Peter Jackson wasn’t always the reigning king of New Zealand. Before he was influencing legislation and guaranteeing his shaggy visage a spot on the country’s future currency, the director was just a twentysomething Kiwi running around his hometown shooting a goofily gory movie about aliens turning humans into fast food. That film, 1987’s Bad Taste, may seem half a world away from the expensive and well-appointed The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the first leg of Jackson’s three-stop reunion tour of Middle-earth (now out on Blu-ray and DVD). But it’s not just the rolling emerald hills in the background that have stayed the same. Many elements of Jackson’s previous, scrappy self pepper his recent work like the bits of brain he used to spatter on his protagonists.
With Bad Taste and 1992’s Dead Alive, the gonzo zombie romp that put him on the map, Jackson was operating in a genre he practically invented: ”Splatstick” combined over-the-top gore with Looney Tunes-ish kinetic comedy. There may be less red stuff in The Hobbit, but Jackson has kept his affinity for lowbrow bodily functions. The dwarves belch, creatures sneeze great ropes of snot, and Radagast the Brown obliviously sports a matted streak of bird poop down the side of his head. The humor remains too. The scene in which a trio of trolls debate eating Bilbo and his companions is pure high-energy farce, their conversation reminiscent of the equally grotesque and hungry ETs of Bad Taste. There’s also The Hobbit’s goblin scribe, whose scrunched appearance and maniacal laugh are strikingly similar to the zombie baby’s in Dead Alive. Visually, Jackson’s penchant for wide-angle close-ups is as evident as ever, as are his personal cameos. One thing has changed, however: The Hobbit, only one-third of a trilogy, runs over an hour longer than either of his first two films. It seems that only the characters are getting shorter.