from a tiny Polynesian country, best known for a ghost comedy starring Michael J. Fox. If the Lord of the Rings films had tanked, it would have meant the end of New Line Cinema, and the end of Peter Jackson. It was one of the biggest gambles in movie history. And it paid off magnificently.
Sir Peter Jackson has nothing to lose now. He isn’t a part of Wellywood, he is Wellywood. He’s one of the top-grossing directors of all time. Look how hard M. Night Shyamalan had to work to destroy his own career — Peter Jackson would have to do that, but twice as hard.
It seems that when you set Peter Jackson loose without restrictions, when you give him all the money in the world, and surround him with people who won’t say “no,” you end up with — George Lucas. Jar Jar Binks and all.
And that’s a tragedy.
More Tolkien movie reviews:
GLOW-IN-THE-DARK HOBBITS & HOMOPHOBIC FRODOS: RANKIN BASS’ 1980 “THE RETURN OF THE KING” REVIEWED
ROTO-ORCS & INVINCIBLE DOORS: RALPH BAKSHI’S 1978 ‘JRR TOLKIEN’S THE LORD OF THE RINGS’ REVIEWED
UGLY ELVES & INFLATABLE ORCS: RANKIN/BASS’ 1977 ‘THE HOBBIT’ REVIEWED
and, from January, 2010:
GUILLERMO DEL TORO’S ‘THE HOBBIT,’ COMPOSED ENTIRELY OF SCREENCAPS FROM ‘THE LORD OF THE RINGS’