Let’s get the obvious out of the way first; no, The Hobbit does not show justification for being broken into three movies, let alone the run time of this one. Yes, it’s still absolutely worth seeing.
Peter Jackson’s decision to milk the remainder of J.R.R. Tolkien’s oeuvre that was available to him has been controversial to say the least. Having just read the novel beginning to end for the first time (an aborted attempt was made back in high school when it was assigned reading) I can say that a lot has been added to extend it. For good or ill, single sentences or mentions are expanded to full special effects laden sequences. Not to ruin the ending of the story for you, but there’s a battle, just as one would expect, and it has about four pages of description, in past tense as a recollection, no less. I figure this will account for nearly the entirety of the final film. I have not read The Silmarillion or the various scraps of his father’s work that Christopher Tolkien, angry with Peter Jackson for exploiting his father’s work, has compiled and released posthumously to… exploit his father’s work. Therefore, I can not tell you how much of this material is from those volumes.
Regardless, The Hobbit is a different animal from the previous Lord of the Rings trilogy for which it serves as prequel. Not for lack of trying, however. Characters that did not appear in the original novel make not altogether unwelcome cameos and at times the action is so spot-on in its mimicry, it is almost like Jackson is pointing to the screen saying, “Look, look! Remember that?”
While there are certainly exciting action sequences, the majority of the film seems almost like a walking tour of Middle Earth. Once again, this is not necessarily a bad thing. The problem comes when the film’s tone seems at odds with itself. The novel is essentially a very good children’s book. Let’s call a spade a spade. And as such, it is filled with whimsical touches that seem out of place with much of the tone set in the original film trilogy. This would not be a problem if Jackson didn’t seem so intent on carrying over so much of that previous tone.
One place the film excels over the book is that of characterization. Ian McKellan is, of course, still fantastic as Galdalf the Grey. Taking Ian Holm’s place (once a Saving Private Ryan-in reverse framing device is employed) as Bilbo is Martin Freeman who is, as one would expect given his turns in fare such as The Office and Sherlock, perfect for the role. He plays the character very close to the book, all his naiveté, bumbling and charm intact. At the risk of upsetting Tolkien disciples, it’s interesting that people have been complaining about the dwarves’ lack of personality in the film as, while they are spread thin given the sheer number of them, there is far more to them than the dwarves in the book. Perhaps readers don’t remember that most of them don’t even seem to have lines in the slim tome, let alone discernible persona. This helps show why Guillermo del Toro, before bolting the project, found it his biggest worry in adapting the film. Given what they had to work with, I found the solution of giving them personalities based often, at least in part, on their appearance, to be an excellent short-hand.
The stand-out sequence of the film is, as is to be expected, the famous “Riddles in the Dark.” When Bilbo finds the ring that will cause no end of trouble to his kin, his interplay with Gollum is tense, creepy while simultaneously being funny and altogether outstanding.
The first of the Hobbit films (and I would suspect the other two as well) have all the qualities of Peter Jackson not running a victory lap, but a victory-rerunning-of-the-race. It seems like a bit much, but it’s much better than nothing, if that makes sense.
Now as to the technical aspects of the film; these were where I was truly disappointed. I know that CGI has advanced in the decade since Lord of the Rings bowled me over. However, the effects simply don’t look it in a lot of places. I put this squarely on the use of the high-speed frame rate of 48 frames per second that Jackson made the film with. There are so many issues with the lighting and overall look of the film, that I will say it was absolutely a mistake to begin using it with these films. Perhaps with more experimentation the problems will clear up, but as of now, the process adds nothing over what I have otherwise seen of IMAX or 3-D presentations and detracts much in terms of the look of the film. To be clear, I saw the film twice, first in IMAX 3-D with the high frame rate and once on a regular movie screen in 2-D, so I could compare them. The 3-D of the IMAX screening was some of the least impressive I have ever seen. On more than one occasion, I was struck by a sheer lack of depth to the image. For instance, when the dwarf band emerges on a cliff overlooking Rivendell, it was like they were standing in front of a matt-painting. Even mediocre conversion jobs that I’ve reluctantly seen have been more impressive. I’ve heard people describe the issues with the HRF process that it “is too real.” I couldn’t disagree more. I’ve never seen anything in real life look like that. Everything seems to have a waxy coating to it. As I do recommend seeing the film, I also highly recommend seeing the film in the regular frame rate. Many of the visual issues still exist because of the filming process, but they are not as glaring, thankfully.
(Three and a half out of five stars)