When my kids were three and five, I’m afraid I doomed them to life as geeks. I read them a chapter a night of “The Hobbit” and they were hooked. Twelve years ago we anticipated the release of the “Lord of the Rings” films and watched each one, enthralled by the detail that Peter Jackson managed to get on screen. That sprawling work covered a canvas of three films and nearly twelve hours once the special editions of the films were made available. Everyone knew that if it was possible with all the legal entanglements, a version of “The Hobbit” would be coming our way. What we did not know is that Jackson planned on making a book that was less than a third as long as the “Ring” series into a three part epic on the same scale. I think many fans were a bit nervous about this. It seems to be an over reach and a money grab, two things that a lot of fans would be turned off by. The film was also shot using an advanced 48 frame per second technique that has been both praised and trashed, and it was also shot in 3D. So a lot of things can go wrong. I made a conscious choice to seek out a standard format version of the film because I did not want all of the bells and whistles to interfere with the story and the experience.
Last month for “Skyfall”, I went to the midnight preview showing with my youngest, last night I saw “The Hobbit” with my firstborn. Her sister was not feeling well and skipped going with us, but Allison has been waiting for this since she was five and she was not going to wait any longer. I am glad to report that both of us liked the results quite well. She is a bit more enthusiastic than I was, but I have only minor issues, that for many fans will not really be a problem at all. Ultimately, I think it would be interesting for Jackson to reverse engineer the film and instead of expanding it for “Special Edition”, he releases a two and a half hour, streamlined version of the film that sticks very closely to the original book. The material that fills the movie is often interesting, and it fills in information about characters and background history, but it is not essential for the story.
The first thing that is very noticeably about this film is that it is being closely tied in to the earlier set of films. Even though the events we are seeing are supposed to have happened sixty years prior to “LOTR”, characters that were a part of that series are introduced into this storyline. The two sentences that make reference to the Necromancer, who we later discover is a renewed version of Sauron, are turned into a side plot that will continue to crop up in the rest of the story. The character of Thorin Oakenshield is given an elaborate background and a continuing plot line that involves orcs seeking revenge. This gives rise to more chase based elements in the film than were present in the book. It works for keeping the action in the film going, but it changes the tone of the story from a simpler quest, to a broader ongoing battle. Again, it feels like this is all being set up as a prequel to LOTR, and not the story of Bilbo Baggins adventure. Despite the length of the movie, because of this change, events often feel rushed. The leisurely but hazardous journey to the Lonely Mountain, becomes a series of escapes not from situations that the Dwarfs, Hobbit, and Wizard fall into, but the machinations of a deeper power. This works well for all the fans that want the epic nature of the other films, it diminishes much of the charm of the book, which was essentially a children’s story to begin with.
For an illustration of what is lost, although we got a lengthy visit and meal at Bilbo’s hobbit hole in the first hour of the film, most of the Dwarves remain nothing more than the visual caricatures that they are designed as. There are no long conversations on horseback, or around the campfire that give us a chance to be familiar with the individuals of the company. Two of the other thirteen get a scene of two to show what is important about them or how they fit into the story. The rest remain a chartering collection of types that can be moved around without much planning or consequence as to which is which. I can say that the casting of Bilbo himself is practically perfect. Martin Freeman has a humble everyman quality that radiates comfort. He is also witty and brave when we least expect it. In the final fifteen minutes of the film, his version of Bilbo gets to stand out quite a bit more and we can see the potential that Gandalf saw from the beginning. The game of riddles that he plays with Gollum, works out because he has just the right amount of fear and pluckiness to pull it off. The film stops at a pause in the adventures, not at a complete story. Once the whole series of films are available, I suspect that the movie will feel a bit different. I enjoyed what I experienced, but it was not the atmosphere of adventure that I expected. The solemn nature of the group and the background story, push this film to be something different.
I have read some brutal criticism of the movie in it’s 48 fps format. That while the format works wonders for some scenes, it renders other cheap and artificial. The standard screening that I saw had none of those problems. All of the epic outdoor scenery of New Zealand is used to suggest Middle Earth, again in spectacular fashion. There was substantially greater use of CGI in this film than in the older movies. Most of the orc characters are clearly not actors in costume and make up. Although the scale is often the same, I think some sense of personality is lost as a result. The actors playing the fourteen members of the company, are real. The antagonists they face are often not and the tension is lessened a bit as a result. I will be visiting Middle Earth again as part of the holiday season. My impressions may change somewhat, but as for the moment, I can recommend the film to fans of the LOTR series wholeheartedly, yet my endorsement for fans of “The Hobbit” is slightly more muted.
We get only a couple of shots that hint at Smaug, the dragon who is the real antagonist of the story. This seems strange since ultimately, this is what the quest is all about, dislodging him from under the mountain. Allison and I disagree as to how the final two films will distribute the story. She is expecting a longer trek to the Lonely Mountain. I on the other hand, believe the confrontation and banter with Smaug will be the focus of the next film. We have a year to find out, in the meanwhile, there is plenty to keep you occupied during Bilbo’s “Unsuspected Journey”.