By Jessica Delfanti | 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
The lasting prestige of Peter Jackson’s adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy is rarely contested, even by the most discerning critics. The immense amount of hype, bus stop posters, and media buzz surrounding the newest installation, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, certainly indicates a desire for more of Tolkien’s stories and lore on the silver screen, but viewers anticipating a continuation of tone, drama, and immersion will be disappointed. Granted, a large part of the striking difference between this film and the previous trilogy lies in the nature of The Hobbit. Originally written as a bedtime story for Tolkien’s children, the self-contained narrative doesn’t hold Middle-Earth at stake, instead telling a more personal story. The tale is further diluted by the filmmakers’ decision to split the novel into three pieces and water down the tight narrative with additional outlier story-lines from Tolkien’s extended work; thereby saving the most climactic scenes for the second film. The result, then, is the feeling of a meandering story, not lacking heart but certainly lacking a sense of tension or danger–a significant difference from the all-or-nothing feeling of the trilogy.
The lighter story is paired with a nonchalant, often goofy, tone, particularly demonstrated in sequences of dwarves singing and throwing dishes around in a scene that borders on slapstick, and Bilbo’s (Martin Freeman) self referential humor. The comedy in the film is spot on for PG children’s giggles, and Freeman’s brittle Bilbo is a charming centerpiece foiled by the cast of dwarves (Richard Armitage, Ken Stott, Graham McTavish, Aidan Turner, Peter Hambleton, among others) and the gently smiling Gandalf (Ian McKellen). However, Jackson’s decision to push the script toward goofiness ends up undermining the complexity of the film by reducing the unwillingly brave Bilbo to a bumbling, grumbling archetype, reducing the film’s menaces to incompetent inconveniences, and reducing the noble dwarves to jangling stooges. That said, Freeman should be recognized for a marvelous performance. The choice of such a comedic performer for Bilbo wasn’t accidental, and Freeman brings a contemporary humor to the medieval trappings of the narrative. Stepping into a franchise that will catapult him far from BBC television screen fame, Freeman shoulders the responsibility and screen time easily and with subtle humility. Seeing his Bilbo descend through his experience with the Ring is something to look forward to.
Now, for Gollum. Anyone that has read The Hobbit remembers the scene in which Gollum and Bilbo match each other in a game of riddles, and unsurprisingly, this is the best scene of the film. Andy Serkis reprises his role as Gollum, delivering, if possible, an even more iconic performance for Tolkien fans. In 48 fps, Gollum’s skin, eyes, and movements are riveting, each crease in his greying skin visible.Sadly, the 48 fps does not provide such a gorgeous experience throughout the entire film. On the one hand, the standard New Zealand setting for Middle Earth is rendered in vivid detail by the 48 fps, the colors vibrant, the leaves on every tree and the feathers on every bird visible. As a feat of technology, the scenery is mind blowing, like candy for the eyes. On the other hand, when applied to man made things like costumes or movie sets, it is painfully clear that there can be too much detail. Where the trilogy was a masterpiece of immersion, the sets beautifully realistic and constructed with a combination of real miniatures and CGI, The Hobbit in 48 fps is a constant reminder that each and every detail is indeed fake. It is difficult to feel invested in the narrative when it is clear that the armor is not made of metal, and the rocks look like foam core.
It may be argued that management errors–the decision to split the novel into multiple films, the choice to shoot in 48 fps–are responsible for the failings of The Hobbit. At its core, The Hobbit is a rare gem: a story that can entertain all ages, that chronicles a tale that all walks of life can identify with, and reinforces many of the values we see exalted today. While obstacles may have prevented this from shining through on the big screen, this is only Part I. As Gandalf says, “From the smallest beginnings come the greatest legends.” Let’s hope so.