Any time that you need a flowchart to tell your main characters apart, you’re in trouble. To be fair, we don’t envy Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens the task of trying to differentiate 13 dwarves who look very similar in their adaptation, with only an ax in the head or a pastry-shaped beard to tell them apart . However, we’d have a bit more sympathy if they’d made an effort to characterize the dwarves beyond the mean one (Thorin, Richard Armitage), the old one (Balin, Ken Stott) and the hot ones (Fili & Kili, Dean O’Gorman and Aidan Turner) in a script that has so many diversions, we stopped counting. We imagine they’ll put the characters – and some of the UK’s most talented character actors including Stott and James Nesbitt – to better use in the latter films, but despite some good performances, they’re wasted here.
In both its source material and the finished film, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” is a notably lighter trip than Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” films, whose strongest moments were epic fights like Helm’s Deep. So it’s surprising that some of the weakest scenes in the film were its battles, particularly the initial appearance of the pale orc Azog the Descrator and the final fight between the orcs and the dwarves. In the past, Jackson has struck a fine balance between expansive battles with thousands on each side, individual feats of bravery and moments worthy of his splatstick past, but he doesn’t achieve any of that here. The last battle between Azog’s orc and Gandalf, Bilbo and the dwarves is especially bad. When Thorin attempts to make a valiant last stand against his mortal enemy, we would have expected our hearts to soar with the crescendoing score as he charges. Instead, the moment just made us want to laugh harder than we had with the intentional moments of comedy.
Look, if things were reversed, and Jackson had made “The Hobbit” back in 2001, maybe we wouldn’t have said this. But compared to the incredibly high, fate-of-the-world stakes of “Lord of the Rings,” “The Hobbit” feels like a lark; an extended stag weekend to reclaim the dwarves' home from a squatter (Jackson at least tries to give added weight, but it's a bit half-hearted until Bilbo's final moment). It does try to bring in hints of Sauron's upcoming return, mainly through the Radagast the Brown-related scenes, but they feel so shoehorned in, and of relatively little effect (shortened version; something bad might be coming) that one can't help but wish that Jackson had just trimmed it altogether for something closer to a two-hour run time. It doesn't help that it's much less propulsive than the earlier films; in part because you know it's going to take nine hours to get to the bloody end, and in part because it's so episodic, structurally speaking. The dwarves fight rock monsters, then goblins, then orcs, etc. Now, much of this is down to the source material, which is far thinner than "Lord of the Rings," but Jackson has only himself to blame for taking that material and dragging it over this kind of running time. It's the kind of indulgence that led to a 180-minute "King Kong," and the result is the most expensive fan service movie ever made; Tolkien fans might care about appendices about necromancers, but there's a reason they were in the appendix to begin with.
Obviously "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" was going to have a close connection to Jackson's previous films, but we weren't expecting the director to follow his own template quite so closely. Running at almost the exact same running time as the first LOTR picture, "The Fellowship of the Ring," it sometimes feels as if Jackson and co-writers Del Toro, Fran Walsh and Philppa Boyens simply used a find and replace, using the structure of that first film to set a precedent for the opening of this new trilogy. Lengthy prologue to set up a villain we won't meet for several movies? Check. 20 minutes in Hobbiton? Check. Early confrontation with some bad guys? Check. Appearance by a wrath-king? Check. An arrival at elf home Rivendell? Check (and at virtually the same point in the film as in 'Fellowship'). Extended underground action sequence? Check. Final confrontation with a sub-villain? Check. Project the films side by side, and we'd wager you'd really spot how Jackson & co hit the same beats, at about the same time. We get the merits of 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it,' and all, but we wish Jackson had departed from his own formula a little more.