“I found something in the goblin tunnels.”
“What did you find?”
“Good, you’ll need it.”
The Hobbit trilogy is, I think, perhaps the ultimate fan fiction for the universe surrounding Middle Earth — that is to say, for The Lord of the Rings. Consider: why would one take a book less than 300 pages and make a trilogy out of it where with The Lord of the Rings trilogy, 3 books of about ~400 pages each were made into 3 films? If the same logic was applied to The Lord of the Rings filmmaking as we’re seeing here with The Hobbit, we’d have 9 films, 3 for each book.
So what has happened here? Well, I’ll tell you: Peter Jackson is a fan boy of Middle Earth and he wanted to mix in some (a lot) of fan-fiction with the story of The Hobbit. While this is not altogether a bad thing, it is strange. I cannot recall any time previous that fan-fiction acheived such heights and blockbuster status.
On the whole, I would say that this film is better than the first installment into this trilogy, but I’m not quite willing to give it 4 star status, and so it remains at 3.5 stars in my estimation, just like its predecessor. One thing is certain, there is a bit more action in store for us and it does not take 45 minutes to get the story started. The quest has already begun, and after a slight falter with an opening flashback scene (in which the very first thing we see is Peter Jackson eating a carrot — how strange is that?), we’re off to the races. The dwarves and Bilbo have only one thing on their minds, and that’s getting to the mountain wherein is contained the dragon that stole their gold. They want to reclaim said treasure, and Thorin would be King under the mountain!
Martin Freeman’s performance as Bilbo continues to impress me. I don’t think we would have gotten a better performance out of even Ian Holm. Yes, I know that may be sacrilege to some of you who loved our first portrayal of Bilbo from him in The Lord of the Rings, but it must be said. We never had to see Ian Holm as Bilbo in action and after seeing Martin Freeman with the gig I cannot imagine any other. And his slow transformation from a timid and unsure of himself hobbit, to the hobbit wielding the one ring as it battles for his soul is a well portrayed one. Of course this much was not in the book. In fact in the book the ring is little more than a power up for Bilbo because Tolkien had not worked out what it was or what it did or the power it would have. So this change, though subtle, is quite appropriate. And it is well played by Freeman.
Richard Armitage’s turn as Thorin is also good. He’s the character I can’t quite pin down. Pompous and arrogant, passionate and stubborn I can never quite decide if I like him or just want to punch him. This is in keeping with the good dwarf’s character in the book.
On the less likable side we have pretty boy Legolas returning, and if he somehow looks older to your eyes, well that’s probably because actor Orlando Bloom is well past the spring chicken stage and getting close to the top of that dreaded hill. He looks older to my eyes and slighly more plump. And without Gimli completely flat. Also pointless. Why is he even in this film? Additionally, every single fight sequence he was in felt both needless, and entirely too much like slick CGI. Something was just off about the whole business. Somehow his fighting lacked any reality. It completely and utterly lacked any sense of realism. Yes, it’s all fantasy, but in The Lord of the Rings, the battle felt real. Not so much here.
Legolas’ lady friend, Tauriel, was not much better. Middle Earth seemed to have a lack of characters from which Peter Jackson could draw upon, so he created a new one just for us! I’m sure the casting of Evangeline Lilly also had nothing to do with her (perceived) “hotness” and attractiveness either. Truth be told she worked fine but I did not find her character necessary or the way in which she was written into the story all that compelling.
Of course, the beauty of Middle Earth is once again on display. If there’s one things Jackson has an eye for, it’s the beauty of filmmaking in New Zealand. I drank up each and every beauty shot of “Middle Earth” every time we got it. The shots of Laketown are breathtaking. The shots of the Lonely Mountain are a sight to behold. Even some of the CGI scenery is beyond good. There’s a particular shot that sweeps up to reveal a big, long, dark forrest into which the Dwarves and our brave hobbit must journey and it is, as you would expect breathtaking.
But, speaking of CGI, I did feel that like the first film, the special effects shots were a bit of a mixed bag. Azog still feels woefully fake to me. His son, Bolg, seems to be somewhat better rendered to my eyes, but still feels very fake. Those orcs that are not being rendered with CGI do feel better though. And at least we didn’t get extended fight sequences where dwarves sweep scads of orcs off of bridges by waving around big log poles. That was pretty awful in the first film.
Of course the one big CGI treat that we do get, and the one on which they seem to have spared no rendering expense is our famous dragon, Smaug. Now there is some convincing CGI.
One of the more perplexing things to unravel is the nature of a prequel. What’s made more interesting about this prequel is that the book on which it is based is not a prequel. It was simply written first. As such, many ideas that later changed or saw fruition in The Lord of the Rings, were not fully fleshed out in The Hobbit. This creates a particularly interesting challenge when adapting for film. What direction should one take? How closely should it be tied to The Lord of the Rings trilogy which has already been made? The answer for Peter Jackson is to go all the way. To force this story to fit the existing Lord of the Rings narrative. To insert things if it seems to make things fit better. This makes things a little bit interesting because The Hobbit is simply a lighter, happier tale than that of The Lord of the Rings. But since Peter Jackson is trying to force the thing into his mold, the films seems to vacillate between two tones. There’s the darker, more sinister tone as we cut to the goings on of the orcs and the necromancer — and as we see what Gandalf is getting up to. And then there’s the lighter tone and humor of the dwarves. Thorin takes himself much too seriously, which makes it funny. Stephen Fry plays a fat old king who is, well, not to be taken too seriously. And Bilbo is, well, Bilbo. Unfortunately these two elements give the impression that this story doesn’t quite know what it wants to be and I think it suffers for it. I continue to maintain that this trilogy would have been far better off as one film and that the elements that would have had to be stripped from the narrative to make that happen would have been good and necessary cuts. I don’t mind a film taking a little time to tell us a story, but good gracious these first two films really do take their time at times.
There does remain a highlight for this film. Just as in the first, the highlight was Bilbo’s encounter with Gollum, in this film the highlight is Bilbo’s encounter with Smaug. They trade wit and barbs, and even if the scene quite lacks that same bit of charm and dare I say just a bit of Lord of the Rings nostalgia that Gollum brought to us, it does not lack for great acting and great writing. That’s good because Smaug is the titular character so his part(s) better be good. Lending his voice to the role is Benedict Cumberbatch and it is marvelous.
The fact remains though, that like the previous film, this film is just too darn long. Jackson tries too hard, reaching deep for meaning, and in the process, losing grip on the primary narrative of the film. He’s like a kid in a candy shop. He’s got too much story, much of it seems like fan fiction. There’s plenty of detail to be had but not enough substance. There is a such thing as “excesses in filmmaking” and I daresay that Peter Jackson is there at this point in his career.
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the film quite a lot, but unfortunately my feeling coming away from this film was, doggoneit, we’ve still got almost another three hours left in this overlong trilogy. If these entire three films had been condensed to the length of this one, I think I would have been very happy.