There is a marvelous passage, early in Tolkien’s The Hobbit, where Bilbo Baggins, reluctant host to a company of dwarves who are talking and singing of their lost riches, is suddenly seized with a jealous love for “beautiful things made by hands and by cunning and by magic” (and of course, he eventually comes into ownership of one of these things). Yet his fierce desire evaporates almost immediately, and Bilbo is again just a hobbit from Bag End, perfectly content with the comforts of hearth and home. This evocative description sets up almost all that is to follow, including the author’s subsequent trilogy. But alas, there is none of the meaningful whimsy of Tolkien’s first fantasy book to be found in the director Peter Jackson’s fourth Middle Earth movie. It’s Lord of the Rings all over again, only without the involving characterizations. An Unexpected Journey (part one of The Hobbit film trilogy) doesn’t even pay attention to Bilbo’s delight in maps, especially maps with runes and secret elvish script. Instead there are orcs, more orcs, and much conspiratorial talk of shadowy forces that might’ve been revealed with more skill and subtlety.
While sending Bilbo (Martin Freeman), his dwarf companions, and leader Gandalf (Ian McKellen) out into the unpredictable wilds of Middle Earth, The Hobbit confronts them with one excuse for carnage after another. Battle fatigue sets in early, and that’s after an uninspired prologue where Old Bilbo (Ian Holm) narrates the lore of the town of Dale and the exile of the dwarves from their mountain kingdom. The quest, as it’s called here, is for the king in exile, Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and his loyal followers to return to their ancestral homeland, defeat the terrible dragon that usurped it, and reclaim their treasure. Yet the imperative of the story is quickly bogged down by dragged-out scenarios (showing the dwarves to be more weirdly attired and crude in manner than anything Tolkien ever wrote) propelled by hectoring and bickering. Lost in the murk is the charm of Bilbo’s vantage point. Reduced to a reactive role (and played by an actor best known for reactive roles), the hobbit seems merely along for the ride, and turning him into a warrior doesn’t compensate for the loss of his delightfully clever contributions to the trek. Only rarely does the film capture the wonderment that was expected from Jackson’s usually prodigious imagination, as when the dwarves sadly sing of their lost world, or later, with the brief appearance of Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), who is alluded to but not introduced in the book.
The dominating force here is an addition of the filmmakers (perhaps especially Guillermo del Toro, the original director) called the Pale Orc (Manu Bennett), a footnote brought to the screen specifically to enact an ancient grudge with Thorin and up the violence quotient to a wearying degree. Much of the action is reworked from LOTR, squashing the story’s spontaneity: must Gandalf whisper to a messenger moth before the arrival of the eagles? Did the elf cavalry have to circle the dwarf troop exactly as the Rohirrim did the Fellowship?
Adding to this atmosphere of overfamiliarity (which includes the score by Howard Shore) is the artificial transformation of Thorin from an űber-dwarf to an Aragon reboot. An opportunity for fresh vigor, through Radagast (Sylvester McCoy) is reduced to silliness as the brown wizard’s deceptively childlike demeanor is shown with bird droppings in his hair and a buck toothed, cross-eyed haplessness that culminates in a drug joke. Even Bilbo’s encounter with Gollum, one of the most immersive sequences, can’t compensate for these near-puerile flourishes.
Where Jackson really gets its wrong is in trying to strong-arm a simple adventure tale with mystical overtones into another heroic quest story about the end of the world. It’s the aura of enchantment—some of it chillingly unwholesome—that makes The Hobbit a prequel to LOTR, not its forced similarities. One can only hope that now that Jackson has definitively tied An Unexpected Journey to his billion-dollars-plus franchise of a decade ago, that parts two and three will mine Tolkien’s fantasy realm to more original effect. For if not, it will be a long and arduous slog to the return of the dwarf king.