Spoiler Alert: If you still haven’t found any time in the past 75 years to read J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, this review may contain spoilers. And wizards.
“What is he doing? The Hobbit isn’t a beer! I can tell, based on a small sample of his work, that this guy probably definitely doesn’t know anything about movies. Who is he to say if a collection of scenes with characters and action cobbled together is good or not? Clearly, he’s super-unqualified to write a movie review, and we shouldn’t listen to anything he says in principle alone.”
This is all true. I am not (and only very rarely, after many beers, claim to be) a film critic. I only go to the movies a few times a year, and the majority of my time spent appreciating cinema involves re-watching Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom for the 28th time (I’ve been keeping track).
But I am a huge Tolkien fan. I’ve read and analyzed The Hobbit/There and Back Again at least four times and the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy at least three times. I’ve powered through The Silmarillion in my quest to absorb the history of Middle Earth, and may or may not have a strange infatuation with wizards that permeates every mystical pore of my life (yes, I have a wizard on my desk at work, and yes I have two staves, both of which are imbued with the magical essence of awesomeness).
My wife and I are known to regularly watch the original Peter Jackson trilogy as the darker days of winter encroach on our social lives; retreating into the depths of Moria to seek the warmth of the Balrog’s fire. We often quote Tolkien in an attempt to look nerdy and cool. Hell, even our wedding reception was inspired by Bilbo’s eleventy-first birthday party!
I’ve got some authority here, if only the kind garnered from being a devoted, studious fan.
I had been looking forward to The Hobbit since it was originally attached to Guillermo del Toro and was elated when I heard Peter Jackson would be back at the helm. Jackson meant more McKellen, who begat more Wood, who begat more Blanchett and more Weaving.
I had very high hopes.
And those hopes were met.
Casting – A wizard, a hobbit, 12 dwarves, and a whole mess of goblins
Martin Freeman might be the single best casting choice in the history of film. Seriously. He has the perfect mannerisms to capture the accidental hero inside Bilbo: engaging reactionary facial expressions, awkward and unsure body language, humorous quips, and perfectly timed vocal responses. He may have ruined himself for other movies now because he was such a convincing hobbit. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to picture him in any other role.
Sir Ian McKellen (a personal hero of mine, second only to Patrick Stewart) was back in usual form, spouting wisdom and being more of the bumbling “grey” version of Mithrandir that is representative of his role in the original book. His performance seemed a bit rusty for the first ten minutes (while the opening exchange with Bilbo was funny, McKellen seemed to be getting used to wearing his beard again), but by the time the dwarven group was assembled, my favorite wizard had been reborn on screen. I squealed like a school boy when he unsheathed Glamdring in the troll hoard, because I’m the kind of person who gets excited over swords that have official names.
Richard Armitage completed the trio of protagonists, and was a compelling (if slightly less hairy than expected) vision of Thorin Oakenshield. He seemed more brooding and pensive than the bull-headed and arrogant Thorin of the novel, but it worked well with Armitage’s embodiment of the nomadic, homeless Prince.
The rest of the cast was lovable enough, but some of the dwarven makeup seemed to be intentionally overdone as a means to tell them apart form each other, and did very little to develop their individual characters. Voice actor Barry Humphries did an admirable job as the Great Goblin, but was a bit too articulate and well-spoken for a giant, cave-dwelling monstrosity with a ballsack for a neck. Andy Serkis, as usual, makes my heart cry out for (and cringe in reaction to) a hilariously schizophrenic, young Gollum.
Visuals – 48 vs 24 and Star Wars Syndrome
There was debate over Jackson’s decision to film in 48 frames per second versus the traditional 24. For those who don’t get a warm rush of serotonin from reading about technical specs, 48 frames produces a more realistic image, as it effectively captures twice the detail per each second recorded (see here for a visual example). But making things more realistic (especially scenes in a high fantasy movie) isn’t always an amazing idea. Movies retain a certain level of whimsy and escapism because they actively don’t seem real, something that could be lost with a more true-to-what-I-see-all-boring-day style of filming.
But, as I didn’t bother with the extra expense of the 3D version (another rant for another time), I barely even noticed the shift in frame rate. The only times it snarled it’s hyper-realistic warg-teeth was during large sweeping fly-over shots. The usual blur of the background came off too crisp, like I was watching the actors run around form inside a helicopter, not form behind the comfort of the proverbial fourth wall.
My biggest fault in the visuals of the movie were the overcooked action scenes. Jackson had nearly 10 years of technological advancement to try out in his prequel, which he did without reservation.
I call this “Star Wars Syndrome.” George Lucas dramatically altered his own vision of medieval swordplay light saber duels with acrobatics and Wushu as soon as he had the technology to do it. Compare Luke and Vader’s final battle to Obi Wan and Anakin’s lava-duel. You wouldn’t even imagine the same director and artistic mind came up with both of those fight scenes if viewed independently.
Jackson, unfortunately, seemed to contract a case of SWS. Long gone are the intense, one-versus-many steel on steel combat scenes of the original trilogy. The clean, believable sword play of Aragorn is replaced by frenetic pile-on scenes, where the dwarves seem capable of super-human (super-dwarven?) abilities, and able to escape pretty much any situation unscathed. All of the fight scenes in The Hobbit feel over-designed, preferring silly, choreographed tumbling and striking over impressive displays of heroic badassery. I almost found myself waiting for the fight scenes to end, which is a discredit to the franchise, and oddly out of sync with my normal enjoyment of a film like this.
I think this is a great example of where technology loses to good old fashioned training. Armitage and his dwarven buddies would have been much more believable in a fight if they’d actually been swinging their swords and axes, not relying on a computer to magically do it for them. I kept thinking that someone in the production staff had made the executive decision that the Legolas “use-a-shield-as-a-sled” scene was the greatest thing ever, and made it the model for all of the fight scenes in The Hobbit.
This was still a beautiful movie. A lot of time was invested into the makeup and design of the sets, and the closing scene of Smaug’s eye opening looked incredibly authentic. Orcrist, Glamdring, and Sting were captured beautifully, and Rivendell was gorgeous, as if that is a surprise. Hindsight is always favorable and I’ve grown mighty fond of the original LOTR trilogy, so perhaps my opinion of the action is too tainted by nostalgia.
Length – Three instead of One?
The Hobbit is only ~300 pages (depending on the copy you’re reading). Splitting the original content into three, three hours movies seems a little bit excessive. As reluctant as I am to advocate for less Tolkien, critics have a point. There seemed to be a lot of scenes that were added just for the sake of padding the main plot points of the original novel so that it could span three full length movies. Jackson decided to turn a one-sentence reference to Radagast the Brown into a full character arc, including some silliness with a sled pulled by rabbits and some bird poop in wizard hair.
My theory is that Jackson realized this was his last chance to sink his dragon fangs into the Tolkien intellectual property. Once this series is over, it is unlikely we’ll see another LOTR or Hobbit reboot in our life time, making this second trilogy the final culmination of Tolkienage in video form.
Does that forgive some of the bloat?
Yes and no. I could have done without some of the 20 second long sweep shots of dwarves running across the same-old landscape and Jackson certainly enhanced certain scenes to make them more important than the original events of the book. I still didn’t find the movie too bloated, and the clever dialogue and placement of new (previously absent action) made 2.5 hours fly by. I never wanted things to move any more quickly, but I also have a full-blow case of Tolkienitus.
Those who are not as enamored with him as an author (or with the lore of Middle Earth) might find a bit of tedium in the less engaging sections of the movie. To those people I say: Hang in there. The best action of the Hobbit comes in right around the group’s arrival at Laketown (which I’m thinking will happen at the tail end of the second movie).
Overall – Firsts are tough; see Sorcerer’s Stone, A New Hope, and Fellowship of the Ring
I can’t lie, I totally loved this movie. It brought back all of the giddy memories of standing in line waiting for the midnight opening of Two Towers and Return of the King. It blew on the embers of my dwindling interest in swords and sorcery fantasy, stoking the fire of imagination. I now wait very impatiently for the mass market paperback of A Dance with Dragons to come out to feed my burning desire for more and more fantastic stories.
I’m particularly glad that Jackson understood the tone of the book and directly applied it to the film. The Hobbit is considerably less serious than the LOTR trilogy, and would have felt awkward and heavy had the producers and cast forced the same dour, fatalistic overtones of near hopelessness.
If you’re a Tolkien fan, I don’t need to tell you to go see if, because you probably already have.
If you’re a fantasy fan, go see this movie, if only for a great representation of a very influential book and author.
If you’re not a fantasy fan, you should still go see this movie, because it is actually pretty funny, and very well executed once your eyes adjust to the 48 FPS.
9.5 out of 10.