Besides Batman, I know there are few things you’d be more excited to see a live-action version of than The Hobbit. Good news: the man who was responsible for creating the great live-action versions of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Peter Jackson—the guy who directed Meets the Feebles, believe it or not—has come back again to tackle this return to Middle Earth. Despite enjoying the animated version of the movie and having listened to multiple versions of the book on tape, nothing so far has really, fully captured the feel of The Hobbit you always imagined. This is a good first step in that direction.
I’m sure that you remember the story follows Bilbo Baggins (played by Martin Freeman—he’s responsible for playing the best version of Dr. Watson for our generation) as he journeys to the Lonely Mountain with a band of dwarves to battle the dragon Smaug and recapture a fortune—a story that was just briefly touched upon in the Lord of the Rings movies. Having been written before and taking place chronologically before the Lord of the Rings, this is in essence a prequel, though very little of the story carries over, besides the one ring and a few characters. Thankfully, Jackson is good about realizing that The Hobbit is very much its own story, with a few nods to the continuity in the franchise. As with Lord of the Rings, this story is being broken up into three films (despite having mostly come from only one book, unlike those films).
As much as you will enjoy the Lord of the Rings films, you know The Hobbit also has a lot of positives going for it. Most importantly, Bilbo is a much more engaging character than Frodo, and he’s given much more character development through his role. This really feels like his journey, more than him being one of many characters. Similarly, the villain Smaug is much more intense than Sauron ever ended up being, and it will be very exciting when he make his presence fully felt in the next movie. On the flipside, this feels for the most part smaller in scale, and is most comparable to The Fellowship of the Ring, since this is more of a quest story than about large scale battles.
If you have any questions on how they could even make this film, technology has come a long way since Return of the Jedi. It seems like the filmmakers would have to make use animatronic technology, like in Jaws, but actually the film makes heavy use of computer generated imagery (aka CGI) to create some of the locations and many of the creatures. Additionally, the film is the first major release using a new type of 3D technology, shooting the film at 48 frames-per-second rather than the standard 24. The result is that the film feels more three-dimensional, but, unfortunately, the CGI feels much more obvious than in some other films. It is similar to the 120hz technology that is present in many of our modern LCD televisions that create a “theatrical” feel to the action, by which I mean it feels like you are watching a play—not a movie. I understand what they are trying to do with the technology, trying to put the viewer in the middle of the action, but it feels like a stop-gap on a much longer journey. Mostly it is a bit distracting. I know how much you love technology, and it is neat to get a glimpse into the future, but it is probably wise to avoid that version of the film at first, so you can focus more on enjoying the story.
It is obviously too early to give a final judgment on this series, since a lot of the key scenes, such as with Smaug, have yet to happen. But many of the important touchstones have been hit beautifully. Bilbo’s encounter with Gollum is fantastic, though I know you wish he played a bigger role in the story. (But that’s what the Lord of the Rings films will be good for.) Similarly, Bilbo’s first encounter with the dwarves feels on point, if perhaps a bit stretched out in time. There are some areas where it feels like Jackson is letting his imagination get the better of him, such as while the party navigates past the stone giants in the misty mountains, or during the battle with the Orcs inside the mountains. Remember, sometimes less is more. It’s unclear why the story needs to be broken up into three parts; as we head into the next movie, it feels like they are already about halfway through the plot.
Speaking of time, believe it or not the Lord of the Rings trilogy clocked in at over eleven hours when all was said and done. Comparatively, this film is a brief 160 minutes. That said, the film still feels exhaustively thorough. It seems more concerned about including everything, as opposed to trying to capture the feel of the story. This film is twenty minutes shorter than the shortest theatrical cut from the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but it still felt like it could have been easily cut down by 20-30 minutes and maintained the same feel. I know you are a fan of brevity, so this will be a bit taxing—but don’t worry, there is enough action to keep it moving along fairly briskly most of the time.
At the end of the day, this film has several flaws, but it isn’t often you get to see something you’ve imagined many times make its way onto the silver screen. It’s like that old friend, where you focus more on the positives and overlook the negatives. The journey is still magical, and having to wait another year to see the next chapter will be a quite a challenge. Sorry, bud, that it’s gonna be another 20 years or so for you…
Final Grade: B
Final Grade with 48fps: C+