(Editor’s Note: This is a longer review than normal as there is a lot to talk about. If you want an over 2000 word discussion of the film then read on. If not, then scroll down to the score and conclusion.)
A complicated film on many levels, the Hobbit is a movie that transcends flaws and delivers quality despite being an inorganic structural mess.
The first installment of a three part adaptation of JRR Tolkien’s 1937 classic, the Hobbit tells the story of peace loving hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) as he is conscripted into service as a burglar by wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McCellan) for an expedition of 13 dwarves to reclaim their homeland back from the dragon Smaug. Bilbo is very reluctant to join the quest and finds himself quite out of place as they encounter trolls, orcs, goblins, elves, and poor studio decisions.
The Hobbit is a difficult movie to review because it has a lot of moving parts that don’t all have to do with the story or performances but still affect and in some cases impinge on how the film is consumed by the viewer. The number of viewing options is staggering and the way the movie is put together feels less geared toward telling a good story and more for serving commerce. That it also manages to be a fairly great film speaks volumes for the strength of the source material, the acting and the direction. As great as it is, however, it should be apparent that it is not perfect and how much the flaws affect the individual viewer will inform their enjoyment of it. All movies are subjective but for this film more than any I have ever seen, your mileage absolutely may vary.
Normally, even when the film is an adaptation of a previous work or a remake of a previous film, I try to evaluate it based on what is on the screen and not by what has come before it. You shouldn’t need to have read a book or seen another movie to understand or enjoy what you have just paid to see and if you do then the film has failed completely at its job. The same is true here but the caveat becomes that if that standard were to apply exclusive of other considerations then this movie would have to be called a failure as its ability to stand on its own has been completely hamstrung by structural choices made to artificially extend the length of the material and to more solidly tie it in to the Lord of the Rings trilogy. If the material presented weren’t so strong I would have no problem with declaring this a failure if only for the cynical nature of what has been done to it. As it stands, however, it is too good for that and even when you ‘see the strings’ of what the studio is up to it really doesn’t matter all that much because the material is top notch.
That being said, it is very distracting to have scenes that have been hamfistedly shoved into the narrative in which you have flashbacks, flash sideways and characters just straight telling stories about things while showing montages. I have to believe there was a more elegant way to get around these things and those moments were jarring. Director Peter Jackson did similar things in the Lord of the Rings trilogy but they did not feel so out of place or clumsy there and I believe that has to do with those moments being integrated into the narrative from the get go as opposed to the restructuring that had to be done when the decision was made to expand the story to three films. The decision to make a book that is just over 300 pages two movies was dubious but to go for three is just kind of greedy. When the corruptive power of greed is one of your themes this decision becomes both ironic and sad.
To Jackson’s credit, the extra material here is not just something woven from whole cloth but is expanded material from things hinted at in the book or found in appendices and as such fit into the overreaching story being told across what will be six films but do little to make this particular installment more watchable as a single narrative. This particular hurdle is roughly as high as your ability as a viewer to either ignore it or not be concerned with it. If you don’t care about film structure and cohesion of the narrative then there is nothing at all to worry about. If you are, then you will likely stumble here.
To step away from technical issues of screenwriting and editing for a moment, it must be said that despite the amount of set up and a middle portion that sags just a bit, the story is brisk and engaging with more than its fair share of cool action moments and set pieces peppered with character development and world building. With a cast of heroes that is so large there are a lot of dwarves that get left undeveloped but this isn’t their individual stories anyway. The real meat is Bilbo and his adventure particularly in terms of how he relates to the dwarven king Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) who is brave, noble, and kind of a dick to Bilbo. These character moments are just as good as anything in Lord of the Rings and while the stakes are not as high in the Hobbit and there is a much more whimsical tone to the proceedings the Hobbit is just as strong in its way as the larger series that comes later.
The effects are generally very good here and the cinematography is second to none. Likewise Howard Shore’s score is every bit as great as that of Lord of the Rings. The dirge the dwarves sing before they begin their quest is haunting and made the hairs on my neck stand up. This kind of quality permeates every inch of the film and that is what saves it from some of the things that don’t quite work.
In the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Jackson stripped away a lot of material and presented a leaner tale that was fashioned for the screen. Some elements that were not so easily translated were excised, like many of the songs, while some of the more exciting and dramatic elements were expanded, like the Balrog. For the Hobbit, Jackson puts a lot of things back in, maybe for the story and maybe to make it longer, and some of those elements don’t work as well. As good as the dirge is, the song the dwarves sing as they clean dishes in Bilbo’s place was somewhat jarring. Likewise, the goblins singing later in the film felt very off to me. Don’t even get me started on Radagast the Brown and his bunny driven sled. I feel like this is a controversial point for hardcore fans in the same way that Tom Bombadil’s exclusion from the Lord of the Rings was but even with a lighter hearted tone, it looked silly on screen.
On a performance level, the movie is great with terrific performances from everyone involved but particularly Martin Freeman as Bilbo and Richard Armitage as Thorin. Bilbo has always been my favorite character from Middle-Earth and Freeman conveyed him perfectly with just the right touches of fear, courage and uncertainty. For his part, Armitage gave us a Thorin who could inspire and repel at the same time. He is a man driven and carries a certain nobility but his stubborn insistence on clinging to past transgressions and slights as well as his inability to see beyond his own pre-conceived notions give him meat and depth. That Arimitage achieves a good deal of this through facial expressions and body language shows how deeply committed he is to his character and how skillfully he inhabits it.
Ian McCellen again destroys as Gandalf, giving us a more mischievous wizard who is more involved in the action and who is generally more upbeat than we see him later in the series. It is very cool to see Gandalf do more and the twinkle in McCellen’s eye makes it even more fun. Returning performances by Christopher Lee as Sauruman, Kate Blanchett as Galadriel and Hugo Weaving as Elrond are terrific and add a ton of value to the proceedings.
If Andy Serkis’s performance as Gollum does not get a nomination then it is a travesty. The fateful meeting between Bilbo and Gollum in which they play a high stakes game of riddles is easy worth the price of admission on its own and is absolutely masterful. Despite the issues mentioned above, this scene alone makes this movie an absolute recommendation and it should not be missed. It amazes me how Serkis is able to make Gollum scary and vicious while making him adorable and sad at the same time. It is difficult not to want to give the little guy a hug even if you know that he is probably going to take a chunk out of your neck if you do.
So having established that this is a great but flawed movie, there is an other wrinkle to consider here and it is important. There are several different presentations of the film and they are very different and can absolutely impact how experience the movie and how much you enjoy the movie. The movie was shot in 3D and above and beyond that it was shot at 48 frames per second as opposed to the standard 24 frames per second of pretty much every other movie ever. This was done to clean up and improve upon current 3D and to solve several of the problems inherent in it. For one, the sped up shooting speed presents a much brighter image and allows it to avoid the dimming effect of standard 3D. For another, it presents a sharper and clearer picture that avoids the blurring and confusion inherent in a lot of 24fps 3D presentations. On the other hand, it also takes away the cinematic look of the movie and makes it look as if you are standing a few feet away from the action in the same environment. For some people this is exciting and incredible and for others it looks like you are watching a soap opera.
I have seen the Hobbit in both 2D and 48fps 3D (24fps 3D is also available) and I am on the fence about which one is the best presentation. The 2D looks consistent with the Lord of the Rings series and as such the effects look sharp and hold up and the environments feel right. There is some blurring on the action, however, and at times it is difficult to see exactly what is happening in the big group battles.
In 48fps 3D, the image is indeed super sharp and you can see everything very clearly. It takes some getting used to where it is jarring to see but over time the eye gets used to it. There are moments when this presentation is absolutely breathtaking and incredible but there are also times when it looks like a high end cutscene from World of Warcraft at best and a History Channel recreation of a famous battle at worst. The effects generally hold up in this presentation as well. I have seen complaints that you can see every flaw this way but I didn’t find this to be true. Some of the locations look more like sets than real places but this happened far less than I expected. One thing that really did bug me about this presentation, though, is that while it is supposed to appear normal speed when projected, I found that it was marginally sped up which detracted from the cinematic feel of the camera moves and made some character movement seem herky jerky. This was not consistent through the whole film but some scenes seemed to move too quickly. This may have been more jarring because I have seen it in 2D, however.
So the question becomes do you want to see a movie that looks good in its standard presentation but nothing outwardly special or do you want a presentation that really pops with some stunning visual moments but that also has some major flaws and sometimes looks like you are watching Days of Our Lives with swords and sorcery? For my part, I recommend the 2D presentation because people are having wildly different experiences with 48fps and if you are one of the people it absolutely doesn’t work for then you are not going to enjoy the movie. If you are one of the people it does work for it will look incredible but that is kind of a crap shoot and when the ticket prices are getting crazy premiums added it is hard to recommend the more expensive and risky option. Or you can do what I did and see it in 2D first and then, if you like it, check it out in 48fps. That way the movie isn’t ruined for you if the new presentation is not agreeable to your eyeballs.
Conclusion [9.5 out of 10]
This score might be surprising if you have read through the review given my criticisms but the determinative point here is that even with the messy structure and the narrative choices made for the box office for the next three years as opposed ot this film, the movie is just really, really good. The flashbacks are distracting narratively but very engaging. The added connective tissue to Lord of the Rings is unnecessary but very satisfying. The lighthearted whimsy filled with bunny sleds and a dude with bird poop on his head is a little jarring but still pretty fun and amusing. Even the bad jokes here are legit funny. The flaws keep this from being a 10 but number scores are kind of stupid anyway. This is a great movie made even better by its ability to transcend its flaws and deliver a very satisfying film. If you like Lord of the Rings then you are in good hands here. If you hated those movies because you thought there was too much walking then there is not going to be much to change your mind here. If 48fps is not for you, then check out the 2D presentation. Regardless of where you fall on this issue, there is a presentation for you.