Nine years after the last outing in Middle Earth, Peter Jackson returns to the land of hobbits, dwarves and dragons to tell the tale of one Bilbo Baggins in the first of a new film trilogy based on JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Or at least the first six chapters of it.
[Now, I always try to be as objective as possible when I review a film, but in the case of this film I may be slightly biased. I’m a huge fan of the Lord of the Rings trilogy; I think they represented a new era of filmmaking, they instigated a revival in the fantasy genre and they’re also some pretty awesome films in their own right. In my opinion. So I may be a little more forgiving of some of the slight problems with this film, due to my love of the series. You’ll also have to try not to laugh when I tell you that as soon as this film started I felt a little nostalgic weep coming on. It was slipping back into a universe that I love, and when I heard the theme for the Shire for the first time in years, I got a little misty.]
The Hobbit concerns Bilbo Baggins joining a company of dwarves on a quest to reclaim their home from the evil dragon Smaug (whose threat is set up nicely in the prologue to the film) and all the problems they encounter along the way. A lot of the criticisms aimed at the Lord of the Rings trilogy revolved around the fact that they were 3 films about walking; well, those criticisms are likely to rear their heads again, as this film involves a lot of it as well. But more so than that the film is really about Bilbo going from a reluctant member of this fellowship to a willing participant, learning to be part of important events and not just a bystander.
Martin Freeman is wonderful in the role, selling the transformation beautifully, and as viewers of The Office or Sherlock know he can do exasperated and deadpan in his sleep so it’s easy to see why he was the number one choice for Bilbo. He brings warmth and a naivety to the character but also a world weariness that Elijah Wood’s Frodo never had. Ian McKellen is predictably brilliant as Gandalf once more, and it’s hard (if not impossible) to imagine anyone else in the role. The dwarves however fare less well, as most just sort of fade into the background without any discernable personalities; the exceptions being Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield, the leader of the dwarves with a good line in brooding; the Aragorn of this trilogy if you will. Balin (Ken Stott) is given the wise old dwarf routine, but never feels like he’s just Basil Exposition. And Jimmy Nesbitt is basically only recognisable because he’s Jimmy Nesbitt.
The problems with the film arise when you take in to account the fact that what once was two films is now three, and as such there is a lot of padding that likely would not have been in the theatrical release had it remained that way. There are scenes that feel like two movies colliding together; both of which have loose ties to each other but feel like very separate entities. For example, Gandalf’s investigation of the Necromancer and the subplot with Radagast the Brown doesn’t ever really fit together with the main plot of the film and any time spent on it sends the film crashing to a halt and leaves you eager to get back to Bilbo’s quest. It could have been removed completely to no detriment to the film.
But those are minor qualms that don’t detract from the film at all; while not as good as the first film in the Rings trilogy, it’s a worthy addition to the Middle Earth saga and has a scene that stands up with the best of them: the Riddles in the Dark sequence featuring the return of Gollum, which is essentially a two hander scene with the former hobbit and Bilbo. It’s funny, scary, clever and filled with pathos all at once, and it makes you wish the rest of the film was as good as this 10 minute scene. However, despite being nearly three hours long the film never drags; there isn’t a moment, even in those aforementioned pointless scenes, that feels drawn out. The film zips along at a brisk pace and with a lightness of touch.
As a film that half of it could probably have been cut out, it’s a strange beast. Every single scene in the film has been lavished without care and attention yet you also feel as though you wouldn’t miss it were it gone. As a franchise starter it seems a little too unfocused, but just to be back in the world gives the film a free pass in this regard. Perhaps that’s not quite fair, as I’d be harsher on other films for having superfluous scenes so if I had to give a purely objective score I’d say:
Three and a half stars
A brief note on 48FPS:
I saw the film in 3D and in the higher frame rate, and wasn’t convinced. It makes movement, especially in the close up shots seem as though someone has leaned on the fast forward button. And yes while it makes the film look super clear and crisp and affords it the best 3D I’ve seen (no sore eyes and very little colour blurring) it takes you out of scenes when Bilbo seems like he’s moving unnaturally quickly.
And although the higher frame rate makes the film look absolutely beautiful in parts (wide shots of landscapes that feel as though you could reach out and touch them) it also shows up the slightly wonky effects work that you may have gotten away with in regular 24FPS. For a franchise which had some of the best prosthetic work ever seen in the original trilogy, the filmmakers have made the baffling decision in to make most of the orcs and goblins here fully CG creations, and as such have no tangibility and look like rejects from a Playstation game at points, especially the Goblin King, which is undoubtedly the fault of the higher frame rate. It’s disappointing considering the history of the franchise but not something that impacts that film too much. Although the CG guys will have to up their game for the next installment.
Review by Jonathan Cardwell.
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