King Kong, the greatest fantasy adventure film of the 1930s, clocks in at 100 minutes. That same decade saw the publication of Tolkien’s classic fantasy novel, The Hobbit, about 300 pages long, give or take a few depending on the typesetting in various editions. Both ideal lengths for action movies and adventure novels, respectively.
Two notable things have happened since then: Peter Jackson was born, and Burger King was invented.
I used to boast that I was a Peter Jackson fan from day one. I was there for Bad Taste, the world’s most epic home movie. For Meet the Feebles, Jackson’s profane puppet drama. For Dead Alive, one of the most blood-soaked zombie splatterfests ever made. All cheap, innovative – and short – films made over a decade before anyone imagined a horror guy from New Zealand would be hired to direct the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
As drawn out and melodramatic as the Rings films were, the source material was so rich in detail and broad in scope that Jackson’s suddenly overwrought filmmaking style seemed fitting. Meanwhile, Jackson himself began to expand physically, packing on dangerous amounts of fat, like so many of us living in today’s fast-food culture.
But it wasn’t until Jackson’s King Kong remake in 2005 that anyone realized the perfection of that metaphor. The updated version of Kong added a whopping (or should I say “Whopper”?) 87 minutes to the running time – almost doubling the original’s length – to tell a nearly identical story. Subplots (that went nowhere) were fleshed out until they became their own features within the feature. Monster battles and action sequences that lasted a minute in the original film became 20-minute set pieces. Worst of all, the third act of the film was put on hold so Kong could play sit-and-spin on a frozen pond! See, everyone, he’s just a big kid at heart. Awwwww.
Thankfully for his health and livelihood, Jackson shed all those pounds, but it does not appear that he has carried that lean-living mindset over to his filmmaking. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey takes 166 minutes to unspool, which may be acceptable if he were presenting the entire novel, but he’s not. It’s just the first third.
I imagine it is irksome for the aspiring screenwriter to be told that he must eliminate all exposition, because exposition is lazy, only to plunk his ass into a theater seat and watch a twenty-minute pre-credit sequence told entirely in voiceover while a montage of expensive CGI sequences flash before his eyes. And it happens again about 45 minutes in, to further explain why the characters are doing what they do.
What a spinning vortex of irony Jackson has created! To make what should be forty minutes of screen time last almost three hours, a vast backstory had to be created. To give the characters motivation (which, let’s be honest, is not in the book), much drama had to be added. And since the villain of the novel does not arrive until well after the point at which this movie ends, a secondary villain had to be included. The additions happen to be the most interesting bits, yet they would not need to be there at all if Jackson had decided to make one movie instead of three out of such a slim tale.
The main problem with the movie is the novel itself. Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), likable in the book, is a dull character with no motivation in the film. The story is really about Thorin (Richard Armitage), because he is legitimately driven to restore the dwarf kingdom and, with his simmering rage and bitterness, has the biggest possible character arc. He wants to kill the bad guy and avenge the death of his father. Bilbo wants to get home for a cup of tea.
Maybe I’m reading into it, but Jackson’s direction of those sequences taken right from the novel seem perfunctory compared to the embellished material. Thorin’s scenes are often intense and dramatic, and, for a dwarf with a cartoon nose, he gets some pretty rousing hero shots. If Jackson felt handcuffed by the source material, perhaps he should have just made an “expanded universe” movie.
An Unexpected Journey has many things going for it, like solid performances all around and some exciting battles and chases. The troll campfire scene, of all those taken from the book, works quite well thanks to some added comic dialog. Of course, the cinematography is lush and camerawork grand, as anyone who has seen the Lord of the Rings trilogy would expect. Fans of that franchise will also enjoy seeing some old favorite characters pop up here and there.
Perhaps the biggest problem with Tolkien-based movies, or any wizards and dragons fantasy story for that matter, is the use of magic to resolve conflict. It’s the unavoidable, inherent flaw in the genre. That is, if the wizard can perform magic-trick X at the last minute, why doesn’t he just do it right off? So many times in these films, when all hope is lost or when the heroes are trapped in a situation from which they seemingly cannot escape, the writer simply invokes magic. You’re about to be killed by Orcs? No worries. Here comes a wizard who can shoot sonic waves from his magic staff. You’re trapped in a volcanic eruption? No problem. Here comes a giant eagle the wizard summoned to carry you to safety.
Saying I need to suspend my sense of disbelief is a flawed argument. We’re talking about the fundamentals of storytelling. Think of science-fiction for a moment: I can buy that the glass window of Luke Skywalker’s X-wing fighter is strong enough to withstand the vacuum of space, because having such a window on his ship helps move the story forward without impacting events. I also accept that the Enterprise can exceed the speed of light, because that’s how they get to the scene of the action. What I can’t accept is Luke Skywalker finding a magic amulet that makes him impervious to lasers because the writer needs to save him from getting shot. Or that the Enterprise can only travel at 200 mph and is about to be blown up by Klingons, until Captain Kirk throws a magic stone at the floor that somehow makes the ship fly at warp 10. That would be lazy writing.
Gandalf, if you want to impress me with your magic, snap your fingers and make The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey last an hour and forty minutes instead of almost three hours. Or hire an editor.
Eric rates this film: