It’s been almost a decade since Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings
trilogy came to a close. Now, the special effects devotee has brought the first episode of The Hobbit to the big screen. Adapted from J.R.R. Tolkien’s children’s fantasy novel by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Jackson and Guillermo del Toro
—who was initially signed on as director but resigned due to scheduling delays — the story, ruthlessly dragged out to fill three protracted episodes, takes a back seat to experimentation with visual effects, including 3D and the controversial decision to film at a rate that doubles the usual 24 frames-per-second film speed.
From the opening frame, it’s clear that Jackson considers The Hobbit
as a prequel, or at least a serviceable prelude, to The Lord of the Rings
. Presumably not long after those adventures, Frodo (Elijah Wood) catches his elderly uncle, Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm), writing his memoirs and presses him to tell the story of first great adventure when he was tricked into leaving the Hobbit Shire by wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen). With all but wavy flashback effects, the film jumps back in time sixty years and Frodo’s brief appearance is over and the role of Bilbo, as a much younger Hobbit, is played by Martin Freeman.
Essentially, Bilbo Baggins is press-ganged by Gandalf into helping a motley baker’s dozen of dwarves (played by some familiar British actors made unrecognizable by beards and prosthetics, such as Ken Stott, John Rhys-Davies, Aidan Turner, James Nesbitt) take back their homeland from a gold-loving, fire-breathing dragon. The wizard misrepresents the Hobbit as an accomplished burglar, necessary for sly reentry into a secret door into the mountain that leads to the dwarf kingdom. Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), dwarf prince and veteran warrior, remains skeptical of Bilbo’s value to the group until Bilbo proves otherwise.
It’s been too long since I’ve read “The Hobbit
” or seen the 1977 Rankin and Bass cartoon that inspired the reading of it for me to make any accurate comparisons between source material and this latest iteration. But it seems that in the parsing of the big moments into three separate episodes, the filmmakers have milked every small detour for every added minute they can provide. The unwelcome dinner party that introduces Bilbo to the plight of the dwarves is sustained too long and not through character individuation, which would be helpful since the dwarves are awfully hard to tell apart, or scene setting but through exposition and repetition. Corny dwarf jokes, firmly in the area of potty humor, abound.
Once away from the Shire, each new threat, minus Gollum, is dispatched in much the same way. Orcs, trolls, goblins, dragon, some unknown darker force gathering strength? They give chase and dwarves, Hobbit and wizard are sent scattering, and then a small amount of magic and a large amount of heart or bravery brings them back safely. There’s not enough at stake here. Plus, for all the talk about visual effects, the villains don’t even look very impressive. Rock monsters play Rock’em Sock’em Robots with each other. Goblins and trolls look more like animated cartoons than any tactile threat. Although menacing in their beastliness enough to change the tone of the film from fairytale to horror and putting this film way out of viewing reach for a young audience, the Orcs aren’t nearly as scary here as they were in Lord of the Rings, especially the leader Orc who plays a pivotal role. The abrupt change in tone to include this violence can be blamed for it.
Between the slow start, the corny humor, the unrelenting score, the uneven tone and the too-bright lighting of the 48 fps, the film comes off as amateurish and stagy. At times, the sets resemble the Styrofoam rocks from Sid and Marty Krofft’s 1970s television show Land of the Lost
. Plus, the use of 3D technology is superfluous. During the one true emotional moment of the film, with Gollum (Andy Serkis) and his riddles, the suspense is provided by the characters and knowing what’s at stake and not any technological innovations. Such a shame there isn’t more of that.