By Linc Leifeste | December 14, 2012
Director: Peter Jackson
Writer: Fran Walsh (screenplay), Phillipa Boyens (screenplay), Peter Jackson (screenplay), Guillermo del Toro (screenplay), J.R.R. Tolkien (novel “The Hobbit”)
Starring: Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Ken Stott, Graham McTavish, William Kircher, James Nesbitt, Stephen Hunter, Dean O’Gorman, Aidan Turner, John Callen, Peter Hambledon, Jed Brophy, Mark Hadlow, Adam Brown, Ian Holm, Elijah Wood, Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett, Christopher Lee, Andy Serkis, Sylvester McCoy
For much of the year, The Hobbit was one of my most anticipated films of 2012. But then as the film’s release approached and I learned more about it, the more concerned I became. Sure, I was eager to see one of my favorite childhood novels on the big screen and I was excited that Martin Freeman had been cast as Bilbo Baggins (original British version of The Office, anyone?) but why in the world would you need three films to adapt the not overly long novel? If director Peter Jackson had followed the same course with his accomplished Lord of the Rings trilogy, he would have made nine films! But I really started getting nervous when I began to hear rumblings about Jackson’s choice to film in the new film format of 48 frames per second as compared to the traditionally standard frame rate of 24 frames per second. I tried to read up a bit on the format before seeing the film but doing so only made me more skeptical. Variously described as having the visual appearance of a BBC special, an 80’s soap opera, a high definition simulcast of a live stage production, and looking so highly-defined hyper-realistic as to appear painfully fake, the sensation I had while watching was most akin to what it might have felt like to sit through some “futuristic” fantasy film screening exclusively at Epcot Center circa 1989.
If you’re familiar with the book, you’ll have a sense right away about how Jackson is turning The Hobbit into an 8-hour epic. The film has a 30-minute opening sequence featuring an elderly Bilbo (Ian Holm) and Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) and the back-story of Smaug the Dragon before finally getting to page one of the novel. Jackson also makes the unwise decision to pad Tolkien’s story with characters from the Lord of the Rings trilogy, including a cameo by Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), who is not in The Hobbit at all, and a lengthy and painful appearance by the wizard Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy) and his rabbit-powered sled, a character only mentioned in passing in the novel. Maybe Jackson is using The Hobbit as a vehicle to work in everything he left out of his earlier Rings adaptation.
All of that said, this is still Peter Jackson adapting J.R.R. Tolkien, so there’s a lot of fun to be had. It all gets started when Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) gets an unexpected visit from the wizard, Gandalf (Ian McKellen), with a proposition to head off on an adventure. If you know anything about hobbits, you know that adventures are generally not in their nature, so Bilbo begs off on such an outlandish idea. But he soon has a knock on his door and the first of thirteen dwarves arrive and it quickly becomes apparent that his role in an epic adventure has already been set in motion. Epic is probably the key word there; there will be trolls, orcs, goblins, giant eagles, and so much more, and as presented by Jackson, it all runs together at times in a messy stew of miraculously unharmed good-guys destroying endless numbers of CGI-baddies. Much like the thirteen dwarves with odd rhyming names with too little screen time to distinguish one from the other, the endless battles against monstrous foes tend to all blend into one.
And what is the reason for all this adventuring? It seems that the Dwarves had their Lonely Mountain home (and more importantly, their vast stockpiles of gold and riches) taken from them by Smaug the Dragon and they want it back. While there is the element of a “people without a home” motivating their quest, it is mostly the lust for gold (and revenge) that drives them. This is something that at once makes this story less epic and “pure” than The Lord of the Rings and at the same time more human and nuanced. It will be interesting to see how Peter Jackson handles that element of the story as his trilogy progresses but for now we’ve got one grand adventure after another with a drawn out layover in the elven land of Rivendell, which serves more as a drag on the flow of the film than anything.
Where The Hobbit shines most is in the meeting up of Bilbo and slimy, deviant, damned Gollum (Andy Serkis). Despite his presence in a story filled with mythical creatures and beasts, it’s in Gollum’s hushed whispers and sly looks where true fear and horror can be found. Separated from the company, lost and alone in a darkened underground cavern, Bilbo comes face to face with Gollum and his beloved Precious, the legendary ring that will play such a large role in later chapters of the story. And ultimately, it is Martin Freeman’s Bilbo and Andy Serkis’ Gollum that will begrudgingly bring me back to the theater for the next two installments of Jackson’s The Hobbit.
It’s a fun film, generally true to the novel, well cast and with some great scenes but it’s also overblown and unnecessarily drawn out. Most importantly, my heartfelt recommendation is to avoid seeing it in one of the roughly 450 theaters nationwide showing the 48 fps version (also only in 3-D) and seek out a more traditional 24 fps screening (in 3-D or 2-D), at least for your first viewing. Take the movie in before risking having the experience of the messenger drowning out the message. As Jackson himself points out, “Because this is the first mainstream feature film ever to come out at a higher frame rate, there’s a potential for confusing audiences and for the format to become the point. We didn’t want anyone to feel like they didn’t have a choice. We’re introducing audiences to another way of looking at a film and we want the introduction to be a gentle one, not something that’s being rammed down anyone’s throats.”