“The Hobbit” is, at times, a gorgeous, enthralling movie. There are many moments that provide us with the sort of effortless filmmaking that Peter Jackson displayed with the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy and I was reminded of just how lucky we are to have a filmmaker of Jackson's vision and caliber working on these films.
It's easy to forget how miraculous the original “Rings” films were. High fantasy had always floundered in Hollywood and the idea of the director of schlocky horror movies like “Dead Alive” taking on a trilogy of nigh-unfilmable books was borderline madness. And yet, Jackson and his crew managed to pull off the unthinkable and craft a series of movies that not only captured the cultural zeitgeist, but have proven to be timeless pieces of entertainment.
Pulling off an accomplishment like that certainly earned Jackson the ability to stretch his legs a bit and indulge, but only to a degree. It's unfortunate, then, that he overindulges.
For those unfamiliar, “The Hobbit” takes place before the events of “The Lord of the Rings,” (“LOTR”) it chronicles the adventure of Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) as he joins Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellan) and a party of 13 dwarfs as they attempt to reclaim the mountain kingdom of Erebor from Smaug, a fierce dragon. Published years before “The Fellowship of the Ring,” J.R.R. Tolkien wrote the book in episodes, so as to make it easier to read in chunks to his children at bedtime.
It's a brief story. At only a few hundred pages, it can be read fairly quickly and is filled with funny, colorful characters and (at times) a sense of whimsy and fun that simply wasn't present during “LOTR.” This serves both as a benefit and something of a detriment to the film.
The lighter tone is welcome, to be certain. High fantasy doesn't have to always be dark and foreboding and gritty, though there's certainly a place for that. It's nice to have a fantasy adventure that isn't predicated on the fate of kingdoms or even the world itself hanging in the balance. This is actually a somewhat personal tale, as Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and his fellow dwarfs are fighting only to reclaim a home that few others seem to care about.
This isn't necessarily an issue on its own, but it does make the film feel smaller both in scale and import, especially when we're watching this as a prequel to “LOTR.” It's difficult to feel the weight of a story with stakes that pale in comparison to its cinematic predecessor.
No, the film's biggest problem is that Jackson made the baffling decision to stretch this rather small story to an interminable length of three films. Where the “LOTR” trilogy was about distilling those dense, immense books to their essence, Jackson seems to have gone the opposite route and indulged in including almost every moment and thread possible. It makes for a film filled with some wonderful bits but also dragged down by its own excess weight.
For instance, the introduction of the wizard Radagast is a wonderful bit and filled with the aforementioned whimsy, but as I watched it I couldn't help but feel that small bit didn't really need to be there at the expense of an uneven pace. And so it was with many other scenes. Luckily, at least, by the time we reach the film's latter third, it's almost all action and we rocket toward a tenuous conclusion that sets up the final two parts of this (dubious) second trilogy.
But even with the lasting issues (that will only likely be exacerbated once the extended edition DVDs come out with a reported 20 extra minutes of footage), “The Hobbit” is still a movie worth watching.
It takes a bit for Freeman to settle into the role, but once he does he's quite good and not simply doing an Ian Holm impression. By contrast, it was a joy simply to see McKellan once more as Gandalf the Grey. There's such remarkable warmth and humanity to Gandalf before he transforms into Gandalf the White and it's an absolute treat to have yet more time with him as such. Likewise, I can't imagine anyone but Andy Serkis playing Gollum and the effects work WETA Digital has done on the character manages somehow to one-up what they did in the previous films.
If nothing else, it's nice simply to be back in this familiar and wondrous world filled with characters that I love, even if the journey to do so could use a serious trimming.