Blu-ray Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Extended Edition)

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With The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and the coming second and third parts, director Peter Jackson is attempting to replicate the grandeur of his Lord of the Rings films by stretching a relatively short novel into another trilogy. Many felt Journey was overlong at 168 minutes. Now, in the tradition of the Ring Blu-ray releases, we have an extended Journey (now available from Warner Bros. Home Entertainment) that now runs 182 minutes. The hardest of hardcore fans are likelier to enjoy the additional material more than those who found the whole thing overly indulgent in the first place. The real draw of this new edition is the nine hours (!) of new supplemental material (plus audio commentary).

As beautifully realized as Journey is on a purely visual level, its digital effects are merely varnish on a seriously lacking narrative. I won’t belabor the point, because it’s been said time and again already, but there has been no evidence thus far to support Jackson’s drawing out of The Hobbit. With part two right around the corner, maybe we’ll get something to justify the extreme length. But the three hours of Journey could’ve easily been condensed into the first act of a shorter movie. I don’t think the extra 12 or so minutes in the extended version necessarily makes it any worse. They just don’t make it any better. The Hobbit should’ve been one movie, not a trilogy. The decision to split it up wasn’t done in the name of artistry. When you can gross a billion dollars on three separate movies, why would anyone settle for one?

Hobbit Bilbo with dwarves (380x253).jpgThat said, I quite enjoy the light tone of Journey even if it doesn’t build any real emotional resonance. Martin Freeman was the perfect choice for Bilbo Baggins. He brings such a welcome sense of befuddled, bemused humor that he almost single-handedly distinguishes Journey tonally from its predecessors. I say almost because the team of dwarves that Bilbo travels with walks a fine line between humor and childish silliness. Ian McKellen, returning as Gandalf the wizard, serves as the primary bridge to Jackson’s previous Tolkien adaptations. He continues to bring suitable gravitas to the role and his chemistry with Freeman is as winning as it was with Elijah Wood.

As for what has been added, we do get a few nice moments involving Bilbo and Gandalf. The first occurs early, with the initial encounter between the wizard and the young hobbit. There’s a bit later on with Bilbo feeling the presence of magic as the journey trudges forward. There are extra musical bits, fun for anyone who enjoyed the song that the dwarves teased Bilbo with as they raided his kitchen. Bofur (James Nesbitt) leads his fellow dwarves in a tune shortly after the group first encounters Elrond (Hugo Weaving). And the Great Goblin (Barry Humphries) has an interlude after he’s first introduced. Speaking of the Great Goblin, there’s a nice addition involving Bofur and Óin (James Callen) near the end. The extra scenes average about one minute each. While there isn’t anything new featuring Gollum (Andy Serkis, awesome as always) there is a neat foreshadowing extension in which Saruman (Christopher Lee) speaks of the One Ring.

Hobbit Gollum (380x232).jpgEach of the Rings films was based on a separate volume, and each of those volumes had its own structure and dramatic arc. It was completely natural to adapt it for the screen as a trilogy. That’s just not the case with The Hobbit, no matter how many individual scenes provoke a sense of awe and wonder. The early fire-breathing attack by Smaug is a brilliant tease of things to come. The battle with the stone giants gets the pulse rate up, to be sure. But as skillfully crafted as these segments are, Journey suffers from a lack of building, suspenseful momentum. In their commentary, Jackson and co-writer Philippa Boyens discuss the similarities between the slow-moving, journey-by-foot story found in both Rings and The Hobbit. An Unexpected Journey is a film without a satisfying arc and an even less satisfying ending.

The new material blends absolutely seamlessly with the original cut. It all looks glisteningly perfect on Warner’s Blu-ray (housed in a black case, which itself is housed in an attractive outer box instead of a slipcase). While the clarity inherent in the presentation exposes the sometimes cartoonish quality of much of the CGI (the wargs, for instance), the technical specs here are impeccable. The entire film is contained on disc one of the set. The DTS-HD MA 7.1 mix is exciting, active, and entirely pleasing. Without the theatrical Blu-ray to compare to, I can’t comment on variations. But this is as sterling as the Rings mixes were. Howard Shore’s majestic score really soars and the rear channels put in overtime to create a fully immersive sonic experience.

Hobbit Gandalf (380x254).jpgThe aforementioned commentary track offers a pleasant, conversational chat between Jackson and Boyens. They talk at length about the differences between this and the original version, Christopher Lee’s inability to travel at his advanced age, the casting choices—it’s a comprehensive discussion. The only extra repeated from the original Blu-ray release is the featurette “New Zealand: Home to Middle-Earth.” That leaves two jam-packed BDs full of all-new supplemental material for fans to absorb. Continuing the series of “Appendices” from the Rings Blu-rays, disc two holds “The Appendices Part 7: The Long-Expected Journey” (which totals 4.5 hours) and disc three holds “The Appendices Part 8: Return to Middle-Earth” (another 4.75 hours).

Hobbit Peter Jackson (380x253).jpgPeter Jackson offers up a brief introduction to the Appendices and it’s away we go. There’s a simple menu allowing us to choose from any of the vast array of topics are a handy “play all” option. As with the similar presentations on the Rings releases, this material is compelling and comprehensive. From a vintage 1999 meeting with Jackson declaring that after the Rings trilogy he’ll be done with complicated, multi-part films, we are walked through conception, pre-production, rehearsals, and just about every conceivable aspect of the film’s creation. The third disc is equally absorbing, with a shorter list of featurettes due to each piece generally running longer (four of them are right around the one hour mark). Much of “Return to Middle-Earth” is given over to the development of the dwarves. Martin Freeman fans will love the great interview “Mr. Baggins: The 14th Member.”

(To watch more excerpts of the Appendices, visit Warner Bros. official The Hobbit YouTube playlist.)

While the three parts of Lord of the Rings really earned their designation as epics, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey feels at times like a faux epic. Puffing up a 300-page novel into three lengthy films is a cash-grab if there ever was one. There are pleasures to be had in this first installment, but I’m hoping The Desolation of Smaug ups the ante for excitement rather than continues to mark time the way Journey does in its slower stretches.

Please note, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Extended Edition) is also available as a Blu-ray 3D edition. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug hits theaters December 13, 2013, for more information visit the official site.

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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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