(yeah, lame title, I know)
When I rewatched Peter Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Rings some time ago, one of the things which struck me was how quickly to the point of almost feeling rushed the movie was, in spite of running on for three hours. Obviously that was due to having to condense so much of material. But in spite of that, Fellowship does a good job of immersing you into Jackson’s Middle-Earth (a different beast than Tolkien’s one).
Unexpected Journey is almost the opposite: by taking a short adventure story and puffing it up into three movies, the first installment certainly takes its time (I was getting a little bit fidgety when Bilbo & co. arrived at Rivendell), and never quite managed to pull me into its world. The prologue showing the destruction of Erebor was cool, but didn’t manage to have the same effect that Fellowship’s did. Part of this is due to the difference in subject: Smaug and the Dwarves just don’t have the same sort of mythical import that Sauron and his ring has. So part of the problem is that what works for LOTR doesn’t always work for the Hobbit.
What would have been potentially more interesting would have been to come up with an entirely new prequel to LOTR, just keeping the continuity in check (Bilbo finds the Ring, Dragon etc.). That would allow for “more LOTR” without the awkwardness of trying to make the Hobbit what it isn’t. When it comes to adaptations I’m not really a purist at all; the problem that I have with Journey is that it tries to be faithful both to Jackson’s LOTR and The Hobbit and it winds up feeling a bit disjointed. The adventure feels small, but not in a good way: it feels small because it always feels like a sideshow for the Real Adventure, which has already been covered.
Aside from that, the other thing which really irked me has already been commented on by others: having Bilbo impress the Dwarves by kicking ass and taking names kind of undercuts the point of his -and all the other – Hobbit characters. Namely that there are more kinds of heroism than just being a badass warrior, and the importance of just being a decent human being – “simple acts of kindness and love” as Gandalf says in the film (and, given Tolkien’s Catholicism, the notion of the weak and humble becoming instruments of God’s grace) .
Having said all that, I don’t want to give the impression that I didn’t enjoy the film. It’s chock full of stuff which made my inner 13-year-old gleeful, and spending more time with Ian McKellan’s Gandalf, Andy Serkin’s Gollum, etc. is always welcome. Martin Freeman’s Bilbo is charming and makes a convincing everyman. Jackson still has a better grasp of verisimilitude than George Lucas does (even if the sped up frame rate sometimes pushes things into the uncanny valley). This is all still leagues above what is otherwise a wasteland of a movie genre.
But still: did Radagast have to be a stoner hippie with bird poo in his hair?