I’m having to think long and hard about this one. It’s terrible business, this. How do you objectively review something as a fan? Perhaps that was why I found it so easy to relate to James Poniewozik when he writes about his experience of seeing The Hobbit.
The Lord of the Rings movies – and the books as well, to a certain extent – hold a special place in my heart. They may not be the best films ever made (although they certainly have a place there), nor are they flawless pieces of work, but I just connected with them in a way that I hadn’t found with any other movie, and still haven’t. There have been movies that have made me cry harder, scripts that have hit me harder, acting that has stood out more, but never something that I felt so much for. Of course, watching the production videos – the most detailed, extensive, and simply some of the best you’ll find – seeing the camaraderie of the cast on- and off-screen, following the circle of fans who made you feel that their lives had genuinely been touched by the world Tolkien created and which Peter Jackson brought to cinematic life – these things all heighten your affection for something, but the fact remains that I’d never have bothered venturing into these areas if something hadn’t really drawn me in – deep in – in the first place. It’s irrational and simple as that.
So for me watching The Hobbit was first and foremost a home-coming experience. “I felt like I had come home.” was my first thought when I sat down to think about what to write. I wasn’t around at the right time (nor, one suspects, in the right place), when the Lord of the Rings films were released, to have been caught up in the cultural phenomenon, but even watching the films on DVD I could connect with those who dressed up as elves or hobbits or wizards at the premieres a decade ago. Seeing a happy pre-Ring Frodo again was great, for all that it hurt.
That said, surprisingly, I agree with a lot of the criticism that has been leveled at the movie. No, I haven’t turned traitor at this point. This is still coming from a fan of Middle-earth.
The biggest complaint I’ve heard has to be the length of the film. “Bloated”, “excessive”, “dragged-out”, and “bloated” yet again – these words have been bandied about so much in the unfavourable reviews that it’s getting as tedious as how some reviewers feel the movie is. I can see where they’re coming from, even if I don’t quite feel the same way. Like many who have been following the movie’s development from the outset, I had my doubts when Guillermo del Toro was first put in the director’s chair, (del Toro is a fantastic director in his own right, but The Lord of the Rings is Jackson’s baby, and I wouldn’t put The Hobbit into any other director’s hands. It just won’t be the same.) I had my worries when it was announced that The Hobbit was going to be split into two films, and I felt more than a little thrown when that was followed by the revelation that the film was now going to be in three parts. As it turns out, I like Jackson’s idea of integrating the other Middle-earth books and appendices into the story-arc of The Hobbit. I didn’t mind the White Council scene at Rivendell, I didn’t mind the flashbacks to the history of the dwarves. All this meant more time in Middle-earth, and damned if I wasn’t going to relish that. But I did feel that some scenes could have been cut, especially prior to Bilbo leaving the Shire. I would gladly watch the Lord of the Rings films over and over again, but I would hesitate before sitting down to watch The Hobbit the third time.
Another criticism, and one that extends beyond the qualities of this movie, so to speak, has to do with Jackson’s decision to film The Hobbit in 48 frames-per-second, twice the speed of the conventional 24-frames-per-second. Google The Hobbit and you’ll be guaranteed to come across the debate. I’ve read far more about the issue than I’d have liked to care (though some interesting points were brought up), but here’s my two-cents: the 48 fps is very obvious and impossible to miss. It works to startlingly effective extent in some scenes, removing the traditional strobing effect (think the blur when the camera pans over a table of food) and giving an insanely smooth transition within and between scenes. The streets of the city Dale and the strings of lights reaching into the depths of Erebor are two shots immensely well-served by the higher frame rate. Does the higher frame rate make the film more real? I got my answer just today when I staggered upon a comment thread comparing the industry’s reception of the 48 fps to the reception Avatar‘s use of 3D got in the weeks following the movie’s release in 2009. The higher frame rate doesn’t make The Hobbit look more real, but it does offer a remarkably different experience. I didn’t find it more immersive, but it was absolutely gorgeous to look at. I, for one, am on Jackson’s side. Early reviews commented on how it highlighted the artificiality of the special effects, but I do think the problem here is the over-reliance on special effects. Through both viewings of the film I had a niggling sense at the back of my head that something was off regarding the orcs, but I just couldn’t put my finger on it. Another chance stumble around the web gave me the answer I was looking for. The orcs in the Lord of the Rings films were played by human actors in make-up, whereas here – correct me if I’m wrong – they were rendered in CGI. WETA workshops is masterful in the craft, but there’s something rawer and less perfect about make-up that makes it so much more authentic in the long run, if that makes sense. Who was it who said “true perfection has to be imperfect”? The dwarves all look perfectly realistic, even at the elevated frame rate, despite the three-inch make-up most of them were wearing. As did the city of Dale, which I believe utilised a real set.
I do think The Hobbit was weighed down by comparisons to the Lord of the Rings movies. It was always meant to be a much more light-hearted fare than its successor, almost a fairytale to the latter’s high fantasy tone. Kudos to Jackson and team for infusing so much merry and light-hearted humour into the film, but with all due respect I don’t think humour was ever Jackson’s strongest point. It comes across awkwardly comical in such scenes as when Bilbo faints after reading his contract with the party and the talk of bodily parasites in the encounter with the trolls. One reviewer pointed out that some scenes, like the ones featuring Radagast the Brown, felt added only for the element of cuteness, to draw in the younger audience. I like Radagast as he was in the film (I have never imagined him this way though, in all honesty), but when you think back to the scene in involving the hedgehogs, the reviewer kind of hit the nail on the head. At the other end of the spectrum we have a shot of a goblin’s head neatly sliding off his neck after Gandalf does his windmill trick – it’s played up for laughs but it is actually morbid when you think about it. Even with all that The Hobbit seems to suffer from the epic scope and majestic scale of the Lord of the Rings films. The thing with epicness is, when it works it’s impossible to shy away from the whump, but when it fails it can be immensely difficult not to look away awkwardly. Thorin’s back-story was played up somewhat excessively, and comes across stilted and almost embarrassing. Luckily though, the film manages, most of the time.
If you’re still with me, I wonder how you can believe me when I say that this is ultimately a positive review. But if you noticed, I was mostly defending the movie against the criticisms, excepting only a few minor quips of my own. Because, objectively speaking, it is still a bloody brilliant film.
The greatest find here has to be Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins. Peter Jackson was right to have stuck out with him. I cannot, simply cannot, imagine anyone else playing Bilbo. Martin Freeman is Bilbo, as much as Robert Downey Jr is Ironman. The British actor brings a quintessential Britishness to the character, and makes him a truly endearing everyman. He’s fussy and uptight about his crockery, and you can safely bet he loves his tea, but the way he grows – in character, in courage – is something that is realistically achievable – and that’s what makes the audience love him so. Few of us are great warriors or even brave souls, but Bilbo’s bravery comes from someplace very fundamentally human and so far removed from heroism that even the most timid of us could, and would, do it.
“For a few weeks we thought we wouldn’t be able to use him and I was panicking as I couldn’t think of anyone else that would do the film justice. I thought it was in trouble. It was giving me sleepless nights and I tormented myself by downloading the second episode of Sherlock and I thought, ‘He is so perfect.’ So I pitched the idea, which was outrageous, that we’d shoot The Hobbit for three or four months and when Martin had to leave to do Sherlock, we’d shut down.”
– Peter Jackson on casting Martin Freeman
Peter Jackson retains his touch for cinematography. The Hobbit is, to put it crudely, an orgy for the eyes. This is the most beautiful movie I’ve seen in a very long time. It is a visual feast, spectacular, absolutely gorgeous, breath-taking, impossibly delicious – all the dictionary terms you can think of. Seeing it in 3D 48 fps could make one die without any worries. Top o’ that, the ears are treated to as much of a feast as the eyes. The soundtrack… I could die.
The movie gets off on a slow start, but if the pace lagged too much at times, one can at least say the pace accelerates very consistently. It builds up to a very worthy climax (that even pays homage to the book by referencing the chapter titles “out of the frying pan, into the fire”) that is preceded by what has to be the best set in the entire film, in my opinion. As the dwarfs fight their way out of the mountains, past hordes of goblins, Bilbo gets separated and fights a very intense and personal battle of his own with a character from the original trilogy. When Gandalf leads the charge and leads the dwarfs out of the mountains it feels like Jackson and co have found the balance between majesty and light-heartedness. The ‘Riddles in the Dark’ scene is, hands-down, easily the best scene in the whole movie (one could make an argument for it being one of the best scene in the whole year). The scene itself is very intense, thrilling, and just highlights Tolkien’s genius with words. Gollum/Smeagol is back in all his mo-cap glory, and Andy Serkis is as brilliant as ever. When I first saw the trailer, what got me the most pumped-up for my return to Middle-earth (aside from the dwarfs singing the hauntingly ethereal Misty Mountains song), was hearing those famous words “my precious” in that slithering voice. And boy was I blown away when the scene eventually came out. Gollum is interchangeably terrifying, pitiful, disturbing, and cute in this scene. Yes, you read that right. Cute. The twisted creature actually comes across adorable and genuinely funny in parts. Unbelievable.
The Hobbit actually ended off much later in the book than I expected it to – which was an absolute delight because I was kept on the edge of my seat hoping for this jaunt in Middle-earth to never end. However it does leave me wondering what the third film will be about. But no matters. We have two more years for that, and between this trilogy and The Hunger Games I feel like a true child of a new generation of film events. I didn’t cry, but I think I’ll be crying in 2014, if for nothing else other than the fact that another Middle-earth adventure has well and truly ended. The Hobbit isn’t going to become a cultural phenomenon like the Lord of the Rings, but I don’t think any movie is going to become a cultural phenomenon today. The media, the whole industry catering to young adults, the times – the world has just changed too much for anything to create a truly lasting impact, however hyped it is for however long that lasts. More importantly…
Phantom of Menace, this movie isn’t.
Rating on Rotten Tomatoes: 65%
Rating on IMDb: 8.4
Viewing history: Seen 2x. In theaters (48 fps 3D and normal).