Watching Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” is a little like seeing what might have been the extended DVD edition of a another movie I wish I had been able to see first. The filmmakers could have shown a little bit of restraint and discipline and trimmed a bit of the fat from The Unexpected Journey. Jackson has never been accused of restraint, but I could have done with half the amount of chin fat on the Goblin King. The eccentric wizard, Radagast, could have had half the amount of bird crap on the side of his face from the birds nesting in his hair. And the film may have kept more of its equilibrium if half the amount of goblin heads had been lobbed off. But criticizing The Hobbit is a little like giving your friends a hard time of it: I enjoyed it immensely and am likely to see it in the theater at least once more before the end of all things.
Martin Freeman was an inspired choice to play Bilbo. I worried through the first hour of the film that he would be only marginally successful, playing to the comical side of Bilbo’s character, and settling in for one scene of mock surprise and shot after shot of incredulous double-takes. But by the last hour of the film, we get genuine depth of varying emotions from this character that is put to one kind of test after another.
Gollumn was as rich a captured performance as ever: ranging from haunting menace, comic timing, and childish tantrums. Andy Serkis fills the computer graphics with more versatility and personality than any of the heavily make-upped dwarves can manage.
And that’s not to say that the dwarves are completely lacking in emotion. At first they appear only buried by the makeup and hair and warts and all. They are surprisingly vulnerable despite their layers of toughness. All but a few of them carry their own roles well enough. A few of the younger ones recall the joy and recklessness of Pippin and Merry from the Lord of the Rings. These dwarves are sure to be a joy to see develop as characters over the next 6 or so hours of Hobbit movie footage we are likely to get before the thing is over.
Gandalf seems to lean a little more heavily on his staff this time around. He looks and acts a bit more world weary, as if he has already been through this territory before. I couldn’t help but hear mellowness in his tone through the kinds of lines that would have run more emotively in the Lord of the Rings films.
Do we really need so many villains? There is the mysterious Necromancer, who may or may not be the same person as the Nazgul king that appears to “fight” the wizard Radagast. There’s two. And an albino orc from Thorin’s younger days that haunts the movie, seemingly following the company from the edges of Hobbiton all the way to the edge of a cliff in the superfluous climactic scene of “The Unexpected Journey.” That’s three. Also, we have the Goblin King: a gruesome hulk of warty flesh that is quite mezmerizing (too bad he meets his end in such a Loony-Tunes manner). That’s four bad guys. And there’s Gollumn, if you can abide sticking him in the corner with these other baddies. Oh, and you get glimpses of (and from) Smaug, the dragon. You could probably count Saruman in there too, who is obviously already in love with the sound of his own voice, and perhaps currently befriending the dark shadow that is growing in the land. It is probably not fair to include the three iconic trolls in the list of villains. They are as dangerous as Larry, Moe, and Curly, in that they are more of a danger to themselves and others for their size and clumsiness than they are for their nefarious intent. But the cast of villains reaches to match the number of dwarves we are meant to identify and differentiate. The potency of all this evil is dissipated and even scattered willy-nilly so that a focused narrative is replaced by many threads that weave into a general sense of dread.
Those are my first impressions. There is enough happening in this first installment of The Hobbit that I’m likely to discover and rediscover things in future viewings when more of this massive 9 hour journey brings more perspective to this first third of the whole hobbit she-bang. But more to complain about is more Hobbit screen-time, and I’ll take as much of it as Peter Jackson gives us. There are a lot of swings, which means a lot of misses, but just as many of those swings hit the mark. My guess is that more of the arbitrariness of any given shot or scene will seem more purposeful in the larger mosaic of Jackson’s Hobbit tale.