The decision to split J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit into two motion pictures was met with enough scorn and internet criticism, but the news that it was going to be a trilogy provoked outright anger on internet message boards. The Hobbit is a short book, and many see the trilogy approach as nothing but an attempt to maximise box office potential, not to mention the chance for Peter Jackson to indulge in his trademark bloat.
It’s not the first time Peter Jackson’s work has been accused of being bloated. In 2005, his King Kong remake clocked in at three hours, with an extended cut running even longer. The extended edition DVD even came with an extra half an hour of deleted scenes. Is the story of King Kong really worth four hours?
In my opinion, Peter Jackson’s work should be judged on a case-by-case basis. I love the original three-hour cut of King Kong as it facilitated rich character development, but the extended cut is inferior, as it’s mostly superfluous extra action beats.
But I’m a tremendous Hobbit apologist. It remains to be seen how well the story sustains itself across The Desolation of Smaug and There and Back Again, but An Unexpected Journey was a pure delight.
Here’s the thing: The Hobbit is a kid’s book. It’s a short & sweet novel meant to be read to children at bedtime. A rote adaptation would be entertaining, but it would yield just another fun but insignificant blockbuster. Tolkien realised that he had created a rich universe, and proceeded to write The Lord of the Rings in order to tell a much darker, more complicated, more thematically dense adult story within this universe.
Since Jackson adapted The Lord of the Rings first, there’s a certain level of anticipation now. Following it with a one-movie prequel would just not be good enough. Jackson and co. realised this, hence the trilogy approach gives them the opportunity to mine extra character depth from the story and explore the origins of Sauron’s return, making it a true prequel trilogy. Besides, a Hobbit trilogy feels more in keeping with the Lord of the Rings trilogy. It’s not like the Star Wars franchise just got one prequel. It’s tidy continuity, and although it sucks that we have to wait 12 months between each instalments, it’s exciting to live through another multiple-year saga of Middle-Earth adventures.
Although some have claimed that An Unexpected Journey was bloated and overlong, it really isn’t for the most part. The oft-criticised stuff in the Shire is an ideal length, as there are 12 dwarves for us to acquaint ourselves with. We’re not supposed to know them all name-by-name, but that’s a gag in itself straight from the book, which is why they all have ridiculous names. What matters is that we can recognise one dwarf from the other, and the extensive time at Bilbo’s place achieves this. They all have distinctive designs and personality traits, perfectly established in the meeting scene.
Likewise, a lot of stuff happens on the road, but there’s a lot of great character dynamics at play here. The heart of the movie is Bilbo becoming comfortable with being away from home, and finding his place amongst the dwarves. This arc would feel completely unearned if it took less time, hence the breathing room is definitely appreciated, and makes the production feel more “epic.” You get to the end of the movie knowing you’ve experienced something long, but it feels gratifying.
This is not to say that An Unexpected Journey is perfect, however, as there are some scenes that are a bit unnecessary. The extended material in present-day with elderly Bilbo and Frodo goes on for too long, working too hard to tie itself into the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring. A lot of this stuff should have probably been excised for the theatrical cut, saved for the extended edition. Likewise, there’s a scene with battling rock giants that feels more like an extended edition scene.
But here’s the thing: even if there is bloat in some scenes, and in the ridiculously over-the-top action sequences, Jackson’s deft touch makes it fun and palatable. Whereas Michael Bay’s Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen was padded out with witless idiocy, An Unexpected Journey is flat-out fun all the way through. I never got to the stage where I was looking at my watch or wishing for it to end – on the contrary, I was enjoying the colourful action and dynamic interactions too much to notice how much time was really passing.
It all comes down to personal preference, of course, but I had great fun with An Unexpected Journey, and I’m expecting the next two instalments to be just as entertaining.