It has been 11 years since The Fellowship of the Ring was out in cinemas and director Peter Jackson has returned to Middle Earth with the leaner and more light-hearted tale of The Hobbit.
Well that’s the theory; in practice Tolkien’s relatively slim-line opening yarn about the land of elves, dwarves and hobbits has become a sprawling trilogy, beefed up by impressive battle scenes and well-plundered appendices from Tolkien lore.
The Hobbit takes place 60 years before the events of The Lord of the Rings and begins with a bridging prologue featuring Ian Holm as Bilbo Baggins writing his memoirs on the day of his 111th birthday party and an appearance from the suspiciously fresh-faced Elijah Wood as nephew Frodo.
Bilbo recounts how the great dwarf city of Erabor was lost to the dragon Smaug long ago after its king amassed so much gold the author had to make an example of him. The dwarves were driven from their homes to live as nomads, scattered but under the leadership of the king’s grandson, Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage).
The action switches to the young Bilbo, played by Martin Freeman, who is more interested in his home comforts than any of the adventures wily old wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) has to offer him. Despite his protestations and after a few singalongs over dinner, Bilbo agrees to join Gandalf and a company of dwarves to retake Erabor and give Thorin and his people a home again.
Along the way the party is stalked by evil orcs, menaced by goblins and our hairy footed protagonist engages in a game of riddles with a dangerous yet pitiable creature bound to his ‘precious.’
This first film consists of just six chapters from the novel. For Tolkien fans, the stretching of those chapters into nearly three hours with footnotes and stories from elsewhere in the series’ lore will be a treat. For curious newcomers it may feel like a bloated, bum-numbing affair that takes too long to get going. Those somewhere in the middle will be racking their brains as to why that slender book from their childhood has warranted such padding, which neatly dovetails the new trilogy with its predecessors but means you wish you’d brought a cushion
Peter Jackson appears to be in extended version mode and you can almost understand why, given how much we looked forward to the extended cuts of the previous trilogy. But while The Lord of the Rings was made stronger by its – at times – ruthless editing (Tom Bombadil would’ve been weird and you know it) or tweaking characters to add tension (Faramir had daddy issues, it made sense) The Hobbit suffers from a lack of focus. Three books detailing the quest to stop an evil thing worked. Three movies of dwarves singing as they do the housework and I might cringe myself into an early grave.
That said, what the film does well, it does brilliantly. Action scenes are tight and well choreographed, there’s added character development and there’s an unmistakable grandeur to proceedings that begs to be viewed on the big screen.
Returning company members Ian Holm, Ian McKellan, Cate Blanchett et al revisit their characters with the ease you’d expect from actors who’ve had more than a decade to ponder the details. New additions such as Ken Stott as the bulbous nosed Balin (name-checked in Fellowship of the Ring as the late lord of Moria, so that’s cheerful), the Aragorn-shaped dwarf hero Thorin and bird-poo splattered Radagast the Brown played by former Time Lord Sylvester McCoy take some getting used to in this more light-hearted and whimsical tale. Our dwarves are a comical bunch, and kids will love the pratfalls and silliness. They shouldn’t sing though. We only let Aragorn off with it in Return of the King because he’d washed his hair.
Martin Freeman inhabits the role of Bilbo rather better than imagined, playing him with an understated charm he seems to have patented over the years. His performance encapsulates a very British kind of frustration; he misses his home comforts but there’s a good heart underneath his reservations and you have to admire the pluck. His eyes-wide-open bravery, despite limited skill and no real taste for adventuring, is endearing. Of course it does mean that someone somewhere is shooting a Middle Earth Office sketch with David Brent as Gandalf.
It’s safe to say that the infamous Riddles in the Dark scene between Bilbo and Gollum is about as iconic as The Hobbit gets. Those big eyes, that raspy tone which flits from playful to menacing in the blink of an eye, is the clear highlight of the movie. Gollum isn’t just creepy, he’s dangerous and it’s a pleasure to see Andy Serkis (now also second unit director) back and acting his socks off in such a wild but ultimately tragic role.
It’s rather strange but in many instances you feel like you’re watching the documentary about the film, rather than the film itself.
Returning to Middle Earth under Jackson’s direction is like delving into another world. So why then would he choose this movie of all movies to utilise the headline innovation of 48 frames per second?
Traditional filmmaking is in 24 frames per second. The Hobbit is the first time a director has used double that frame rate and the result looks crisp, detailed, and particularly beautiful in sweeping shots of the New Zealand landscape. However you can see too much reality, which does pull you out of the experience. You’ll notice the seams of costumes, the joins of the make up… if this approach makes the film look more realistic, why use it on the most fairytale of all stories from that world? Easy answer is because they could.
Well lit shots, particularly in claustrophobic sets like Bag End looked a bit 80s children’s TV and it takes a while for your eyes to adjust to the frame rate. It’s rather strange but in many instances you feel like you’re watching the documentary about the film, rather than the film itself. During Bilbo’s first scene with Gandalf I half expected Peter Jackson to pop up at the side of the screen explaining which camera they’d used to shoot it and a particularly amusing anecdote involving the catering staff.
The logic behind using 48fps in a fantasy movie baffles me somewhat. This is Tolkien at his most whimsical, and it’s a more innocent time so surely a mist of nostalgia, or perhaps film grain, would add to the mood? On the plus side, the action sequences were smoother with less blurring and there wasn’t the lack of brightness seen in traditional 3D prints.
The film’s hubris lies in assuming its audience are entirely on side, and leaping straight into what felt like an extended cut felt a tad bloated. But there is some great fun to be had with this movie. The tone isn’t quite as sombre as The Lord of the Rings and that’s a good thing. Anyone going in to this movie wanting more of the same bleak end of the world melancholia is clearly mad. It’s been done, and done bloody well.
The sets and locations are stunning, the actors both old and new are relaxed in their roles and it’s an adventure story with a sweet message about small people making a big difference.
The final hour does blast along at a rate of knots and really grabs your attention and when the 48fps is doing its job right, the film does look beautiful – it’s just far too inconsistent and occasionally makes the artifice too obvious.
Freeman and his company of dwarves are perfect festive fare but parents taking their little ones to see it should brace themselves for some fidgeting. Of course you’re going to see The Hobbit, and you should.