I’m not a movie critic, and I’m not about to call myself one. But I went to see The Hobbit over the weekend, and the truth was I liked it quite a lot.
But . . . yeah.
All right, back to the beginning. I specifically decided NOT to see the 3-D version of the film. I think 3-D is fine for people who like that sort of thing, and plenty of people do like it, which is why so many action films are being made for that particular medium now. I’m not one of those people. 48 frames a second, is, I’m told by people who know what they are talking about, a way to make the action sequences more engrossing, more spectacular, more illusory than mere flat projection. And maybe that’s right. I haven’t noticed enough of a difference in my own viewing. At any rate, I saw an old school version of the film. Sue me.
I specifically did not re-read the book before going to see the film. There didn’t seem to be a reason to do so. There was no way that Jackson was going to simply shoot the book, and we all knew that years in advance. Additionally, this is the first part of a prequel and the book is way shorter than LOTR. Hell, even Ranklin and Bass couldn’t pack more than 77 minutes of footage into the cartoon they made in 1977. So, when fans heard that Jackson intended to create a 9-12 hour epic in three parts based on this particular book, it doesn’t take a huge amount of effort to realize that he made up stuff on his own to fill up the holes. If this were a novelization, it’d be two thousand pages long.
So, the film is the film and the book is the book. When the credits say the film is based on the book, they tell the truth. Two media entities with common ancestry can be very different and remain true to the original material. What Jackson did was expand the existing Peter Jackson’s-take-on-Tolkien universe. That much, I approve of. (Inventing scenes filled with cringing women–I’m looking at you, Helm’s Deep–not so much; not at all, in fact.)
You know the story: Bilbo Baggins has his comfortable, quite life in the Shire turned upside-down by Gandalf the Grey, who shows up quite unannounced with 12 dwarves from the Lonely Mountain kingdom in tow. They need a burglar to sneak past Smaug, the fire drake who’s set up shop in the ruins of their lost home and Bilbo’s it. What follows is a long and tumultuous sequence of events involving established characters and few new faces: trolls, Elrond, Sauraman, Galadriel, Radagast the Brown, spiders, a Necromancer, Gollum, The One Ring, Goblins, Orcs, eagles, and now we wait for part two.a
Seriously: Jackson fills out his universe is fascinating ways. It’s not the action that interested me–although what Tolkien buff doesn’t want to see massive battles between dwarves and orcs enacted in 70mm–so much as what Jackson did with the characters. Having scads of time to fill meant that a number of the dwarves have fully developed back stories which are brought to bear on a number of points during the film. Sylvester McCoy as Radagast the Brown steals every scene he’s in without even trying. His plot line is also a way to introduce the spiders as something more malevolent than mere blood suckers out of Mirkwood (as they were in the book). Now they’re part of a “creeping evil” out of Dol Guldur: a necromancer who’s feeling his oats after centuries of inactivity–which we know as an audience is a prelude to Sauron’s process of rebuilding his power base in Middle Earth.
On that note, the Wizard’s council involving Gandalf, Saruman, Elrond and Galadriel is a priceless bit of back story reworking without becoming a full-fledged recton. We learn that Saruman is already working for the Big S. sixty years before the LOTR gets going–not a surprise, but we get an awesome scene where the White Wizard insists that there’s nothing to see here as he is presented with the evidence of bad things on the horizon. Beyond that, the signal trading that went on between Galadriel and Gandalf in order to buy time for the dwarves and Bilbo to leave Rivendell unmolested was a better device than another ten minutes of exposition would have been.
As to Andy Serkis as Gollum . . . well, come on, that’s why we all went to see this film. I was interested to see Serkis named as Second Unit Director in the closing credits, too. It made sense to a degree, with all the side story that Serkis is involved with and the fact that crawling around a set in a motion-capture suit has to sensitize you to knowing where everything is at any time during the shoot. Hell, Serkis is the the second unit. For that matter, the point mapping that was done to graft Barry Humphries’ face onto the Great Goblin’s head, wattle and all, was brilliantly executed, and Humphries made a wonderful show of voicing the bad guy. (Think of the character as Baron Vladamir Harkonnen meets The Blob.)
The bottom line is that the film dragged in a few places but at no point did it ever feel like a 3 hour long slog. The credits rolled and I found myself impatient for the next installment. In that respect, Jackson knows his business and delivered a quality product.