Movie review: The Hobbit. An unexpected Journey

Before we begin, let’s get the required disclaimer out of the way. This is a review of the movie “The Hobbit. An Unexpected Journey.” And if you haven’t seen it yet and somehow managed to not know the details of a movie based on a book originally published in 1937 which has sold as many as 100 million copies, you should be forewarned that spoilers may be involved.

I’ll start off by saying that I have been a life-long fan of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and have read both more times since the 1970’s than I can remember. I also fell in love with the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy, bought the full extended set on DVD and have watched them numerous times. I’m not sure if that makes me better suited to review this movie or worse.

With all that stated, I braved the crowds at the theater this week and settled back to take in the spectacle. I came away with what can only be described as mixed emotions. As with the previous outings from Wingnut Productions in this genre, it was a spectacular epic of technical achievement. There were sweeping landscapes, wonderful scenery, great music and special effects to take your breath away. It also included many – perhaps too many – characters familiar to fans of the previous trilogy, along with the essential crux of the original story from The Hobbit. Further, many back story tidbits from Middle Earth concerning the early days of the Dwarves of Lonely Mountain were highlighted in dramatic fashion. Costumes, dialogue… there was a lot of good stuff here.

And yet, I came away with a number of nagging problems concerning this release. I feel rather bad saying this, having been such a stalwart defender of the LoTR trilogy, but this was disappointing on a number of levels. First of all, while many hard-core fans of LoTR complained that there were too many details left out of the film, The Hobbit adds in a great deal which simply weren’t in the the original book. (And it’s a book which is hardly longer than a short story, now being stretched into three epic length films.) I have no doubt that each and every one of them has some germ of basis in various footnotes or tales from the Silmarillion, but there were just too many side stories and amplifications which didn’t fit with the original book. (I’ll spare you the details in case you haven’t seen it yet.)

As to the facets of the book which were in there, a number of them were substantially re-written. The finding of the ring and how it was lost by Gollum is completely changed. The Riddle Game is abbreviated and made somewhat cheap. The prominence of the Goblins hunting the Dwarves before they’ve even left the Shire warps the original story. The encounter of the band of travellers with the mountain trolls and Gandalf’s role in it shifts a great deal from the story. The portrayal of the inherently flawed, yet noble nature of the Dwarves is spun to make them look like greedy, vacuous prima donnas. The list goes on.

But even beyond all that, there were problems with the tone of the film. One colleague of mine described it as “cartoonish” in spots which were totally inappropriate, and I had to agree that this was the best word for it. Several scenes from the battle with the Goblin King under the mountain – such as the collapse of the bridge – seemed more in line with a Roadrunner and Coyote clip than the dark, suspenseful journey from the book. The response of the Goblin King to Gandalf during their final encounter – which I shall not spoil here for those who haven’t seen it – was more fitting to Animaniacs than Tolkien. It was just… off.

There’s a longer laundry list I could continue with, including the physical depiction of the dwarves and their accents, but I’ll leave it at that. On the positive side, some children of friends who saw it with us loved it. But they also had never read the books and enjoyed more fluffy entertainment. If you’re not wedded to the original books and don’t have any preconceptions about the story, this could still be a very enjoyable, big budget outing for any family. As for me… I was disappointed in it. Particularly in Radagast and the bunny sled of doom. But that’s giving too much away.