Radagast the Brown Does Not Allow Birds to Shit on His Head, or “What Dale thought of the first Hobbit movie”

As a matter of fact, nobody ever shits in Middle-earth. Ever. This also applies to an offhand complaint from Bilbo about something the Dwarves did to the plumbing in Bag End. If you want a fantasy story about people tending to their various bodily functions, go read A Game of Thrones.

Many reviewers have decided The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is long and repetitive, bloated by Peter Jackson’s attention to detail and his insistence on three films featuring additional material from the Appendices to The Lord of the Rings. The cleverest comment from the critics comes from Rob Humanick at The Projection Booth: “Butter scraped over too much bread, Bilbo might say.”

All of these observations are true. But I don’t think all of them need be criticisms. I probably shouldn’t comment on The Hobbit‘s running time, given I would have gladly drooled over a six-film series of LotR (one for each “book” in the novel) and would gladly do the same for movie versions of… yup, anything else Tolkien wrote that hasn’t been filmed yet.

But a complaint that the film is repetitive implies a poor familiarity with both the novel and the medieval genre upon which it’s based. Excepting PJ’s additional material (some of which is pure invention), Unexpected Journey more or less exactly follows the first 100 pages of Tolkien’s novel, which is indeed a children’s story but also a romance. And not like Danielle Steele, but Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Romance as in a swashbuckling tale in which the hero embarks on a quest, takes part in adventures and divergences of varying dangers, and encounters other fascinating denizens of the world, both good and evil.

In that sense, Unexpected Journey is precisely what it should be. Once it gets going — which admittedly takes a good while — Thorin and Company get themselves into nothing but fires and frying pans, often literally. And said Company is made up of quite likeable fellows, who are alternately somber or merry, feisty or funny. The background on the Lonely Mountain, the Line of Durin and their misfortunes is all spectacular (though the fleeting shots of Smaug are clearly meant to tease), and it’s all mostly accurate with one big exception.

Which is where I begin to list my complaints. Azog? And he’s got a hook? (Linz thought it looked more like a rake.) Really? I don’t feel like this movie needed a Lurtz, and especially not Lurtz with a hike in his pay-grade, who has lines in some mystery language — the legitimacy of which I cannot comment on at this time. Except that is to say: PJ and Co. almost certainly made up words in Tolkien’s fictional world, and I really haven’t decided how I feel about that. Non-canonical Uruk-hai I don’t necessarily have a problem with as long as they’re minor, but making up words in Middle-earth? If there was ever a case for Tolkien blasphemy…

Azog is the lesser of two evils, though. Peter Jackson seems to have read some dialogue from the traitorous Saruman (“Radagast the Bird-tamer! Radagast the Simple! Radagast the Fool!”) and taken it as literal truth. The Brown Wizard bumbles about in his forest totally perplexed as to why beasts of all kinds are dropping dead before his eyes, and then is nearly eaten by giant spiders before he figures out, “Ohh… but it is magic… a black magic!” In a later scene he totters into Dol Guldur and jostles loose the Witch-king, who had apparently been napping inside a statue (lolwut?) and we get a sneak peek at the Necromancer. The whole sequence feels rushed, anti-climactic, and untrue to Tolkien’s customary description of an encounter between such powerful representatives of good and evil. One does not simply pop in on the Lord of Mordor — and in any case Sauron would certainly not reveal himself so brazenly to someone so powerful as Radagast. And didn’t PJ’s own Fellowship of the Ring movie claim that Sauron “cannot yet take physical form”? Yet there he is, flashing the poor Brown Wizard from the front stoop of Dol Guldur.

Two final gripes: the “White Council” scene not only felt wooden, but it suggests factions within the Council that just don’t make any sense, and indeed conflict with everything Tolkien wrote about the group. Specifically, why would Elrond seem to ally himself with Saruman rather than Gandalf and Galadriel, with whom he shares far more of his (ahem) counsels? Further, they hold the Three Rings of the Elves, which would naturally bind them closer together rather than fracture their loyalties. All this is to say: the conflict seemed contrived for the movie’s sake, but it’s important that we remember Gandalf, Elrond and Galadriel were all united in their belief that something should be done about the Necromancer of Dol Guldur, whereas Saruman was the only one arguing against them — and for very sinister reasons, as we learn in The Fellowship.

And last but not least, the rabbit-sleigh was embarrassing. I can’t help but be reminded of one of the most infamous exchanges in modern cinema, pertaining to the airspeed velocity of unladen swallows and the question of weight ratios.

Back to the good stuff. Martin Freeman as Bilbo was delightful — stodgy or comical as required, and definitely the character to whom the audience could most easily relate. His scenes with Andy Serkis approached perfection — high praise given that they’re arguably the most significant few moments in the entire story. He and Serkis provide a charming relief from the main storyline, which by this point has become a (mostly fun, but somewhat long) string of action sequences. Really the highest praise I can offer is this: at some point during the riddle game I realized I was leaning forward in my seat, hands gripping the chair, grinning ear to ear. Any movie that can make a grown-up feel like a little kid again is a good movie, and I’m quite sure Tolkien would agree.

And as long as I’m gushing over Bilbo and Gollum… there is a moment in The Fellowship of the Ring film in which Gandalf shares a very important bit of his legendary foresight:

One of the most disappointing scenes in The Return of the King is Peter Jackson’s handling of the destruction of the Ring. When Frodo goes back for Round 2 of struggling with Gollum over the “Precious,” eventually knocking himself and Gollum over the edge, he robs the scene of its most significant moment: in the novel, Gollum unintentionally steps too far and topples into the Crack of Doom. This is the Fate with a capital-F of which Gandalf spoke — the fleeting but sincere Pity Bilbo feels for Gollum leads to the salvation of Middle-earth over 60 years later.

Thankfully, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey captures that moment between Bilbo and Gollum perfectly. No dialogue, minimal soundtrack — just a few close-ups of some really beautiful, nuanced acting from Freeman and Serkis.

I could still go on for a while yet. The action scenes were a bit tiring at times, but they were fun nonetheless. PJ has done a lovely job balancing some of Tolkien’s more complex, adult themes with the child-like wonder we should always find in Middle-earth. I expected to hate the Great Goblin no matter how they interpreted him, but he was an even blend of the novel’s most common flavors: whimsical, wicked, and just a bit scary. I do miss the real people in real costumes as opposed to an entire race of digital lemmings, but it does tone down the fright-factor on the orcs and goblins, which seems fair for a story intended for children anyway.

Bottom line: I had a lot of fun watching this movie, even if I was having to shush my inner Tolkien-fanatic from time to time, and I cannot wait for The Desolation of Smaug (12/13/13) and There and Back Again (7/18/14). Everything that happens in Mirkwood should be a blast to see on the big screen, and if I know PJ, there will most likely be a big ol’ showdown between the White Council and the Necromancer, too. He might muck it up — but then again he might blow us away, too.

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