Blu-Ray/DVD Review: ‘The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey’: Return to Middle Earth

Hobbit DVD Box Art

In J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth fantasies, proportion is everything. A creature as small as a Hobbit, provided he has a big heart and vast reserves of courage, can prevail against enormous odds — and that’s the inspiration of it all.

But in director Peter Jackson’s adaptation of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings prequel, The Hobbit, the proportions feel wrong.

Jackson’s original Rings trilogy is perhaps the greatest fantasy work ever created for the big screen. And its proportions were this: Each lengthy Tolkien novel in the trilogy got one epic-length film.

Tolkien’s The Hobbit is a far shorter book than any of them, yet it’s getting three epic-length films. So the proportions are off. As beautiful as the first film is to behold, it’s stretched out for too long.

On the other hand, Tolkien fans should appreciate anything and everything from Jackson and his stalwart creative teams in New Zealand. They’ve earned that allegiance. And it’s not as if you have to sit through all three films back to back to back.

But even as a single movie, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, new on Blu-Ray and DVD Tuesday from Warner, can be a slow go.

In a way, that’s not for a lack of action, but because of it. Where the Rings trilogy felt right — taking its time with characters and plot development — The Hobbit seems geared toward getting on with the spectacle. One wild action scene follows another in short order, full of harrowing calamities for yet another small band of adventurers on yet another quest involving the older cousin of Frodo (Elijah Wood, who appears briefly), Bilbo Baggins (played in youth by Martin Freeman).

Preposterously escaping from monumental perils, Bilbo and company are led by venerable wizard Gandalf, again played with gruff but grounded valor by Ian McKellen. Also returning are Cate Blanchett as Caladriel, Hugo Weaving as Elrond, Ian Holm as the older Bilbo, Christopher Lee as Saruman and Andy Serkis as Gollum. And speaking of the last, also returning is an extremely fateful ring.

As grand as it is seeing them all again, it reinforces that The Hobbit often feels like LOR revisited, even though its story comes first. But if you’re going to revisit something, revisit the best, right? And besides, like the source novel, The Hobbit on screen is different in tone from LOR, including more lighthearted if not humorous moments.

The Blu-ray and DVD releases both have extra features, which doubtless will be expanded upon in future special editions, as was done with the Rings trilogy. Though there are no deleted scenes, there are elaborate looks at the making of the movie, from the start of production to the premiere in Wellington, capital city of New Zealand.

Don’t get me wrong: I love and respect this material, and Jackson has done his usual masterful job of translating its elaborate elements to the screen. But the film’s disproportionate length still cannot be denied.

Would The Hobbit have made a better stand-alone, single film? We’ll never know. But we do know this: Taken on its own merits, and given the finite amount of Tolkien material for adapting, this is nonetheless wondrous entertainment, with the same visual splendor and much the same superb cast that made Jackson’s Rings trilogy an epic fantasy for the ages.

— Bruce Westbrook

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