Nine years after the release of the final installment in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Hobbit picks up exactly where the series left off: with an obnoxiously self-congratulatory sequence that is almost entirely devoid of substance. Preceded only by a convoluted narration (too brief to effectively set the stage), Peter Jackson and screenwriters devote their attention to an interminable opening sequence that is heavy on cutesiness and winks to the audience and light on character development and exposition. The movie’s first act is tremendously inept, a continuation of 2003’s clunky-ending Return of the King.
The Hobbit is framed as a story that old Bilbo is writing for Frodo, a story about his titular ‘unexpected journey.’* From what I gathered, it’s unexpected mostly because the script does nothing to explain why Bilbo joins the band of merry dwarves. The rationale of a quest of self-discovery is imposed ex post facto, as Bilbo doesn’t come to that realization until an unearned speech late in the movie. The topic of why he joins in the first place is barely broached: Bilbo gets selected by Gandalf for vague reasons. Neither Bilbo nor the dwarves, including the alpha-male Thorin (poor man’s Gerard Butler), want him to participate. No speech is made; no persuasion is attempted. Bilbo wakes up. He’s thrilled that everyone has left his home. And then he decides to follow anyway.
*Even though Frodo stands literally in the same room as Bilbo writes, presumably because Elijah Wood owes Peter Jackson.
The about-face wouldn’t normally be such a point of contention. Only, the movie wastes about 45 minutes getting there. Instead of foreshadowing the hobbit’s yearning for adventure, or an underlying dissatisfaction with his life, we are subjected to an annoying dinner sequence wherein Bilbo is a) surprised by the dwarves’ arrival and then b) frustrated by their eating of his food. Jackson beats the gag into a hole in the ground. The movie needs to go beyond a roll call for the different dwarves here, but none of them distinguish themselves. It needs to explain why Bilbo is important to the quest; instead, his involvement is something Gandalf essentially imposes. It needs to explain why Bilbo changes his mind, but again, nothing happens. It’s terrible screenwriting.*
*The visuals are also the most distracting here, due to the new fast-framed 3D. Actor movement is awkward, almost as though the movie is being fast-forwarded. Digital effects are obvious, acquiring a video game-like quality to them. But the biggest problem, prominent in the bright colors of the Shire, is the noticeable disparity it creates between the action in the foreground and the rest of the landscape. It’s depth to an extreme degree, and actors look and feel like actors on a set. As a result, the movie loses some of its cinematic quality, often resembling a BBC television show.
Once The Hobbit finally gets going, its arc emulates the previous Lord of the Rings movies. The band of merry men – this time, Gandalf, Thorin, Bilbo, and 10 others – take off towards their destination – the Lonely Mountain, fitting for a group of 13 dudes with no women – while being invariably sidetracked by trolls, orcs, elves, etc. in a manner reminiscent of levels in a side-scrolling beat-‘em-up. The exposition is minimal (with the exception of one overdone scene where Thorin literally stands over a cliff and looks out wistfully), and there are only a couple of sideplots (non-essential). For the most part, the second and third acts consist of action scene after action scene, with slight breathers in between. Naturally, those final two hours are entertaining; I would even say fun at times.
Yet, because of the well-worn style and structure of the film, The Hobbit’s flaws are entirely the same as its predecessors. Most encompassing is the utter lack of a sense of danger for the group, despite the substantial odds they face. Notably, 10 of the 13 main characters probably don’t speak more than 10 lines apiece, and just about all feel quite expendable. Yet, Jackson (or Tolkien) can’t even bring it upon himself to kill the horses when they are threatened, let alone a dwarf or two. It is utterly unsurprising when Gandalf resurfaces to rescue the group from mortal ‘danger’ following a brief – and all-too-convenient – disappearance; this happens twice, in fact. The ending of the movie, similarly telegraphed, provides an extreme example of this frustrating phenomenon, with help literally swooping from the heavens.*
*Why not a lift all the way to the mountain then? What the rules for giant rescue eagles anyway?
The movie is thus episodic in nature. While the locales are impressive, there is little sense of the geography of the trek. Indeed, in one scene that is memorable for the wrong reason, the group literally turns a corner in a cave and finds Rivendell. They essentially teleport place to place. The movie also lacks internal logic – little is explained to either the group or the audience. We find out only by witnessing it that sunlight turns trolls into stone… even if the trolls encountered seem quite laissez-faire about their Achilles’ heel, holding a barbecue that reaches the break of dawn. Later, as the group traverses a mountain, parts of it suddenly break up into giant rock monsters, which then fight one another. The amount of random shit that happens is grating, recalling the ridiculous sight of giant trees inexplicably partaking in battle in the original trilogy.
Although the movie gets on track after that first hour, there is a slight deviation in the third act when Bilbo gets separated from the group. He encounters Gollum for the first time, and is forced to outwit him to escape the caves and leave the mountains. The scene is effective, but The Hobbit’s vices still surface. The exchange is overlong; the dialogue strained. Irrespective of the source material, the sequence feels out of place in this movie, especially as the rest of the group struggles to fend off goblins elsewhere. As Bilbo continues with Gollum, it feels like fan service more than anything else. And while urgency builds near the scene’s conclusion, the pacing of the film is thrown off. The interaction is an unnecessary detour.
Ultimately, so is The Hobbit. It’s visually striking, easy to watch, and mostly entertaining. But it’s vacuous. There’s no danger, no urgency, no importance. The conflicts that emerge within the party come out of nowhere, and feel like plot devices. None of the characters aside from Bilbo seem remotely interesting in any way; even Gandalf is as a caricature, annoyingly coy and self-assured. Meanwhile, the antagonist of this film is altogether forgettable; Azog the zombie orc seems content to send wave after wave of his minions to die. They oblige. Any semblance of a final confrontation between him and Thorin is cut short, and delayed. It’s not a surprise, as two more movies remain. But it doesn’t justify three hours of this one.