Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) lives a quiet and comfortable life in his home in a hill in The Shire, but that life gets a wake up call one day in the form of a tall, bearded wizard named Gandalf (Ian McKellen). It seems Bilbo has been chosen to take part in an adventure, and before night falls his home is filled with a dozen dwarves emptying his pantry, singing songs and planning their great journey. After some consternation Bilbo agrees to join the troupe, and this baker’s dozen plus one head off towards The Lonely Mountain which was once homeland to the dwarves but is now the residence of one very large and very dangerous dragon, Smaug.
The story is a familiar one thanks to a source novel from J.R.R. Tolkien that hasn’t left print since its publication in 1937 and continued success as one of literature’s finest fantasy adventures for young readers. It’s reached the screen previously in animated form, and its sequel, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, conquered multiplexes a decade ago with wondrous adaptations by director Peter Jackson.
Jackson returns with co-writers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens to bring The Hobbit to the big screen across two (or three) feature films. Why a 310 page novel needs more than one film when the trilogy’s 1571 collective pages worked beautifully across just three movies is anyone’s guess, but you can’t argue with accountants apparently. Also returning are a few cast members and characters from the trilogy, some of whom aren’t actually in Tolkien’s Hobbit (ahem, digitally altered Frodo (Elijah Wood) wandering aimlessly in Bilbo’s home), and Jackson’s overwhelming love for the material and the world of Middle Earth.
Unfortunately, it’s mostly the new elements that Jackson and friends brings to the film that are to blame for The Hobbit being an overly long slog that lacks drama, excitement, emotion and any sense of urgency.
Most noticeable is the first half’s pacing that’s more akin to a near-death turtle than an adventure film featuring heroes on a quest. The dinner party in Bilbo’s home seems to play out in real time as the dwarves are loosely introduced and allowed to interact like members of a pratfall squad while Bilbo looks on disapprovingly again and again. And then the dwarves sing.
Later, a scene involving goblins that took Tolkien two pages to cover becomes another drawn out affair filled with misguided comedy and flatulence. In addition to feeling stretched out for no reason the scene also highlights another possible issue. As the dwarves and trolls fight not a single sword is allowed to pierce or slice flesh. All of the film’s battles seem to exist in a far safer world than the trilogy does because we almost never glimpse a blade meeting its target. A few bloodless heads roll, but we’re not witness to the hit responsible. An underground battle royale with goblins plays more like a physics-free cartoon than life and death action. It’s a sanitary fantasy adventure that feels lifeless compared to what came before (or after if you prefer chronologically), and it lessens the sense of danger and drama.
To be fair, Jackson’s film is aiming for the same youthful audience as Tolkien’s novel and as such is designed to be far more playful and forgiving. Physical comedy and snot/butt jokes are more the order of the day than angst and real drama. The problem is that tone doesn’t quite mesh with some of the events we’re witness to, especially as we’ve seen similar things play out far more harshly in the earlier films. Viewers have come to expect visceral combat between characters who feel tangible in their appearance and reactions, but there’s none of that here.
Speaking of visceral elements, there’s little to no sense of urgency or earned emotion to be found until nearer the film’s conclusion. Three quarters of the party could have been eaten, and not only could we not have named them we simply wouldn’t have cared. The lead dwarf, Thorin (Richard Armitage), earns some empathy, but it’s like pulling hobbit teeth.
It’s not all bad news though. Freeman is a joy to watch work under any circumstance, and he brings a dubious charm to the role that finds the fun in even the most nonchalant of glances. And as should be expected there is some fine CGI special effects work to be found here as well. Gollum (Andy Serkis) in particular stands out as an improvement over the already brilliant original, and Serkis delivers another stellar performance filled with menace and insanity. Ironically, in a film featuring orc attacks, goblin threats, giant spiders and more it’s Bilbo’s battle of wits with Gollum that comes across as the only scene that feels dangerous and tension-filled. Credit Freeman and Serkis for that.
Some special effects aren’t as successful including a wolf chase, the laughable ball sack on the goblin king’s chin and the occasional height differential between Gandalf and the dwarves. Speaking of the dwarves more than a few of them seem to have forgotten to hit up the makeup trailer before reporting to set… they look as human as Aragorn save for some funky follicles.
There are a few action beats in the film that help break up the slog, and even though minor issues affect each they’re still fun enough set-pieces. The opening offers a look at an epic battle between the dwarves and the orcs, and Azog the albino orc becomes a recurring and effective threat. And while it’s nearly a matter of too little too late, the theme of home and what it means to miss it or not have one at all is well played in the film’s final minutes. It’s essentially what drives the dwarves’ quest as well as Bilbo’s involvement, and it’s the beating heart of the story.
The Hobbit is a similar yet altogether different beast from its more popular sequel, and audiences should expect less of the same instead of more. It’s kid-friendly to be sure, but its length may overshadow the goofy hijinx and lack of stress-inducers.
Consider this the end of the film review proper, but it’s worth noting that the film is hitting theaters in three formats: 2D, 3D and 3D HFR (aka 48 frames per second) that runs at twice the normal 24fps. It’s that last option that has the internet abuzz, and it’s also the one screened for this critic.
Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy featured more than a few scenes of real magic. Some were due to the story and characters, obviously, but many were due to the visuals. His return to Middle Earth has almost none of that. It’s sometimes a matter of been there done that like when the eagles ex machina appear to save everyone’s ass or Gollum shows up onscreen, but more often than not the culprit behind the film’s lack of awe and wonder is the 48fps.
The initial impression is of unparalleled clarity, but that lasts barely a second before the movie takes on the appearance of a lavish BBC production, like a very special episode of BBC One’s Merlin maybe. It looks like a TV show. Nearly every daylight scene look as if it was shot on a soundstage, even the ones that were clearly filmed outdoors. The makeup used to transform actors into dwarves and human feet into hairy hobbit appendages no longer enhance the illusion, and we’re left with actors wearing caked-on, rubbery appliances. Also noticeable is motion in the foreground that appears sped up in comparison to everything behind it. It’s a distraction that diminishes during night scenes but returns with a vengeance with the sunlight.
On the plus side, the 48fps does in fact appear to smooth out the 3D effect. So there’s that.
If you can only see The Hobbit once in theaters, go for the 24fps format. If you can see it twice, see it in 24fps then see something else entirely.
The Upside: Nice seeing familiar faces; Martin Freeman is always a joy; Gollum’s scene is a thrill.
The Downside: Lacks emotion until the final ten minutes; no new memorable characters; story never feels dangerous or dramatic; easily 30 minutes too long; 48fps option should be avoided as anything other than a curiosity after already seeing the film in 24fps.
On the Side: In addition to his role as Gollum, Andy Serkis served as second unit director at Peter Jackson’s request.