Ah it’s good to be back. During the first 20 minutes of The Hobbit when Bilbo is, without choice, inviting a number of dwarves into his home, it’s as if Peter Jackson is doing the very same to us. We’ve been away awhile but we’re back and Jackson is inviting into the place he clearly feels most comfortable. He wants us to kick back, put our regular-sized feet up and return to Middle-Earth and, for the most part, he does a stellar job in making us feel like we’ve never been away.
As we all already know, The Hobbit is set before the events of Lord of the Rings. The film starts of with a prologue of sorts, providing some exposition that will become the basis of the film, much like there was in Fellowship of the Ring. The Dwarves’ homeland, Erebor, has been taken over by Smaug the Dragon. However, a band of dwarves, led by Thorin (Richard Armitage) are determined to take it back. They team up with Gandalf (Sir Ian McKellen) who tells them that they should enlist hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) as a ‘burglar’ to help them. Despite himself, Bilbo agrees and they go on their way.
Sometimes when you return years later to somewhere you have fond memories of, things might not be quite how you remember and you’re left feeling a little disillusioned. Not so with Middle-Earth. Within moments, you’re right back in the comfortable world of The Shire and Bag End, as if it’s nary been nine months, let alone nine years, since we last visited. The fields are lush and green, there’s whimsy in the air and the pitter patter of huge Hobbit feet in and around Bag End. And the first faces we’re greeted with are one we’re very familiar with, that of Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Bilbo (Ian Holm) exactly as we remember them in LOTR. This familiarity continues throughout as we meet other characters we’re already acquainted with, including Saruman (Sir Christopher Lee), Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), Elrond (Hugo Weaving), and, of course, Gandalf.
However, it doesn’t take long (mere minutes, in fact) to establish that this story is to be told in a very different way. There are many similarities at this stage between The Hobbit and LOTR – a Hobbit joins a group who trek a long distance to achieve a seemingly unachievable goal – but this is handled with much more humour and lightheartedness than Frodo’s adventure. This is unsurprising considering Tolkien wrote The Hobbit primarily as a children’s book whereas LOTR was much more adult orientated. The dwarves add a layer of humour that wasn’t there in LOTR which does detract a little from the epicness of the story, although, again, this isn’t LOTR, it’s a different story altogether that happens to be set in the same world.
Unfortunately, it is when the film meets the few direct crossovers with LOTR that it really hits the high notes, specifically the Riddles in the Dark sequence. This is perhaps the most famous section of the book, where Bilbo meets Gollum and engages him in a game of riddles. It also absolutely fundamental to the entire LOTR story, giving it much more significance than most of the rest of the film, as we already know the consequences of the outcome. Andy Serkis is superb as ever as Gollum, his sinewy movements and raspy voice both creepy and mesmerising, adding a much needed darker layer to the story.
Whilst Andy Serkis’ Gollum was always a money in the bank moment, the other standout performance is Martin Freeman as Bilbo. Within but a few minutes of meeting our diminutive protagonist, it’s difficult to imagine anyone else in the role. Freeman displays the perfect combination of fussiness, humour and humility to perfectly embody Bilbo and make him a more interesting, identifiable and likeable character than Frodo ever was. Jackson’s casting has been consistently spot-on and it’s easy to see why he was so adament that Freeman was right for the part.
Aside from the usual Middle-Earth stalwarts, many of the new characters are rather forgettable, specifically the dwarves. Simon Armitage does a decent enough job as Thorin Oakenshield, an Aragorn/Boromir hybrid, but many of the other dwarves simply don’t have enough about them. Of course, with so many of them (13 in total) it was always going to be difficult to give them each enough screen time and Jackson’s hands were somewhat tied by the book, but many of them are relegated to background characters and are really rather pointless.
One criticism many have had of The Hobbit is that it’s too long and there is some weight to that argument. There are a good few sections that feel lengthy and unnecessary, particularly during the first act when the story takes a little too long to get going. However, once it does find its feet, it rattles along at a fair old rate and is very well paced with several standout moments. Having said that, the action does feel a little samey after a while; each orc battle seems to blend into the next and having Gandalf turn up and save the day for the nth time feels a little too easy. It’s actually rather impressive that Jackson is spreading The Hobbit out over three films, although this means that he is incorporating sections that aren’t actually in the book. Gandalf’s wizard brethren Radagast, for example, actually only appears in LOTR rather than The Hobbit yet has a reasonably significant role. It’s not going to matter to most but may irk purists.
As part of a trilogy, The Hobbit doesn’t quite work as well as a standalone film as Fellowship did, but it’s still an immensely enjoyable experience. It genuinely feels like a worthy accompaniment to Frodo’s story; a separate story entirely whilst having its feet firmly in the same universe. Any misgivings this film may bring should be reviewed once the second and third films have been released, but this is a solid start that bodes well for the rest of the trilogy.
About the 48fps HFR
Jackson’s argument in favour of the new 48fps high frame rate is that it builds a much more immersive experience, but, to start with at least, it’s little more than distracting. At times, everything seems to be almost double speed with Bilbo scuttling around like a pint-sized Benny Hill. It also makes much of it look like a TV movie, which does detract from the overall experience a little. However, you do get used to it as the film goes on and it significantly improves the picture quality of the 3D. It makes everything look crystal clear which really increases the breathtaking scale of the amazing New Zealand vistas, although it does actually cheapen the CGI, making it evident that a lot of green screen action is going on. It’s an interesting experiment from Jackson but the old adage of ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ springs to mind.