Sitting in the dark in the theater, at midnight no less, I checked my watch before the film began. My expectations were low. So low, you’d have to fall down that well in the Mines of Moria to find them. It isn’t that I don’t like The Lord of the Rings Trilogy. On the contrary, my love for the films and the books is exactly why I was worried about Peter Jackson’s latest Middle-Earth effort The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. The split into three films worried me. The underwhelming look of the trailers worried me. The mere fact that I was returning to a universe I so loved in and of itself was a worry for me. I was more excited for the lobster ravioli I was to have for dinner before the film. But, as they say, lower your expectations and you shall be amazed! Or, at least, pleasantly surprised. I looked back at my watch, the lights went down, and I braced myself for the worst.
The Hobbit was the children’s tale that would then become sort of a blueprint for JRR Tolkien’s epic, massive, magisterial The Lord of the Rings Trilogy and the One Ring that would become the focal point for it all. But, as aforementioned, The Hobbitwas an adventure, something that, at its essence, did not give way to great complication or all that much complexity (well, unless you’re one of two things: an English Lit major or a Film Critic). Bilbo Baggins is a bit of a nebbish, a hobbit who likes his calm. He is called upon by Gandalf the Grey Wizard to go on an adventure with a set of dwarves. Their goal is to defeat Smaug, the dragon bathing in the dwarves’ gold in the Misty Mountains. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the first part of the trilogy, doesn’t get us that far.
Structurally, it is nearly identical to The Fellowship of the Ring, Peter Jackson’s first LOTR film. Almost beat for beat, from the mythological exposition of the prologue, to the unwillingness of Bilbo to go on an adventure, to the travel itself and even some of the locations. This familiarity works, in some ways, in the film’s favor. Journeying back to a world one is so familiar with but with new characters and a new story is, admittedly, a rather jarring experience. It will be, assuredly, the same thing viewers will feel whenever those new Star Wars movies come out. The structure, though, seems to inherently ease the transition and reconciliation between “old world, new story” (even though The Hobbit is technically a “prequel”).
The familiarity of its structure, however, does not save everything. Much like The Fellowship of the Ring, and in some ways even worse, The Hobbit takes its time getting to certain things. It drags, man. It really drags in certain parts. Despite the film being fifteen or seventeen minutes shorter than The Fellowship of the Rings, many scenes of exposition actually make the film feel much longer than any of the original trilogy. It is here where The Hobbit fails most for me. I have seen the Extended Editions of The Lord of the Rings Trilogy enough times that I have no idea what the theatrical cuts look like. They offer a complete, full, and whole experience, and, while The Two Towers is guilty of having some awful pacing problems, I enjoy watching the extended edits immensely. However, the pacing issues with The Hobbit get so bad that I remain uninterested in seeing an extended edition of the film. It already feels extended. Part of it is the padding from the other stories that Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens have taken from the appendices of the books. A fun drinking game would be taking a shot every time you noticed something added in.
One of the major differences in terms of the look and production of the film is the balls to the wall utilization of CGI. Gone are the practical makeup effects and the somewhat silly transitions. Au revior, real orcs! Ta-ta, Uruk-Hai! It’s 2012, dontcha know! It’s the digital age! While many of the locations are actually locations (yay New Zealand!), some of it has been transformed more drastically than one expected. One of the beauties of The Lord of the Rings was how real it felt. That sounds kind of ridiculous, but it’s true. The Shire is intact, but a part of me felt disappointed in this respect. Middle-Earth, at one point, felt like somewhere tangible and real. With some overuse of CGI, you, of course, have your cinematography. The Lord of the Rings had some wonderful sweeping camera movements. The Hobbit has them in spades. I suppose the best way to describe the technology and production of the Hobbit is this: The Hobbit takes some of the techniques that The Lord of the Rings used, and then uses them while on crack and LSD. Some of it is too much.
You’ve gotten this far into my review and all I’ve sounded is really negative. I’m sorry.
Despite its sometimes horrendous pacing issues and its obnoxious, unrestrained camera work, The Hobbit can be a gorgeous spectacle to behold. Its action and set pieces are thrilling. When the action gets going, it really gets going. Many of the battle sequences take your breath away, and the intense sound and cinematography work in these scenes’ favors. It is in these moments you remember the joy of The Lord of the Rings Trilogy. I did not see the film in HFR (48fps), but I did see it in IMAX 3D. While the 3D is not inherent to enjoying the film, it is actually quite nice in some parts. There is a lot of depth to be had with a film on such a grand scale.
Martin Freeman (BBC’s The Office, Sherlock) slips into the role of Bilbo Baggins effortlessly, which, honestly, surprised me. And, true to the character in the book, he plays Bilbo kind of like a nervous wreck. He plays Bilbo like Woody Allen. (Which leads me to say that Woody Allen should totally cast Martin Freeman in one of his films.) It allows the character to be amiable, cute, kind of endearing. What may be good, however, is that this nebbish quality of Bilbo’s doesn’t seem forced. It seems completely natural.
The single best part of the film, though, is the return of that cannibalistic, obsessive monster: Gollum, Andy Serkis one again making an iconic performance. Gollum has always been one of the best aspects of the Tolkien films, Serkis embodying hate, greed, and self-loathing unlike any other actor, and his performance here is just as good. (In a perfect world, the man would have gotten an Oscar nod. But noooo.) The Riddles in the Dark scene, imbued with wit and solemnness, is bar none the greatest scene in the film.
Returning to Middle-Earth was weird, sure, but getting back into the swing of things, especially with its near identical narrative structure to The Fellowship of the Ring, seems fairly easy. There are major lulls and the pacing can be awful, but with Martin Freeman, some flourishes from Guillermo del Toro, Peter Jackson, some thrilling action, and Andy Serkis returning as Gollum, I’m ready to return to Middle-Earth!