If there is anything I have learned from this year’s films, it is to not get my hopes up. From Snow White and The Huntsman, The Dark Knight Rises, to Prometheus, this was the year of disappointments. So in anticipation for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (a project I must admit I was more excited for when Guillermo del Toro was still attached), I watched no videos, read no articles, and didn’t pick up the copy of The Hobbit I’ve had sitting in my bookshelf for years. I didn’t want any excessive expectations and that is the context under which this review has been written.
All I wanted out of The Hobbit was for it to be entertaining and it was. The film is a fun adventure back to Middle Earth. I cannot compare it to the book, as I have read none of Tolkien’s writings. From what I have picked up from my Ringer friends, The Hobbit book is different in tone and various aspects from the three Lord of the Rings books. But it is impossible not to go and watch this movie without being influenced by those other films. When I first started writing this review it was much more glowing, but then TNT replayed the earlier Jackson films and I realized that The Hobbit may be enjoyable but it isn’t outstanding.
For me, the difference between a good film and a great film is how much I want to re-watch it. Obviously there are exceptions. I think bawling your eyes out during Sophie’s Choice is a once in a lifetime experience, but especially for comedies and adventure films I find my distinction works. While I have done the Lord of the Rings extended edition New Year’s Eve marathon, I probably won’t watch The Hobbit again until right before the second film comes out. I had fun while watching it, but there are no scenes that I just have to watch again.
The Hobbit is both a comedy and an adventure. The source material was purposefully written for a younger audience and this comes through clearly in the film. Moments such as Gandalf referencing golf or a dwarf bringing up croquette, these anachronistic terms (I’m not sure what the exact word would be for something not of a film’s particular universe would be) are a breach to the 4th wall. Not only do they remind the audience that this is not LotR, but it also reminds us that we are watching a movie.
That is a key difference against the original trilogy. In the first three films, the audience is following the adventure. We are a part of the fellowship. Though those that read the books knew what was to come, they were still immersed in the world of Middle Earth. Instead of experiencing The Hobbit, the audience is watching it. Beyond just the puns, the film continually foreshadows the events of the films to come, almost as if winking to the audience as director Peter Jackson makes us a part of an inside joke. But without the shock and awe of new visuals, immersion in the universe is difficult to obtain.
But it isn’t just that the visuals aren’t novel, they sometimes just lack quality. Re-watching the original trilogy I was reminded of just how visceral the orcs are. In The Hobbit, a majority of the villains are CGI. Perhaps this was a choice as to dampen the darkness of seeing a truly horrifying creature, matching the tone of the film much better. However, the style of the graphics did not blend well with the live-action portions, again creating a barrier between the film and the filmgoer.
There is an exception and that would be Gollum. Andy Serkis’ performance is actually better than in the past three films and that is thank sto the new technology of performance capture. Though still wearing the dotted suit, performance capture allows for live recording on set with a camera attached to the actor. Serkis was able to perform the cave scene with Martin Freeman just as any normal actor would and the camera had a better position to capture not only Serkis’ movements but also his facial expressions. I’m hoping that this method will help Serkis in obtaining what LotR lacked: Academy Award nominations for acting.
The casting in The Hobbit is one of its greatest strengths. Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins is the perfect everyman, the character in which the audience relates to best. But what surprised me most were the dwarves. One of the worries I had when the first few trailers came out was the inability to tell the dwarves apart. Despite similar names I could now distinguish the duo of Fili and Kili (played by Aidan Turner of Being Human, kudos for making dwarves attractive), knew that Bofur was the jokester, and Ori was the baby of the group. Obviously those actors returning to Middle Earth such as Ian Mckellen as Gandalf, Hugo Weaving as Elrond, Cate Blanchett as Galadriel, and the always devious Christopher Lee reprising his role as Saruman, all these actors were just as wonderful as before.
Though featuring a large cast, the film is focused mainly on one story. Bilbo journeys with the dwarves and Gandalf to win back their home. Rarely does the film delineate from that plot. This shrinks the scale of the film, but I feel that is for the best. What visuals there are just come off as par or repetitive, so achieving anything grand or majestic would have been a crapshoot. Since the most positive aspect of the film is the acting, a focus on character instead of an epic sweeping adventure seems right.
Usually I’ll sit through a film unable to restrain myself from analyzing the movie. That is my job after all. But I made a point of reminding myself that the function of The Hobbit is unlike most films. It not only needs to be part of a trilogy, but a prequel to a franchise that I’d describe as an older cousin versus an older brother, and yet stand-alone as well. There have been numerous comparisons to The Phantom Menance as it served the same function, but then failed. The Hobbit does not fail like Episode I. The film sets up the next two films, getting us to know the characters and the stakes involved. Though not as dark or mature as LotR, the movie still feels in sync with the universe. As a stand-alone, The Hobbit is quality filmmaking. Maybe the film will grow on me, or perhaps it shall fade away, but I do not for one-minute regret sitting in a theater for three hours with a stomach full of Lembas bread.