The Hobbit has always had a gentler, more humorous tone to it than The Lord of the Rings, the reason being that it was originally intended for children. You can see it if you think about it: fifteen main characters, most of them dwarves, on a heroic quest to recover their stolen treasure from a dragon. I can literally see somebody at Disney picking up the phone and saying ‘Hey, guess what? I found another classic story to screw up!’ Peter Jackson’s new film version of Tolkien’s classic, however, abounds with the same glorious tension, danger and sinister, menacing evil of the original trilogy. Apart from a few scenes (which I can count on one hand), it doesn’t leave much for children. But let me join with all the LOTR fans in the world and give one gigantic shout: who cares? Middle Earth is back in all its searing, colourful intensity: old masters like Gandalf, Elrond, Saruman and Galadriel are still with us, their world infused with an electrifying transfusion of fresh, new blood that adds a thousand new dimensions to our blissfully crowded motherland of Middle Earth.
I will refrain from giving a summary of the plot, as people who are unfamiliar with the story no doubt live under stones in the Karoo and do not read blogs. Let us therefore dive right in and discuss what was good and what was not so good.
What was good
Playing Bilbo was always going to be challenging, particularly in the events leading up to his discovery of the Ring: on a first reading of the book, it’s very easy to write him off as a one-dimensional out-of-towner, and the same risks exist in film. Fortunately, Martin Freeman has never been an actor to take refuge in the idea of playing a character as a flat-out, bumbling fool (see his excellent work in Sherlock) and his Bilbo is no exception. He brings a kind of mercurial diversity to the character that is wonderful to watch: sure, he’s addicted to the quiet life and is often miserable and just plain terrified on the road. But he also demonstrates that laudable and often insane courage that only rears its head in hobbits in the unlikely event of their being shaken out of their comfort zones; that intense loyalty and deep sense of friendship. Like Frodo, he knows deep down that he is a child of fate, and although he’s terrified by the idea, doubts himself and fights it for all he’s worth, acceptance is the inevitable result. Freeman is masterful in bringing out this internal conflict and self-doubt, his mastery reaching a climax at the end of the unforgettable duel of wits with Gollum (Andy Serkis), where Bilbo stands, invisible, behind the unfortunate creature, debating whether or not he should kill him. The emotions of both characters; the fear and the pity of Bilbo and the acute misery of Gollum rather unconsciously (or maybe not) hurtle you back to Frodo and Gandalf’s talk about halfway through The Fellowship of the Ring – ‘the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many.’ It’s a huge moment, beautifully conveyed and wrenches you right out of the idea of thinking of Gollum as light comedy: for just a moment, that sad, psychotic creature of the original trilogy is staring you in the face and turning your blood to ice.
The greatest strength as far as cast goes is without doubt the awe-inspiring performance of Richard Armitage as the dwarf prince Thorin Oakenshield. Armitage has always been a powerful actor (see North and South and Spooks), but I’ve never seen him in a role before in which he risks completely bulldozing everybody else on the screen. He somehow manages to bring out the more tragic side of Thorin’s character – that is, a person who has lost everything, whose life has been torn apart, who feels more betrayal and agony than can be imagined – by embracing his anger. He seethes suppressed rage, violence, stubborn determination and a bitter desire for revenge with a towering and entirely natural X-factor charisma that is reminiscent of Sean Connery or Al Pacino (keep a look out for the rather interesting dynamic in his scenes with Elrond [Hugo Weaving], in which the tension between the two princely characters positively sets the screen on fire). If this film belongs to any one actor, it belongs to him. Magnificent. Gorgeous. Iconic. To be brief: he owned it.
As for Ian McKellen, everyone knew he was going to be brilliant, right? I don’t think anyone was actually worried about the possibility of McKellen screwing up, probably because such a thing is simply not possible. If anything, his interpretation seems to have grown in depth: he’s still the wisest of all Maiar, still a fearsome warrior, and he still has that infectious twinkle in his eye when he laughs, but in this film we see a Gandalf who is both powerful and doubtful. The doubtful side of Gandalf is something we only get a whiff of in LOTR: here, it is exemplified in most of the Rivendell scenes, including his solo gig with Galadriel and the rather crowded council scene in which we see Gandalf, Galadriel, Saruman and Elrond in the same room without the tiniest spark of chemistry, fire or a foreboding sense of Saruman’s future betrayal (I get that they were aiming for that, it just didn’t work. And what the hell has happened to Christopher Lee? He was so…unscary. Sniff.). McKellen really succeeds in bringing the audience closer to Gandalf and giving us a better peek at his humanity, which I’m sure we’ll get a better look at when things really start to get dark.
And then there’s the dwarves. When the first trailer came out, I was really excited about the dwarves, for the simple reason that it was obvious that the people in prosthetics, make up and costume design had gone out of their way to give each dwarf his own distinctive look, so that you really know who’s who. Unfortunately, when it comes to the film, you realise that when they were busy giving each dwarf his own distinctive look, they forgot to give each dwarf his own distinctive personality. Yes, I know – there are thirteen of them and it’s difficult to give each one his own piece of screen time when you only have three hours and a pile of other stuff to use that screen time for. But still! The filmmakers have, however, done the next best thing and succeeded, big time, in getting viewers to think of the dwarves as a single, sprawling, very noisy organism, and after the elf and men-centric tendencies of LOTR, it was really interesting to see things from a dwarven perspective and to see things about their culture previously hinted at by Gimli actually practiced (I refer largely to architecture, table culture, stubbornness and sprinting).
What was not so good
As mentioned previously, our company of dwarves, their few allies and their all too numerous adversaries enter a canvas that is already crowded. Middle Earth is huge: each location, each civilization, each character, has their own distinctive leitmotif in the score and their own way of doing things. Each one of these is associated with something of monumental import that happened in LOTR. Sometimes you think it’s impossible to remember all of them. Well, the scriptwriters thought it was indeed possible and that is where one of the film’s major weaknesses is born. Trainspotting is cool, especially if you’ve seen LOTR a thousand times. It’s wonderful to look at something and go ‘Oh, that’s from when so and so did such and such.’ Sure, it’s cute when Gandalf bumps his head on Bilbo’s ceiling light like he did in The Fellowship of the Ring. But when you start to feel bombarded by all this cuteness, it gets too much. The Shire appears. Cue Shire theme. Rivendell appears. Cue Rivendell theme. Two seconds later, Galadriel appears. Cue Lothlórien theme. There are so many references to so many things in so short a space of time that they no longer become poignant, they get annoying. In movies like this, it’s extremely important to pay homage, also to make the viewer feel that he knows the world he’s watching. But for heaven’s sake, be subtle about it! Don’t blast every place and person’s leitmotif the minute they come on! USE the music, adapt it, make it softer, play it on a different instrument. Don’t just haul out the old LOTR CD’s. Anyone with access to a Musica can do that. Do art.
Structuring, and above all balancing this film was always going to be difficult, because it has to succeed in creating its own world and telling its own stories against the backdrop of all the LOTR stories, locations and characters that have already stamped their authority on the Middle Earth universe without upsetting the balance that has already been created. In this respect, I am sorry to say that The Hobbit often fails. An example of this is the handling of flashbacks. While the flashbacks themselves are perfectly executed (cf the heartbreaking destruction of Erebor), the way they are inserted into the film is often abrupt and disjointed. You often find yourself thinking ‘Okay – are we being told another story now?’, you’re treated to a lot of gorgeous CGI, beautiful script and high emotion, and then just as quickly, CUT, you’re back on the road like nothing happened. One of the major artistic strengths of the original trilogy was its ability to go back in time, tell a story, and then glide right back to the present without losing its sense of continuity, often through the use of a parallel emotion or facial expression in either the storyteller or the listener, often both. In The Hobbit, this graceful equilibrium no longer exists, leading to some of the disturbing effects described above. Sure, the flashbacks in The Hobbit are much longer and therefore more difficult to handle, but I find it hard to believe that with a cast and crew of this quality, a solution could not have been found. Why not make the opening sequence from There And Back Again longer and cut down on that rather silly flashforward? Why not tell the story of the abandonment of Thorin and his people by the elves silently, from Thorin’s perspective, instead of having it blurted out so abruptly as a result of something so trivial as Fili and Kili fooling around? I can’t help but feel that these things could have dealt with a little better, and that the action could have started a little sooner. The result of all that messing about with Elijah Wood and Ian Holm is that the film takes an age to get on its feet and go somewhere – but once it does, it’s breathtaking. But too slow, Peter! Too damn slow!
Cast: Four stars. I am prevented from giving five stars on account of Christopher Lee, the under-using of Lee Pace as Thranduil and the fact that the casting director actually took the trouble to hunt down that little elf guy whose only lines in LOTR were ‘Lady Arwen, we cannot delay. My lady!’ His lot has not improved.
Production design and art direction: Five stars. Incredible, beautiful, defies description. All the darlings working on production design did not disappoint on LOTR and certainly do not disappoint here. Unmistakable highlights are portrayals of Erebor before it was sacked. Remember that incredible, soaring, wow feeling that shot from your head to your toes when you first caught sight of the ruins of the dwarf city of Dwarrowdelf in The Fellowship of the Ring? It’s that, times 100. The viewer is drawn in as a witness to a true golden age that helps you to understand perhaps a twentieth of what it felt like for the dwarves to lose it. But shouldn’t have been filmed in 3D. Five stars none the less.
Script: Three stars. Not half as good as the LOTR script, feels like a Hollywood script rather than a thing of beauty. Plus aforementioned unbalance.
Music: Three stars. Despite the glorious new dwarven theme music, not enough new stuff.
Fight scenes: Five stars. High art.
Bad guys: Five stars. Utterly repulsive.
Escapist appeal: Five stars. No explanation necessary.