I have to admit to feeling somewhat nervous about the prospects for the movie version of The Hobbit over the last few years. It’s a much more ‘filmable’ story than The Lord of the Rings, much more straight-forward in its tale, and I figured that, if anything, it would make a nice single movie. But then stuff started leaking out about Peter Jackson and company adding stuff to it, from the various appendices, notes, and other materials JRR Tolkien left lying about, indicating what generally went on during the more than fifty years that take place between The Hobbit and LOTR.
This struck me as potentially interesting, if they could find ways to make it all work into a coherent movie, but for the most part it sounded like a way for the filmmakers to justify expanding a story that would fit into one movie into an announced two. And then came the news that they were going to expand it out further, into three movies. The Hobbit, which is a relatively short book that tells a fairly light-hearted (until the end) adventure story, was going to be a cinematic trilogy. Initial reviews of the movie indicated that the film’s flaws are basically those that many had expected from this treatment of the source material: bloated, padded, and disjointed.
But when I saw the movie, I saw none of those things. All I saw was a gloriously entertaining return to Middle-earth, seen through different eyes than before, in the earlier telling of the great trilogy.
Is The Hobbit too long? Maybe, just a bit. Some of the action sequences probably do go on just a tad longer than they should, but ultimately, I didn’t really care. Did the film take its time in getting things moving? Yes...but again, ultimately, I didn’t really care. I guess what it ultimately comes down to is this: where this movie wanted to take me, I wanted to go.
A review at AICN -- don’t recall which one -- called The Hobbit a ‘homecoming’, in the sense that I mean here: that he wanted to go back to Middle-earth, and this movie accomplished that. Treating this movie as a ‘homecoming’ is an interesting metaphor, as ‘homecoming’ is the entire theme of The Hobbit: Bilbo Baggins must leave home to help the Dwarves get theirs back, and he must leave home in order to find the truest part of himself. In a lot of ways, Bilbo’s adventure causes him to lose his home, and not just in the real way, either (assuming that Jackson ends things the way Tolkien did, with Bilbo returning to find himself presumed dead and the auctioning off of his stuff already in progress). Forevermore Bilbo dreams of adventures, of leaving home and wandering afield. Of the Road that goes ever on and on.
Jackson shoots The Hobbit with a much more vibrant color palette than he used in Lord of the Rings, where everything had a slightly washed-out, muted look that got more and more pronounced as the ultimate confrontation with Sauron approached. Here, that look only really shows up twice: in the scenes where Radagast approaches Dol Guldur to investigate the evil presence there, and in the caverns deep beneath the goblin kingdom, where a wayward Bilbo finds a gold ring and its slimy, enigmatic keeper.
I found that the addition of material not in The Hobbit was actually very well executed indeed. It felt like a logical extension of the story, and I think it may end up giving more credence to later in the story, when Gandalf gets the company to the edge of Mirkwood and then suddenly says “Well, go on, down that path. I’m off. Don’t do anything stupid, now!” I always found that the least convincing part of the book. I know why Tolkien did it -- it’s a bit hard to put the company through hell if there’s a super-powerful wizard always there to bail them out -- but when reading it, that part always sticks out like a sore thumb. By showing us the ‘Important business to the south’ up front, well before it really rears its ugly head, I think Jackson is softening the blow.
I also had little problem with the extended delvings into the personal history between Thorin Oakenshield and Azog the orc-king, or goblin king, or whatever he really is. And I had little problem with...well, I just had little problem with anything in this movie. Maybe I need to see it again to try and figure out the flaws, but...well, look. Part of my love of Peter Jackson’s Middle-earth movies, this one included, is in the way they allow me a certain level of immersion in Tolkien’s world that’s different from that of reading the books. Not better, mind you, but different. I want to be there. Why should I be upset about being there that long?
And frankly, what’s wrong with a story taking its time to unfold, anyway? Do we always have to be, in to quote Brooks from The Shawshank Redemption, ‘in a big damn hurry’? So yeah, Peter Jackson, you go right ahead and give me a nice, long prologue in which Ian Holm voiceovers the coming of Smaug to Dale. You go right ahead and take your time with the Dwarves showing up on Bilbo’s doorstep, which is as wonderful a sequence as I recall. You go right ahead and give me villainous creatures with loud Cockney accents, and you go right ahead and wallow in the “Wow, look at that!” stuff with the stone giants throwing parts of their own bodies at each other.
(And speaking of Dale, I love how Jackson gives us another Middle-earth location that doesn’t look just like the others. The diversity in the way various places looked in the Lord of the Rings movies is an underappreciated aspect of those movies, in my opinion.)
Howard Shore returned to score this movie, coming back to his Middle-earth soundworld in particularly triumphant fashion. He isn’t very heavy handed in his use of themes from the earlier trilogy; mainly we hear snippets of the Shire music, in some wonderful new settings, and the haunting Ring motif is heard when Bilbo picks it up -- the musical fingerprint in these movies of the One Ring officially changing hands from one bearer to the next. His most impressive achievement here is in a motif for the Dwarves, which is cut from the same cloth as a remarkable passage of music from ten years ago in Fellowship. In the earlier film, when the Fellowship is in Moria, Gandalf takes them into the great hall of Dwarrowdelf, the Dwarven city, and the music swells with sad, epic emptiness that seems to be building to a grand statement of a melody -- but the melody never comes. It’s a musical passage that always causes me to hold my breath when I hear it, and now, in The Hobbit, Shore crafts a theme that seems to possibly be the very theme that passage in Fellowship was striving for. The theme is first heard when the Dwarves chant their “Far over Misty Mountains cold....” liturgy, but then the theme forms the virtual backbone of the entire score -- and I’ve got to note that this particular theme is an earworm of the highest order.
In terms of acting, well, there’s little to be found by way of a weak link in The Hobbit. Sir Ian McKellen can, of course, play Gandalf in his sleep, but he brings an interesting tone to the old wizard here, portraying him as being a bit more doddy than in the first trilogy. That’s in keeping with the book, which doesn’t present Gandalf as being quite so much as ‘One of the Great Powers of the world’, as much as a really good wizard who doesn’t always know what’s going on. Gandalf here also seems warmer, more mischievous, and less plotting-and-scheming. We only get glimpses occasionally of the Gandalf of the earlier trilogy, because the evil of Sauron hasn’t yet started to rise. (And I’m tickled that they managed to get Tolkien’s joke about a severed head leading to the invention of golf into the movie.)
Richard Armitage, as Thorin Oakenshield, captures Thorin’s sense of almost messianic devotion to his quest quite strongly, and he makes a powerful impression, sometimes almost going too far and making Thorin into, well, for lack of a better word...a douche. He presents a Thorin who is a man of singular focus, but also driven by very human concerns and a deep longing to return home, where the Thorin of the book often seems more driven by a desire to get the big pile of gold that Smaug sleeps on than anything else. (Until the Arkenstone turns up, of course.)
And then there is Bilbo himself, played by Martin Freeman. I’m only familiar with Freeman’s acting from one film, and that’s Love Actually. Now, he is utterly perfect in that movie (as is everyone else, but I can wax poetic about Love Actually another time), but the association isn’t quite to his benefit, as in that movie he plays a stand-in for the nude scenes in some movie that’s got a ton of sex in it, because every time we see him, he’s miming various sex acts with a female stand-in. (A unit director helpfully tells him, “All right, now, if you could just, ah, massage the nipples....”)
Freeman creates an absolutely pitch-perfect Bilbo Baggins: a proper hobbit who is going about his own business at his own leisure, but who is a bit odd and who has some desires and wishes buried deep within him that he doesn’t even realize are there until a wizard and thirteen dwarves show up and threaten to crack his dishes and bend his forks (without doing either, it must be noted). Freeman isn’t just the awkward Brit pushed into weird doings and deeds. He shows us that there’s always something going on in Bilbo’s head, and that even though he has a steep learning curve for this sort of thing, he’s got some good ideas, and as the story goes on, he’ll get to use them to greater and greater effect. Freeman puts Bilbo’s intelligence on display, which is extremely important, because the time is coming when he’ll be matching wits with a dragon.
It really does remain to be seen how Jackson and company will handle the continued mix of the book of The Hobbit with their new material. For me, they’re off to a very promising start. All the criticisms and complaints about this movie don’t add up to anything. I feel like this movie was made for me. And I’m damned glad to have it!