There will be three big parts to this review, because I want to make sure that I spend enough time on the actual review of the film, without bogging down in the questions around the 3d/high frame rate stuff or lingering too much on the major problem with the film. I would consider it spoiler free, but if you’re paranoid about knowing which incidents from the book appear in this film as opposed to others, and want to be surprised about which characters appear, then you should probably avoid reading this (or anything else on the internet, or indeed on some of the posters). Also, I’m reviewing the film, it’s decades since I read the book and I don’t actually care about whether the film is ‘true’ to the source material or not, if an element of the book doesn’t work in a film then it should be fixed.
So first off, the review. I enjoyed the film, it was good. It is of course “Lord of the Rings light”, it tells a similar story of a diverse group of people off on a somewhat vague quest which requires them to trudge across the landscape of New Zealand, helped and hindered by an equally diverse range of people along the way. For the most part though the Hobbit skims around the apocalyptic doom mongering of Lord of the Rings, only occasionally (but poignantly) reminding us that the reason for the quest is that generations of dwarves have been exiled from their city and have been wondering homeless. That driving force and sorrow is however for the most part limited to just Thorin, the Dwarven leader, the others all seem to be coping pretty well with it. There’s also a couple of scenes talking about the ‘rising evil’ which felt rather as if they’d been put in so that in a decade or so when people watch the films in ‘chronological’ order the elements of foreshadowing are obviously on display.
So with that limited amount of angst the film is much more an action adventure romp, and leans quite heavily towards the silly end of the spectrum a lot of the time. For the most part the villains are played for comedy value and aren’t particularly threatening (one of them is voiced by Barry Humphries!) except for the fact that The Fellowship (Prototype Version) aren’t actually very good; Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas would have dealt with most of the problems in a jiffy. Each sequence hurtles along at a wonderful pace, with plenty of fun dialogue and carefully timed comedy to make each piece feel like a perfectly crafted episode.
What brings these episodes together into a proper film, and elevates it beyond just being a fun adventure is Martin Freeman’s Bilbo Baggins. Peter Jackson never considered anyone else for the role, and even held up filming to work around Freeman’s commitments to Sherlock and never has there been a better decision. Freeman is utterly perfect as the reluctant teammate, who adores his life of comfort and having things just so, but also wants to be able to write about having had adventures. The film shows the gradual reveal (both to himself and to his dwarven companions) of what Gandalf knew all along – that in his heart he is a hero.
With Freeman’s Bilbo being the shining star of The Hobbit and Andy Serkis’s Gollum/Smeagol being the revelation of The Lord of the Rings, the scene where they meet was always going to be something special. The Riddles in the Dark chapter is the only thing I really remember from reading The Hobbit (indeed it’s probably the only name of a chapter I actually know of any book) and I wasn’t sure which of the films it would end up in. It was stunning. I watched it completely engrossed thinking to myself about how ironic it was that for all the money spent on the film, it was this ‘little’ scene with just two actors talking in a cave set that blew me away. Then of course I remembered that Gollum isn’t really there. I genuinely forgot that he was a cgi creation. I can’t think of higher praise.
Sadly, in comparison, most of the ‘new’ characters for the Hobbit are not so great, with the exception of Thorin (the broody leader) and Balin (who acts as sage exposition master), the other eleven dwarves are reduced to a sort of beardy rabble. Even after checking the Empire Magazine’s very helpful Dwarf Guide most of them still only had a single line descriptor such as ‘the fat one’, ‘the one with the bow’, and ‘the one with the silly hat played by James Nesbitt’. As a whole they’re used as plot devices, so when arrows are helpful to move the plot along Kili appears, but when they would actually offer too easy an escape, Kili seems to be distracted by other things. The only other character really introduced (I’m not counting the bad guys as they weren’t really characters, just plot machinations) was Radagast the Brown, played by Sylvester McCoy, and I can’t quite decide whether his dementedness was fun, an interesting look at what can happen to wizards left to their own devices, or just plain awful.
It goes without saying really that the film looks fantastic. All the work that was put into the Lord of the Rings films is carried through and developed further. Rivendell, Hobbiton, the costumes, the creature makeup and the infinite amount of detail are gorgeous. The music is similarly a development of the exquisite score from the series, with familiar themes and motifs returning. To someone who has watched The Lord of the Rings films probably a dozen times, it felt like coming home.
Having said all that, and making sure that you understand that I love the film and think it’s brilliant. I now have to point out the massive flaw that undermines not just this film, but the whole series.
It’s too long.
Just doing some maths – this film is 169 minutes long. If the other two films in the series are the same length, that makes 507 minutes (8 and 3/4 hours). The book (according to Wikipedia) is 310 pages, so that’s over a minute and a half per page. In comparison the three Lord of the Rings films total 558 minutes long (on original cinema release), the books total 1571 pages and there’s therefore just over 30 seconds per page. So The Hobbit is spending 3 times as long on the source material as Lord of the Rings did. And I’m sorry, but that just doesn’t work for me.
An Unexpected Journey drags. It’s a painfully slow start with two prologues shoved on the front before you even get to the main film, and then there’s a long introduction section (which doesn’t actually introduce anybody but Bilbo, Gandalf and the concept that Dwarves are loud, hungry creatures) is interminable. Once they get on the move, things pick up pace a little bit, but it still feels rather stilted with a couple of entertaining episodes interspersed with the familiar tramping through the countryside as sponsored by the New Zealand tourist board. I spent the last third or so of the film continually thinking it was building up to an end, but then something else would happen to drag it on a bit more.
I realise that it would be heart breaking to a director to drop any of the material, it all has some value, is well put together and is fun, but it does result in an exceptionally baggy film. (First to hit my cutting room floor would be the Bilbo and Frodo intro and the whole mountain giants section). It would be excusable if this were it, one film and then done. I would even forgive it for padding things out a bit to make two films, as Unexpected Journey did pause at a natural and satisfying point. But I couldn’t help but think that every minute I was watching now was effectively a deposit and a commitment to watch another minute next Christmas, and another one the year after that. Of course I’m not going to be able to fairly assess whether it was really necessary to stretch the material over three films until we’ve actually seen the third film (Jackson has already drawn material not directly in the Hobbit into the storyline, and there’s the Silmarillion to plunder if he really wants to), but my feeling at the moment is that Jackson is being self-indulgent, wallowing in the world of Middle Earth, and while it is a beautiful and interesting place to wallow, the quality of the film overall suffers because of it.
3D and High Framerate (HFR)
The final thing to talk about in this review which will soon be as long as the original book, is the formats. I’m lucky enough that one of my nearest cinemas is the Vue Westfield, which is a superb cinema with all the latest bells and whistles, so could see it on a beautiful screen in 3D with high frame rate, although it did cost me nearly 15quid a ticket! I ummed and erred about what type of showing to see (standard 3D and 2D are also easily available) as I’m usually very critical of 3D. However Peter Jackson encouraged people to try the HFR, and I was intrigued. I’d also originally thought that I’d go and see the film again in 2D, but given my issues with the runtime, I may not bother.
I’m not really sure that 3D added anything to the experience to be honest. I don’t think anyone ever really felt that Lord of the Rings was lacking in immersion because it was ‘only’ in 2D and I’m inclined to think the same of the Hobbit. A few of the ‘flyover’ scenes of the landscapes and Rivendell looked even prettier, but they also looked a bit less real. It’s ironic that people talk about 3D mimicking the real world more, but for me at least it makes things feel more artificial – I’m used to watching flat screens and interpreting them as real, I’m not used to the pointy-pointiness of 3D.
However, while I found the 3D a little unnecessary, I didn’t find it anywhere near as distracting or unpleasant as I usually do, and I think that was down to the HFR. Usually when watching 3D I find it very hard to track things as the camera moves, so for example much of the beautiful design work on Hugo passed me by because every time the camera panned over the station, or through the mechanisms of a clock, my eye and brain couldn’t process it fast enough to see all the detail. That was not a problem at all in The Hobbit, and from the very little I’ve read that’s down to the HFR smoothing out the movement. I know there have been some reports of motion sickness, but to me at least the HFR made everything better than normal 3D. I’m also not sure whether it was the HFR or just sensible lighting, but I didn’t struggle to make out what was going on in darker scenes, as I often do with 3D due to the light loss, everything was clear, colourful and atmospheric.
However there was a strange sort of sheen to a lot of the film, I’m not sure whether this was down to the HFR, the 3D, the lighting or the shooting style (it was certainly most noticeable on the sections filmed on handheld cameras), but it really distracted me. It felt weirdly un-cinematic. Mark Kermode (in his wonderful show with Simon Mayo on 5 Live) described it as like watching HD television which is an excellent description. Peter Jackson (in an interview on the same programme) described it as being more intimate, as if you’re there with them, which is also true, but doesn’t quite work for me. It really felt at times like I was watching a very special episode of Eastenders or something, a television production blown up to the big screen.
While that would be a great effect for many films, I just don’t think it’s appropriate for The Hobbit. This is a fantasy film; I don’t need to feel a part of it in a way that might be appropriate for a drama or comedy set in our own world. When I go to see a big blockbuster film like this at the cinema, I’m looking for something cinematic – big and deep and sweeping and gorgeous. Spending a lot of money to make something look like a middling budget television show seems pretty ridiculous to me. While I guess it may mean that it will eventually look ‘appropriate’ when you’re watching it on blu-ray in the future, I didn’t pay 15 quid to see television quality on a cinema screen.
So I guess HFR fixes some of the problems with 3D, but introduces new ones of its own. Given that I don’t think the 3D really adds anything to the enjoyment or beauty of The Hobbit, I would be inclined therefore to say you may as well just watch the 2D version and avoid all the problems altogether. However, despite the fact that I spent several hundred words saying how good the film was, I’m afraid my issues with the runtime mean that I doubt I’ll go and see it a second time to find out whether the 2D version is better, which is a great indication of the sense of disappointment I have for a film which I will still describe as excellent.