So, the Hobbit opened to a weekend of about 85 million bucks. Not too shocked to see the numbers as audiences have been dying to get back to Middle-Earth for some time now. The arduous journey from page to screen has been long in the making for Jackson and company (Let's not forget Guillermo del Toro was originally tapped to direct) but was the trek worth it?
Yes but with some reservations.
The Hobbit, a much shorter story from one of the fathers of high fantasy, is one which we learn of the tale of Frodo's uncle, Bilbo Baggins. He must deal with a frightful dragon, Smaug, and in, turn, ends up coming to possess the one ring that causes all that hub-bub in the penultimate triology.
It is lighter in tone and more kid-friendly, as the original source material was, but it also draws from places such as appendices of the three Lord of the Rings books and so on. That's a nice way to say that holy CRAP there is a lot of padding going on here. Well, if you're going to make The Hobbit into a triology I guess you'll have to take whatever you can and cram it in there for good measure eh?
Jackson decided to film his latest creation in 48 frames-per-second and, well, the verdict on it is not great so far. Not only do most people find it downright jarring to see a fantasy yarn such as this in a frame-rate such as that but it also doesn't lend to the sense of immersion Pete was goin' for. I've heard reactions ranging from tepid endorsements of it to downright horror at what was on screen. I, however, did not get to catch the flick in 48 frames but the normal 24. So, I won't spend ramble on for five hundred words about how awful it was (I'm looking at you all, critics).
So, obviously, we're getting a lot of the same feel from the original films here. There must be connective tissue to the original trilogy and this prequel. Sure! I'm all for that. We've got those amazing expressionist environments that are coupled with rather bright and colorful characters that are, for the most part, expertly acted. The camera work is quite deft as we weave in and out of action shots and back in close for close-ups. Jackson picked up the ball and really ran with the new technology here but the 3D portions really aren't a necessity. Not much is added but, instead, the 3D detracted just a bit from certain forced perspective bits that we're so used to from the original three. A great example is in Bag End where Gandalf towers over the dwarves and Bilbo. Something about it just didn't sit right with my retinas.
Speaking of Bag End! You're going to get about 40 minutes of that! Hope you're ready! I, personally, didn't mind it all as I'm all for watching dwarf shenanigans, rabble-rousing and more of Martin Freeman mugging for the camera. It does, however, take a while to get the journey started. I understand the complaint and, frankly, the run-time of the film while not all that bad considering Jackson's first foray into Middle-Earth is MAYBE a bit long. The initial prologue, though, of explaining Smaug's entrance into the tapestry of the story is handled well and even harkens back to the massive expanses and battles of the first triology but, perhaps, it wasn't totally necessary to toss Frodo in there. Watch Frodo fetch the mail! Sweet. The fanboy in me was pleased but the rest of me maybe not so much.
Once the dwarves, Bilbo and Gandalf start on their way the pace picks up but not by much. I understand the need to expand and draw out small details. You're filling time and, ultimately, composing yet another triology from this. It results in, however, an almost lackadaisacal pacing to the film at times. We have lingering explanations of minor details in parts and scenes that just feel over-long at times. Again the fanboy in me is squealing in delight yet the more practical side of me brains tell me that maybe, just maybe, we're filling out time here.
The baker's dozen of dwarves tossed into the mix are mostly forgettable and lack a lot of characterization. That's not so much a complaint as to scripting as it is a cry of "Crap! This thing is getting crowded fast." Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), the son of Thrain and current ruler of these displaced dwarven peoples, does stand out and provides this fledgling trio of films its own Aragorn. Aside from that the usual cast of characters along with Bilbo (Martin Freeman from the brilliant Sherlock) all give stellar performances. Perhaps best of all, though, is the appearance of Gollum near the end. He, ever acted out by the incomparable Andy Serkis, provides a much needed break from the constant stream of action that Jackson pounds the audience with for nearly an hour. Bilbo engages in a game of riddles that is not only entertaining but downright terrifying at times as we get to see just glimpses of the true madness that the poor soul suffers from.
That leads me to another problem that, and I know I'm not alone here, had with the film. The CGI often works but there are certain instances where it falls flat. One glaring example was Azog. One of the best parts about the orcs of the first films were that actual men in REALLY great make-up and costumes wielding awesome looking weapons played them. We get, instead, a completely CGI antagonist that failed to deliver in terms of being a real "threat" to the travelers. His first appearence in the midst of battle against Thorin is actually well done but in later appearances and finally near the climax of the first installment just didn't deliver the same impact. I was VERY aware of the fact that this pale-skinned Orc was sitting astride a Warg and both looked VERY artificial. So, some action sequences had problems where it appeared that those actual actors were merely swinging at nothing. Perhaps this was a flaw in editing or just CGI work that, frankly, was surprisingly not up to par for WETA but it didn't leave a great impression with me. The worst part about it is you have the greatness of Gollum all standing in stark contrast of it and I felt as though they could have done a better job.
All of that said I still had a really good time with this film. We get the first hints of the Necromancer character (when I say "hint" I mean it. A silohuette is shown on-screen for about 15 seconds.), introductions to Lord Elrond, Lady Galadriel and even Saruman joins the fun. Again with the connective tissue! We see the threads of the overall narrative that leads into the original triology. We're introduced to one of the five great wizards in Radagast the Brown (YES!) and there Jackson proves, yet again, that he knows what he's doing with sweeping and downright epic battle scenes. The manic clash in the midst of Goblin Town is something to behold. It really is.
My biggest complaint is not the CGI being hit-or-miss at times, the pacing or the amount of characters really. It is that we have to wait a year to see how the story continues in the second installment. The Lonely Mountain awaits.
Final Word: Jackson's latest The Hobbit showcases not just how great Martin Freeman and Andy Serkis but also delivers a light-hearted if a bit overlong adventure through Middle Earth. It doesn't quite achieve the level of greatness of the films of the original trilogy but its still worth your time and your money.