In an ideal world, “The Hobbit” would have been adapted, screened and served as a suitable hors d’oeuvres before the main event, the Lord of the Rings (LOTR) trilogy.
In the real world, “The Hobbit” has to follow the groundbreaking and much loved LOTR films, which is a different and altogether more difficult proposition. Essentially creating a prequel, that by definition portends dark deeds that have already been revealed and comprising a much lighter, more humorous tone than the later books.
We open with a brief prelude in Hobbiton with the aged Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) finally revealing his earlier story of how he came by the ring to Frodo (Elijah Wood). Moving back in time we meet the younger version of Baggins (Martin Freeman) who takes the story forward.
Gandalf (Ian McKellen) has decided that Bilbo is the most suitable candidate to assist twelve dwarves in their quest to reclaim their homeland stolen from them by the treasure loving dragon Smaug. Bilbo is reluctant, he leads a very settled conservative life, with a full larder, doilies and a treasured dinner service collection.
Dwarves like to party and much to Bilbo’s horror, the house is soon overrun with much eating, belching and portentous singing. Eventually, despite his initial misgivings, Bilbo finds himself quite literally part of an unexpected adventure.
The story is well known to many and is too complex to recount in a short review. Fair to say that elves, goblins, orcs, trolls and eventually large spiders and dragons, together with other assorted fantastical creatures, all form part of the story as the quest progresses.
Whilst wizards and fantastical lands are now stereotyped, mainstream and frequently parodied, this is where the template was set. Many have followed and arguably bettered JRR Tolkien’s stories but these are much loved and any tampering will answer to a massive and vocal fanbase.
Peter Jackson returns to Middle Earth as director, despite initially declining and it is hard to imagine any other director handling the material as sensitively and confidently as he does here, together with his trusted producers and screenwriters.
The film starts slowly and teeters perilously close to being twee in places, notably the washing up sequence at Bagend and Radagast the Brown (Mccoy) reviving hedgehogs before driving a sled pulled by rabbits. Jackson flirting dangerously close to “Never ending story” material, that may have certain demographics seriously wondering when the next orc battle will start. Some judicious cutting in the films length, may well have been possible here.
The story starts to come to life the moment the dwarves fall down a crevice, directly into a fight with the goblin king, which leads to Bilbo’s first meeting with Gollum (Andy Serkis – motion capture). The sequence with Gollum is worth the price of entry alone, Serkis continuing his wonderful recreation with even more facial and physical expression than before, iconic cinema in the making with Jackson allowing the scene room to breathe. Ultimately, Bilbo’s actions or in fact failure to act, will have a profound affect on the later story.
Technically the film is a marvel, sweeping panoramic battles, first person perspective runs through fantastical detailed underworld settings with believable yet simply impossible chase and escape sequences. Orcs and goblins are dispatched with wild glee, censors kept at bay with a lack of (red) blood. The dwarves played by well known (full size) actors (James Nesbitt, Richard Armitrage to name two), who interact with seven foot wizards and small hobbits all without issue, Jackson using a variety of techniques to make this world work. Mention must be made of the make up and costumes on display, each dwarf is a masterpiece and even in HD, stands up well to closer inspection. Finally, Howard Shore’s epic score, again complements the action with variations upon the well known central theme.
Ian McKellen brings Gandalf to life once more, Freeman does confused, yet earnest better than anyone and particularly excels in his scenes with Gollum. Hugo Weaving and Cate Blachett make welcome returns, Blanchett sharing a gentle well played scene with McKellen, an indication of why they returned to their roles and speaks volumes to the depth of the characters friendship.
Liberties have been taken with the story, with some additions to enliven certain sequences but all within the spirit of the story, that even the most traditional of Tolkienists may find hard to fault. Jackson makes extensive use of New Zealand’s wild and untamed South Island beauty, augmented as before with state of the art CGI work.
As most will know, the story is now set to become three films and so this first outing must come to an abrupt stop and so it does but in a suitable place and with a great line “I do believe the worst is now behind us”, related without a trace of irony.
There is more humour, a lighter tone which aligns with the original story, which some LOTR devotees may find hard to accept but overall this is solid entertainment. Following a shaky start the film finds it’s stride and provides the audience with a rousing second half, complete with some of the best Orcs and Wargs yet seen in the series.
3D adds depth and the high frame rate version seen here does provide an immersive experience, whether this works well with live action and is less “cinematic” is still open to debate. At times the 3D action resembles the most expensive computer game ever, which may detract from the experience for some.
It is difficult to believe any other director could have brought this story to life with such sympathy, care and love as director Peter Jackson and his team.
That the film does fall short of the beloved LOTR trilogy is almost to be expected. However, despite some early misgivings, this sets the scene for a continued adventure that most will enjoy and continue to cherish.