Man, I just can’t say I’m ready to go back to Middle Earth. Especially knowing that Peter Jackson brought each of the three J.R.R. Tolkien Lord of the Rings books to the big screen in movies as equal to Tolkien’s adventurous, labyrinthine dungeons and dragons design as humanly possible. Those movies were a success a decade ago and breathed a wave of seriousness into movie theater entertainment that we haven’t quite seen since. And so he’s doing it again, but turning a single book, The Hobbit, into three movies the first of which is nearly three hours long. An unexpected journey? I think not. It’s exactly what we would expect from Peter Jackson after the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The Hobbit is nearly a Lord of the Rings IV, and one that’s a prequel at that. It’s more than reminiscent of what George Lucas did with Star Wars because after seeing The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey I now see that Jackson is exactly what any new Star Wars film needs. A director who can take us on a proper adventure.
The Story: Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) as a young hobbit (the hobbit for those that don’t know are tiny human-like beings with big hairy feet) who is slyly recruited by wizard Gandalf The Grey (Ian McKellen) to help a band of wayward dwarves reclaim their dwarf kingdom from a gold-loving dragon named Smaug. Think Dorthy and her friends traveling the yellow brick road to meet the wizard and having to confront the Wicked Witch of the East. This is sort of a flashback story as the older Baggins (Ian Holm), the one we got to know in Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), is writing his memoir-like story for cousin Frodo (Elijah Wood). Somehow I can’t imagine it would differ from or outweigh Frodo’s story of returning the sacred ring to the depths of fire at Mordor. But like in Frodo’s story, for Bilbo too in his journey a wealth of friendship and self-discovery is gained along the way.
The Goods: I wasn’t exactly in the mood for another three hour Jackson film filled with much of the same character types and sword battles against orcs we’ve seen previously in the LOTR films (the last one, LOTR: Return of the King was in 2003). And I kind of expected there to be a stretching of time and action in terms of turning the one book, The Hobbit, into three films. It’s not like The Hobbit, written in 1937 England, before the onset of a Nazi invasion two years later, was ever, or is, a large, many-paged book. It’s not. Instead it’s a dense, prose-like story just over 300 pages written in a poetic language more like a Shakespearean play rather than a comic book or graphic novel, and one that takes the reader on a very vivid expedition. It’s really over before you know it but filled with such games, goals, conquests and heroics from characters with the strangest names that you just don’t want it to end. Not to mention dragons. It was a favorite book of mine as a kid. So I wasn’t in the mood sitting down before the start, putting on my 3D glasses to see all of that imagination and fantasy ruined, or to see LOTR repeated, quite frankly, in a different Tolkien time-frame utilizing all the bells and whistles from Jackson’s digital factory WETA.
Low and behold, he doesn’t ruin it; and in fact Jackson will impress fans increasingly at every hour. And what I find fascinating is how right and proper the film starts out, a beginning that for nearly forty minutes risks zzzzzz’s from even the most caffeinated viewer. The slow, dramatic, character establishing back story and sing-a-longs with dwarves as adorable as Snow White’s, is at times funny, at times charming, at times chaotic, mostly mysterious, and surprisingly something along the lines of a Disney family adventure, like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), or Swiss Family Robinson (1960), or Candleshoe (1977), more so than say a Pixar movie like A Bug’s Life (1998) (though characters in The Hobbit do remind me of Terry Gilliam’s misfits from Time Bandits (1981) and Monty Python and The Holy Grail (1975)). Meaning The Hobbit takes it’s time incubating the seeds of what viewers will require—visual description, showing not telling—to care for these hobbits and dwarves and wizards for the duration of this challenging, conflict-laden journey.
The Flaws: But are we asking too much to stretch the one book like this into three films? Instead of using elliptical editing and voice-over and the typical tricks of the Hollywood trade to encapsulate time into a comfortable sitting time for viewers? I keep saying it isn’t necessary, none of it is really especially after what Jackson did with LOTR. It’s like leave it alone. Yes, you get a sense from the film, and in the headlines of New Zealand papers, that there is more at stake here in terms of tourism and what looks like a possible amusement park or theme park adventure based on Tolkien’s books and Jackson’s movies. I’ve read that the Tolkien family isn’t exactly happy with the way things have turned out, probably because they might miss out on a licensing gold mine.
But another Jackson adventure film milking the Tolkien teet doen’t bother me nearly as much as the cinematography and 3D. In the last two years when nearly all big films are photographed using digital video instead of old-fashioned celluloid, and when big Hollywood films like The Amazing Spiderman (2012) can look so amazing shot on video, I’m shocked at how poorly muddied and grey The Hobbit looks. I had to pull the old Clash of the Titans (2010) trick and take my 3D glasses off to compare the lighting one from the other only to be horrified at how colorful and bright the spectacle-less version is. This film does not need to be in 3D, and it doesn’t need to be shot at any other frame rate than 24 frames per second.
The Hobbit was shot at 48 frames per second instead of the regular 24, which puts the film through the lens faster, more frames per second, than normal. Normally this is done with a slower playback to produce a slow motion effect but to do what with the image here I have no idea. Some say it makes it clearer, creates less blur, less softness. If so I couldn’t appreciate it with the effects of the 3D. I’ll have to try again without the third dimension. The old Hollywood moguls established the 24 fps with the onset of talking pictures saying the 24 fps rate matched human persistence of vision and was better for sound reproduction. To double the rate now seems to do nothing more than add more marketing muscle.
One grave mistake with The Hobbit however is the shortened time with Gollum in the movie than what we read in the book. The book seems to relish over Gollum’s introduction and Gollum and Bilbo’s meeting in a longer sequence within the book. Ironically it’s the shortest establishment of character and importance in the movie. Possibly a symptom of what Gollum parts came before it in the previous LOTR films. Though for those who have seen the LOTR films first, re-visiting Gollum does have a nostalgic and fun screwiness about it.
The Call: Spend the ten if you’re a fan of fantasy and adventure films, a fan of Peter Jackson, or a J.R.R. Tolkien fan at the least. For kids who’ve never read the book I’d say read the book first before seeing the movie. And whatever you do don’t waste your money on 3D. I will say this, that after two and half hours sitting there watching all of this…this fiction, slowly unfold, I realized that Peter Jackson is the person you want if you intend to ever make a Star Wars film. The Tolkien stories and the Star Wars world go hand in hand, they’re just galaxies apart. Peter Jackson understands what it takes to put characters into a mythical and legendary “galaxy,” to be explorers in foreign and exotic settings, into worlds similar to but different than ours and let them run amuck, controlling the chaos with well placed conflict-mines for our viewing pleasure.
Rated PG-13 for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence, and frightening images. Running time is 2 hours and 49 minutes.