I read The Hobbit for the first time when I was 11. As everyone knows, the book’s a must-own staple for young readers – with its tight editing, free-flowing poetry and song, rich characters and fast pacing. Dragons, dwarves, elves and wizards, The Hobbit defined much of the fantasy genre that exists today. And the book remains J.R.R. Tolkien’s literary masterpiece. While some die-hard fans will endlessly prattle on about the “importance” of his Lord of the Rings trilogy (or that recently discovered “Children of Hurin” nonsense – just ask those meandering cunts at TheOneRing.net), none of them embrace the joys of childhood wonder quite as well as The Hobbit. It’s a simple, beautiful story…and a timeless one.
I went in to The Hobbit with a fairly apprehensive attitude. The trailers for it have been dull and stilted; and the decision to turn a short story (which The Hobbit really is) into a sprawling 3 movie / 9 hour epic seemed excruciating. But I got lucky – my wife got free passes Thursday night through her work….and getting in free always makes movies easier to stomach and sit through. The lights dimmed, the score blared…and for the first 45 minutes, I was shifting in my seat and looking at my watch. To call the opening of The Hobbit slow is about the same level of understatement as saying Hitler “kind of” overreacted about losing an art school scholarship to a Jewish kid. It’s not just slow…it’s tedious. This is where the accusations of “bloat” really hit home. Director Peter Jackson could easily have edited 50% of the material out and made the important bits hit just as hard. I know he loves to stretch any tale out beyond the three hour mark but some restraint wouldn’t kill him…it makes his work, at times, about as boring as discussing the merits of rugby with a New Zealander.
But I can happily state, things do pick up. Once this “fellowship” of 13 dwarves, a hobbit and a wizard get under way, the movie picks up considerable steam. There’s an encounter with pony-stealing trolls. They’re besieged by a vengeful orc and his hunting party. And there’s even a wild boxing match between mountain giants (literally mountains that seem to have come alive merely to war with one another) which catches the troop fatefully in the crossfire. The pace is jarring – going from the slow grind of Hobbiton life – to an all out race for survival through environments designed to test the limits of the living. But then Peter gets cute again…and the movie slows for a time as they cut away from the grumbling band and focus on a “brown wizard” named Radagast.
Radagast is being called the “Jar Jar Binks” of The Hobbit. I understand the comparison but it does sell the character short, to some degree. Radgast, like Gandalf and Saruman, is an ancient wizard (who has the vague appearance of being human even though none of the wizards actually are) but who has lost his way mentally. Originally sent to Middle Earth by the Valar (lesser gods) to govern and influence the affairs of men, he became obsessed with the collateral damage being done to the world’s smallest and most defenseless of creatures. And so, he abandoned his quest and became the grand protector of the animal kingdom. From a pacing standpoint, the scenes are jarring…the realization of his character is well executed but the story begins to move slowly (completely abandoning the company of dwarves for a significant period of time). But after a time (too long, to be honest), the two stories merge; and the viewer is left to understand that the terrible fate of the forest (Mirkwood) critters is the result of a growing, ancient evil thats returned to Middle Earth and is literally poisoning the ground beneath everyone’s feet. Why the White Council (a collection of wizards and high elves) can’t seem to get their shit together and figure out the ancient evil is Sauron is beyond me…but whatever. An entire Jedi Council couldn’t figure out the evil emperor they were all spying on was the Sith they’d been searching for, all along…so you kind of have to roll with it.
Once we return to the company of dwarves and their halfling burglar, the movie picks up, yet again, and quickly moves toward (surprising as it is to admit) the best moment in the franchise’s history, hands down. The emotion displayed right before the dwarves haplessly enter Goblintown and the astoundingly huge battle throughout it are some of the best moments ever captured in a fantasy film. The movie cuts between two very different but gorgeous and important set pieces: the first, a lonely,shadowed lake at the bottom of a mountain where a lost hobbit and a tortured Gollum meet and play a lethal game of riddles; and the second, a sweeping and fanciful escape through a fiery, six-tier city teeming with rampaging goblins. It’s hard to describe how wonderful this extended battle is (running more than 15 minutes non-stop). Goblintown, much like the Star Wars cantina, will become something of legend in terms of scope, creature creation and pure effects whimsy. The Goblins are shown as having a culture and a lifestyle all their own; and at one point, there are literally battles, cave-ins and fires on every level of the vast encampment. If one were to go back and watch the “epic” battles of the LOTR movies after seeing The Hobbit, every one of them would seem inferior and less interesting than the main battle of Goblintown. That set piece may be worth the price of admission all on its own.
The movie wraps up not too long after that (rather abruptly) with another visit from the orc enemies of old (and a visit from the giant eagles – once again raising questions about how they could’ve single-handedly altered the entire storyline of the LOTR series by helping out earlier in the process)…but it was nice to see the lack of “false endings” which plagued Return of the King making it the weakest entrant in the series (and even more so in the extended edition).
The Hobbit has its flaws….plenty of them. The accusations of bloat are warranted; especially in the first half. There are so many dwarves that all but 4 of them are just faceless fat midgets running around without purpose…only a select few are given any real screen time at all (though, those that do, handle the material well…especially Richard Armitage as the grim dwarf prince Thorin). Ian McKellan is his usual self: reliable and without pretense (he just seems happy to be the lone cancer-addled AARP member who still consistently gets work). And Martin Freeman, as the doubting would-be hero of the tale, is largely perfect. His take on Bilbo is very different from Elijah’s tragic and wounded turn…Bilbo is a much braver, wiser and plotting character – and finds his courage much earlier than his nephew ever could (relying on his wits to navigate Middle Earth’s most precarious situations). But despite the bloat and excesses common to Peter Jackson’s work, there are gems to be found in the film (and not just under Smaug’s snoring ass in The Lonely Mountain). Goblintown remains a notable favorite of mine; but even the acting and creature effects have improved significantly – and made the world seem richer and more realized than the LOTR films which haven’t stood the test of time very well. And kudos to the writing team who creates a villain not in the original book…but who’s more interesting and well thought out than any villain presented in the Rings films….Azog The Defiler is a cool creation and I look forward to seeing what more is done with him in the next movie.
As far as the now-infamous debate on format, I only saw it in 24 FPS but enjoyed it…I can’t speak for the 48 FPS but have heard VERY mixed things about how the film holds up at that level of definition (the most common complaints being motion sickness and that the level of detail making the sets look like stage facades; and also undermining many of the effects sequences by making the CGI look like its moving in high speed).
3 fists out of 5 for some great set-pieces, a focus on casting better actors and a significantly better score than the LOTR films (but -2 fists for bloat, pacing issues and a lack of character diversity amongst the dwarves).