The Hobbit is a book by J R R Tolkien, that was written as a bedtime story for his son and is a more light hearted prequel to his opus magnum The Lord of the Rings. It tells the story of how a Hobbit called Bilbo Baggins gets coerced by the Wizard Gandalf into joining with a company of Dwarves, led by Thorin Oakenshield, as their Burglar. The company sets upon a journey across Middle Earth to the Lonely Mountain, home of the old Dwarven city of Erebor which was taken over by the Dragon Smaug, in the hopes of retaking the city and restoring it to glory.
Unlike ‘Lord of the Rings’ I couldn’t tell you when I last read The Hobbit; probably sometime in the 1990’s. In fact my most vivid memories of the story come from the ZX Spectrum text based computer adventure game and Bernard Cribbins reading it over two weeks as a Jackanory special.
With that in mind I am in no position to comment on what Peter Jackson has added in or left out from this ‘Part 1 of 3’ prequel to his phenomenal adaptation of Lord of the Rings. However for an adaptation that was supposed to be split over two films and was extended to three at “someone’s” request (MGM seeking more money would be my guess) and still rocking in at 2 hours 40 mins there is a lot of padding going on. In fact above everything else this film offers my biggest gripe is that there is a lot of exposition in the first half and at times the editing between exposition and action really breaks the flow of an otherwise excellent film. I only hope there isn’t going to be an ‘Extended Edition’ Blu-ray release as that may end up being painful. Also I don’t advise buying the large Coke special unless you have an iron bladder or someone to share with!
Speaking of painful… I have seen this movie twice (already!). I saw it in 24 FPS 3D (I need to travel 50 miles if I want to watch this in ‘eye-popping’ 48 FPS 3D) and the cinema had really strange wrap around yellow 3D glasses instead of the normal Real3D ones and they were incredibly uncomfortable. I am a glasses wearer and shelled out a while back for Real3D clip-ons so that I don’t need to wear the Black ones over my specs and my clip-ons didn’t work for this film. The yellow ones left me and my partner (who doesn’t wear glasses) with blisters on our noses and the film was littered with people going out and coming back in to change theirs with what seemed like battery failure. Really odd and incredibly off-putting.
Having had a bad experience I went back and watched the film in 2D and I’m so glad I did. I don’t remember much about the 3D from the first viewing apart from certain scenes such as the Eagles sunset flight looking rather fake, but watching again in 2D made me realise just how muted the colours were in 3D. Andrew Lesnie’s cinematography is beautiful and the 3D setup I received on my first watch spoiled it. Perhaps watching in the new 48 FPS 3D format will be better, but I’m not in the mood to drive for 90 mins to watch it again just to find out!
Story wise this part covers the history of the Dwarven Kingdoms, the forming of Thorin’s company and their journey to the edge of Mirkwood and also includes a bit of scene setting at the start showing Frodo and Older Bilbo (played by their Lord of the Rings actors) a few hours before The Fellowship of the Ring starts. This introduction is nice but not all together necessary and for some reason Elijah Wood seems very wooden in his return to Frodo, lacking the easy joyfulness that Frodo had at the start of Fellowship.
Of the new cast Martin Freeman’s young Bilbo Baggins is the stand out for me. I think he was an inspired choice and I absolutely love his portrayal of the reluctant burglar. He wears his heart on his face for all to see and handles both the comedy and the drama with equal ease, whether fretting over his plates and dishes, trying to rescue the trapped ponies or deciding whether to cut Gollum’s throat. In fact his scenes with Gollum are excellent, only spoiled by Andy Serkis getting seemingly carried away with Gollum’s throaty whining and falling into ‘Bane’ levels of unintelligibility. Good luck understanding Gollum’s riddles, because I had to look them up afterwards to understand them!
There are a lot of Dwarves in this movie… 15 by name alone! After two watchings I can put name to face on 6 but they have done a pretty good job in making them all look different so I reckon by my the 5th watch I will have them all off pat! Most of the Dwarves are making up the numbers and will hopefully have more chance to shine in the remaining 5-6 hours of film to come, but Thorin – the would be King (Richard Armitage) and Balin – the aged warrior and historian (Ken Stott) are probably the two most rounded characters. Dwarves are all British as far as I can tell by accent and the different tribes must vary from Scottish to Irish to English as all the actors make no effort to disguise their native brogue.
We also get Fili (Dean O’Gorman) and Kili (Aidan Turner), young Dwarves who want to rival Legolas with their martial abilities with Sword and Bow and mirror Merry and Pippin from the first trilogy in their more playful attitude the to the quest; and several more who are purely there for comedy value, by either being Fat, Loud, Rude, Stupid or Camp. Two others, namely Dwalin and Bofur get a bit more screen time and have better known actors (Graham McTavish and James Nesbitt respectively) portraying them.
All those Dwarves named above are well acted and their motives seem clear, but none shine. I suspect Armitage will get more chance to grow as the films progress as he only really gets to show his heart right at the end of this film as he embraces Bilbo and admits how wrong he has been towards him.
The ‘Guardians of Middle Earth’ return with an over-long scene in the middle of this film with LOTR veterans Elrond (Hugo Weaving), Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and Saruman (Christopher Lee) grilling the meddling Gandalf (Ian McKellen) about why he is interfering and assisting Thorin’s company on their trek to the Lonely Mountain to defeat Smaug. As always Cate Blanchett is mesmerising to watch and the others reprise their roles well, although the writing lets them down somewhat in what could be a far more playful and powerful dialogue.
That brings me to the last of the Guardians, the hedge wizard Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy). I’m pretty certain he isn’t mentioned in the book of The Hobbit at all and gets only a passing scene in the book of the LOTR too, but he is most welcome here. Sylvester McCoy does here what he failed to do as Doctor Who… He makes his character comedic, pitiful and wondrous all in one go, whether healing the sick hedgehog, battling the ‘ghost’ or riding his most excellent sled. I hope he appears in the later parts too.
There is a lot of action in this film too, and I am sad to say that it all feels very similar with little variance from what has been seen before in LOTR and even from scene to scene within the Hobbit. A lot of the time there is just too much going on to appreciate whatever skill the actors or animators have shown on screen. Still what there is is good, just not original or exceptional. The same goes for Howard Shore’s scoring. It all feels very familiar, however I am a fan of the songs both in the film and in the end credits, enough that I have bought the soundtrack.
I do wonder whether Peter Jackson will redo some of the effects before the Blu-ray release. It was off-putting that Sting seemed to not glow when it should for about half the film, and based on Gandalf’s description of elven blades, I would have thought Orcrist should have been lit up like a blue lightsabre too! He might also want to redo some of Gollum’s dialogue to make it comprehensible!
So where does that leave us? Well (a bit like this review) we have an excellent film that is a bit too long and could do with re-editing! Bring on part 2.