Guest Movie Review: The Hobbit
When you have committed yourself to seeing a film knowing that it has a running time of 169 minutes, a film for which you have been patiently waiting almost a decade, the first thing that pops into your mind when the final credits role shouldn’t be: “Boy, that was long.” Yet at the end of Peter Jackson’s epic prequel The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, I was hard-pressed to think anything else. Certainly, I had enjoyed myself in seeing one of my favorite childhood novels recreated as a major motion picture, but that’s nevertheless how I felt first: long.
After Jackson’s success – both critical and commercial – in translating J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series to the big screen, talk immediately started about giving the same treatment to Tolkien’s 1937 bestseller The Hobbit. But despite the fact that everybody and their dog was looking forward to seeing this new movie, the production had its share of problems and controversies. First of all, Jackson did not want to direct the (at the time) two-part movie, probably reluctant to compete with his own success. A new director was found in Guillermo Del Toro, but The Hobbit was another victim of parent company MGM’s ongoing financial problems, causing multiple delays; these would eventually see Del Toro leave the project, eventually resulting in Jackson’s return to the director’s chair. His announcement that he would be expanding The Hobbit into a trilogy was also met with skepticism, since while The Lord of the Rings (at over 1000 pages) made sense to build into three films, less so did The Hobbit (at maybe 300 pages) fit that same need, even with the use of appendices and the extrapolation of minor plot threads and characters. Then there was the radical decision to film the movie at twice the standard frame rate; it’s supposed to draw the audience more deeply into the experience, but it received some disturbingly negative reactions. And PETA has asked the New Zealand government to look into the deaths of 27 animals used in the film due to neglect and abuse.
Some of these things ended up being merely distractions. There was really nobody other than Jackson who fans trusted quite so much to carry Tolkien’s mantle. And for the most part, he delivers with The Hobbit, which at its best recaptures what made the epic Lord of the Rings trilogy so revered. In telling the story of young Bilbo Baggins (Sherlock’s Martin Freeman) and his Unexpected Journey from homebody hobbit to brave adventurer, the director returns to the genre and mythology that made him the creative guru he has become. His imagery is immediately recognizable and nostalgic: beautiful vistas, wondrous creatures, interesting characters and sweeping narratives are all Jackson staples, and he doesn’t disappoint those hoping for a fun experience. Even though the rather simplistic story (Bilbo traveling with a company of Dwarves seeking to reclaim their home from a gold-coveting dragon) isn’t the most challenging of tales, Jackson manages to do enough to keep you invested in Bilbo, the Dwarven heir to the throne Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and their associates (which include the considerable talents of Graham McTavish, Ken Stott, James Nesbit and Aiden Turner). When the story is focused on what Tolkien published back in the pre-WWII era, it manages to live up to – and at times, even surpass – Jackson’s previous efforts.
Unfortunately, despite the film supposedly being about Bilbo’s growth, he is often cast aside to make room for Jackson’s unnecessary additions to the tale. It was the director’s decision to expand things mentioned askance in the novels – it’s the reason he felt forced to turn two movies into three. While this has the added benefit of making many of the dwarven company stand out more (despite being heroes in the book, Tolkien had precious little to say about the “Dirty Dozen”), much of what Jackson adds does little more than try to snatch any threads leading to Lord of the Rings. For instance, the twenty-minute intro focusing on an older Bilbo (Ian Holm) and Frodo (Elijah Wood) could have been snipped down to a two-minute cameo at most and had much the same effect. The addition of legendary Rings characters Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), Elrond (Hugo Weaving) and Sarumon the White (Christopher Lee) playing opposite Ian McKellen’s Gandalf the Grey are supposed to incite nostalgia for the previous trilogy, but it becomes too much, quickly distracting from the main story. If you squint, you could almost see Jackson in the background, pointing to scenes like these and relishing what he did ten years ago. In doing so, he actually does his main hero a disservice, and the experience feels more like The Blatant Lord of the Rings Prequel than it does The Hobbit. Likewise, we would have been lucky if Jackson had cut out the appearance of Radagast the Brown (Doctor Who’s Sylvester McCoy), a character barely mentioned in the book but given a major role in the new series. While comparisons to Jar Jar Binks might be a bit far-fetched, Radagast’s scenes are the only ones in the movie that are both unamusing and unentertaining, and I shudder to speculate what importance he will have in the future sequels.
The Hobbit also has some issues concerning its technical department and special effects. The visuals look largely unchanged from the Lord of the Rings series, and that can be both a blessing and a disappointment. Jackson’s ability with a camera makes for some wonderful scenic shots, but the complex and confusing battle sequences surprisingly suffer, with blurred movement and a lack of detail in their execution. The digital effects are also a bit haphazard; while Andy Serkis’ portrayal of Gollum was a welcome return and remained as crisp as ever, other digitally-rendered characters were not so fortunate. Barry Humphries’ Goblin King is almost cartoonish in his representation, playing more to humor than menace. And Azog, an Orc antagonist whose role was expanded from the book, suffers from effects that make his facial movements disconnect from his body. While I respect Jackson’s step away from prosthetics in creating many of his monsters, in these cases digital didn’t have quite the effect he was going for.
In 1999, another beloved science fiction trilogy released its own sequel when Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace came out to mixed reviews and derision from its fan base, who felt it (and its sequels) did not nearly live up to the quality of its predecessors. While Lord of the Rings fans did not have as long a wait for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, and to be fair the gulf in quality between this and Return of the King is not as wide, the result is still slightly depressing. We’ll have two more entries – The Desolation of Smaug and There and Back Again – to figure out if Jackson’s more confusing decisions concerning this first part of The Hobbit will pay off. It helps that The Hobbit is at its best when it actually focuses on… well… the Hobbit, and that means casual filmgoers will have no problem interpreting the story and being entertained by it. Hardcore Tolkien fans may feel disappointed however, as Jackson tries to turn his latest effort into something other than what it is: a fun, visually-spectacular, and well-acted adventure that did not need and seems not to want to be an epic trilogy. Peter Jackson has two more years to change my mind.
John C. Anderson is a freelance writer, movie enthusiast and Foursquare Mayor living in Boston. His usual film reviews are posted to Hello, Mr. Anderson. You know, if you’re curious.