Longtime Redblog readers know that I’m a Lord of the Rings freak, so much so that in 2006 I actually traveled to New Zealand and visited several of the trilogy’s filming locations in addition to taking two LOTR tours. I have been inside Bag End, dammit! (That’s Bilbo and Frodo’s home to you normal people.) So yes, I was both excited and nervous to see Peter Jackson’s fourth film set in Middle-earth. Excited because I love the LOTR movies so much and had faith Jackson could pull off an adaptation of what most people agree is J.R.R. Tolkien’s far inferior book. Nervous because that skimpy book has been stretched into not one, not two, but three mega-long movies … and because the Kiwi director decided to film everything at 48 frames per second — twice the rate of what we’re all used to. AND in 3D.
I have yet to see a 3D movie and not get a headache, so I figured The Hobbit would surely do me in and my skull would implode. So let me get this out of the way upfront and then we’ll talk about the movie itself: I was not bothered by the 48 fps. My husband was. He thought it made everything look like a cheap ’70s TV series. I definitely felt some scenes looked garish and I was unnerved by a few sequences that appeared to be in hyper-fast motion, but my fear of leaving the theater after nearly three hours with a pounding migraine did not come to pass. Does The Hobbit have the same lush look of the LOTR films? No, not by a long shot, and that’s a shame. But I was just relieved that I didn’t personally find 48 fps to be a total disaster. (The vast majority of theaters are going to show the movie at the normal frame rate, by the way, so if you’re into this stuff, check your local listings and see if you have a choice.)
The story of The Hobbit takes place about 60 years before The Fellowship of the Ring. Bilbo (Martin Freeman) reluctantly agrees to join Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and a dozen dwarves — led by Thorin (Richard Armitage) — on a quest to reclaim The Lonely Mountain from the dragon Smaug. Spoiler alert: they don’t even make it to the mountain in this movie. Instead, it’s a lot of set-up and then a long trek across hillsides and mountains, and much of that trek smacks of a “been there, done that” quality if you’ve seen the LOTR trilogy. Gandalf ends a command with “… you fools!” and summons help from winged friends again. There’s a snowy avalanche again. There’s running from orcs and fights with trolls again. But it’s not really “again,” because technically it all happened as a lead-up to the Fellowship’s mission … yet The Hobbit failed to feel like a new story or a prequel.
A similar issue was that I found myself simply not caring about any of the new characters. Freeman did an excellent job as the younger Bilbo, but the scenes I enjoyed the most featured the LOTR characters Gandalf, Gollum (Andy Serkis), Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), Saruman (Christopher Lee) and Elrond (Hugo Weaving). The dwarves? Eh. I was annoyed from the start by their silly and drawn-out introduction when they first come to Bag End. And I was turned off by how Jackson was so obviously trying to make Thorin into an Aragorn-ish figure.
The Hobbit is a significantly sillier book than the trilogy that follows it, and so I knew going in that I couldn’t expect the same feeling of grandeur conjured up by the LOTR movies. That’s why I wish that Jackson had remained true to the spirit of The Hobbit like he did with Fellowship, The Two Towers and Return of the King. Instead it was like half the time he was trying to force a seriousness into The Hobbit‘s story and onto certain characters in order to keep more in line with the feel of the trilogy, but then in the other half he went all-out goofy.
Overall, however, I’ve realized that for me, any visit to Middle-earth is something to savor. Once Bilbo finally left the Shire to join the group on their quest, I was able to shrug off my annoyance at the dwarves’ introduction and enjoy the rest of his Unexpected Journey. I would’ve considered the film a complete failure if I didn’t tear up at least once, but thankfully I did. No surprise, it was during a Gandalf-Galadriel scene. And maybe during a few other parts — solely because of Howard Shore’s gorgeous score.
Another highlight was the critical Bilbo-Gollum scene, where Bilbo swipes the creature’s “precious” and ultimately sets up the LOTR trilogy. It lives up to expectations. Phew.
The bottom line: If it weren’t for the likability of Freeman’s Bilbo and the strength of returning favorites such as Gandalf and Gollum, The Hobbit might have been tough to endure for over one-hundred-sixty minutes. Whereas the vast set-up sequences in The Fellowship of the Ring were my favorite parts of the LOTR trilogy, I’m pretty sure that the opposite will end up being true for the three Hobbit films. In other words, I’m looking forward to the next two installments because I have to believe they’ll be better.