Orcs! Battles! Backstory! At nearly three hours, the first installment of Peter Jackson's new Tolkien trilogy has too much of almost everything.
"All good tales deserve embellishment." It's a line spoken by the wizard Gandalf to Bilbo Baggins early in Peter Jackson's adaptation of The Hobbit. But it is also, quite clearly, the operating premise of the director himself.
Tolkien's fable, first published in 1937, carried the alternative title There and Back Again; the first installment of Jackson's expansive retelling might as easily be called Are We There Yet? The answer, incidentally, remains a stubborn no: Though it clocks in at just under three hours, Jackson's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is merely the first passage of a trilogy. Never has it seemed it would take quite so long just to get to the middle of Middle Earth.
The original tale was a slender, simple one. Bilbo (Martin Freeman) leaves the comfort of his hobbit-hole in the sunny Shire to join Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and a baker's dozen of dwarves on a quest to slay a dragon and reclaim its golden hoard. There are adventures along the way, of course—with trolls and goblins and spiders the size of suitcases—but none steer the band of adventurers terribly far from their intended path.
Like the novel, Jackson's film opens tidily in the Shire, where Bilbo's home is casually invaded by the uninvited passel of dwarves, who proceed to demolish his larder. (I could have lived without the frisbeeing of dinnerware, but I suppose the filmmakers had to do something with their CGI budget, and one can blow only so many smoke rings.) Initially reluctant to join Gandalf and the dwarves on their quest, Bilbo is eventually persuaded, going so far as to sign a contract disavowing any liability for "injuries sustained, including but not limited to laceration, evisceration, and incineration." Freeman makes for an amiable if not quite indelible Bilbo; as Gandalf, Ian McKellen is Ian McKellen (as if you'd want him to be anyone else); and the dwarves—well, there are really too many to keep track of clearly: one is fat, one is old, one seems have absconded with Wyatt Earp's moustache, and their leader, Thorin (Richard Armitage) is not much fond of hobbits. So far, so good.
Once the party sets out on their journey, however, Jackson begins piling on layer after layer of extraneous action and incident. It's not enough that our heroes must fight a goiterous Great Goblin and his terrible horde; they must do battle, too, with a brutal orc warlord who bears a longstanding grudge against Thorin. Meanwhile, a mysterious necromancer has taken up residence in an abandoned fortress, and the woods themselves are showing signs of malignant influence. Even the spiders—whom we won't see in earnest until the next film—have been given backstory...
Indeed, it frequently seems as though Jackson was less interested in making The Hobbit than in remaking his own fabulously successful Lord of the Rings series. A meeting with the elf lord Elrond (Hugo Weaving) is expanded to include Rings veterans Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and Saruman (Christopher Lee) in order that all may discuss the dark tidings sweeping the land, including the discovery of an evil relic: a "Morgul-blade" forged for the Witch-King of Angmar. (That's the chief Nazgul to you and me.) When Gandalf explains, "There is something at work beyond the evil of Smaug, something much more powerful," it's hard to shake the suspicion that Jackson is essentially cross-promoting his earlier films. Once again, Gandalf will have a moth deliver a message to the Great Eagles (something he didn't do in any of the Tolkien books), and once again Orcish warg riders will blanket the plains. And while there may be no Balrog this time out, there is an awfully similar climactic confrontation on a narrow subterranean bridge.
It feels like Jackson was less interested in making The Hobbit than in remaking his last series. When Gandalf explains, "There is something at work beyond the evil of Smaug," it's hard not to think Jackson is cross-promoting his earlier films.
The irony of all this recycling is that Tolkien's Lord of the Rings was so rich an epic that Jackson could pick and choose what to keep and what to leave out: no Tom Bombadil, for instance, and no Radagast the Brown. Stretching The Hobbit out to eight or nine or 10 cinematic hours, by contrast, requires not concision but almost constant augmentation. So Radagast, omitted from Jackson's Rings trilogy, is awkwardly given a principal role in his Hobbit. And prepare yourselves: He drives a sleigh pulled by bunnies.
Don't let the bunnies fool you, however. The Hobbit may be a children's book, but this is not a children's movie. Tonally and visually, it is of a piece with Jackson's earlier forays into Tolkieniana, with frequent eruptions of violence and pronouncedly monstrous villains. Though my kids (ages seven and nine) loved the novel when I read it to them this year, it will be some time before they are ready to see the film.
Jackson's movie is not, of course, without its rewards.The expository opening scenes, in which Smaug lays waste to the dwarvish mountain kingdom of Erebor, are intense yet understated, with the monster seen only in fleeting glimpses, like Ishiro Honda's Godzilla. (There's also a neat joke with a dragon kite.) Bilbo's mortal game of riddles with Gollum (Andy Serkis) is nearly worth the price of admission by itself: tense, textured, and devoid of the embellishments that slow down so much of the film. And while I'm agnostic regarding Jackson's innovation of projecting the film at twice the usual frame rate, the New Zealand landscapes to which we became accustomed in the Rings trilogy are as magnificent as ever.
But that, again, is part of the problem. The Lord of the Rings was a fresh and exhilarating movie experience: the CGI breakthroughs, the thoughtful and somber tone, the sheer cinematic scale and gusto. With The Hobbit, Jackson might have taken on a different challenge, telling a story more innocent and intimate, more hobbit-sized. Instead, he's offered up something a bit too indulgent, a bit too familiar, a bit—if I may borrow a phrase—there and back again.