THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY Extended Edition Blu-ray Review

     November 3, 2013

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Since its release, the one criticism leveled most consistently against The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was its length. Eager to fill the giant void in their profit margins left by the departure of Harry Potter, Warner Bros leveraged a three-film cycle out of Peter Jackson, stretching J.R.R. Tolkien’s comparatively slim novel far past its breaking point. The result was a pretty good film in a lot of ways, but one whose flabby center and general overindulgence prevented it from joining the pantheon of greats occupied by The Lord of the Rings.  As you may have gathered, adding another fifteen minute doesn’t exactly improve matters. Hit the jump for my full review of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey Extended Edition Blu-ray.

the-hobbit-an-unexpected-journey-martin-freemanAn Unexpected Journey covers only the first six chapters of The Hobbit, an impossibly small amount of time for such a large film. Director Peter Jackson and his colleagues filled it by pulling huge amounts of backstory from Tolkien’s archives, as well as expanding the danger represented by the mysterious Necromancer (a subplot only hinted at in the book and basically used to get the wizard Gandalf out of the way). It works largely because the story remains so charming and Jackson knows it so well.

He got a lot of help from cast members both old and new, topped by Martin Freeman’s pitch-perfect rendition of the put-upon hobbit, Bilbo Baggins. Chosen by Gandalf (Ian McKellan) as the “lucky number” addition to a company of thirteen, he journeys towards the Lonely Mountain to help the dwarf Thorin (Richard Armitage) reclaim his ancestral homeland from a dragon that has taken up residence. Along the way, he learns the nature of fear and courage, as well as picking up a few baubles that Lord of the Rings fans should find familiar.

If nothing else, The Hobbit makes a welcome return to this world, giving us a chance to explore more corners and delve into its elaborate history more readily. That actually helps it work better on Blu-ray than it did in the theaters, since Blu-rays allow you to soak in the details at leisure.  (It’s worth noting that people who haven’t read the book before seeing the movie tend to like the movie more than those of us with preexisting expectations.) On the other hand… yeah, there’s a whole lot of it, and though Tolkien has more than enough details in his universe to fill up the time, it does feel like filler far more than compelling narrative.

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The new Extended Edition, unfortunately, adds to that problem considerably. It’s not that the new material is bad; it just feels supremely unnecessary, and while melded rather seamlessly into the whole, it elicits more shrugs than excitement. We have a few new songs pulled from Tolkien (including one rather funny one from Dame Edna’s Goblin King), some expansion of the prologue, a couple of additional scenes in Rivendell… all of which are fun but none of which do anything to make the story more compelling.

And in this case, it feels more like double-dipping than the Extended Editions of The Lord of the Rings did. Those films had to cut the story to a minimum to make it fit in the allotted theatrical time, making the new material a case of appreciated breathing room rather than egregious padding. While the extended versions of The Lord of the Rings feel even better than the theatrical runs, this one feels a bit worse, and I suspect I know which version will see more play in the future.

None of this should diminish The Hobbit’s very real strengths, which only a few other movies in history can match. Tolkien’s vision is undiminished, and Jackson’s efforts here feel no less reverential than they did a decade ago with The Lord of the Rings. We evaluate it against the very highest standards, and though it’s found wanting on that level, that’s still a long way from being anything but terrific entertainment. The new version proves only that you can have too much of a good thing, and that double-dipping isn’t always necessary if the new version doesn’t bring anything extra.

the-hobbit-an-unexpected-journey-extended-edition-statueHaving said that, the set’s extra features are quite impressive, to the point of being worth a purchase all on their own. The format continues the “Appendices” set-up used in The Lord of the Rings, greatly expanding upon the rather meager offerings in the previous Blu-ray of The Hobbit. Nine-plus hours of terrific behind-the-scenes features cover every conceivable form of production and development: a discussion of the lands and peoples of Middle Earth a breakdown of dwarf genealogy, a look at Bilbo as a character, and over five hours of details related to the production itself.  An audio commentary from Jackson and co-screenwriter Philippa Boyens closes out the set, featuring expected insights and observations on the process of bringing the film to screen.

In light of that, the movie itself feels like more of an afterthought than a selling point: unnecessary though not entirely unwelcome. The extra features are strong enough to stand on their own, and concerns about paying for the same movie twice will fade when you see what the set as a whole holds.  Warners has a habit to see as many different versions of these films as they can. In this case, at least, the total package exceeds the meager offerings of the new footage alone, raising The Hobbit Extended Edition to the status of a must-buy. With The Desolation of Smaug looking to up the game a bit, it’s worth returning to this world for another curtain call, despite the mild disappointments involved.

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