I saw The Hobbit this afternoon with my family, and on the whole thoroughly enjoyed it. It certainly avoided the trap I’d most feared — that by being a two-and-three-quarter-hour film of the first third of a not-particularly long book, it would feel padded. Instead, the time was managed well and the slower-than-usual pace gave the film time to breathe.
Comparisons with the three Lord of the Rings films are inevitable, so let’s make a few important points up front.
First, those are my all-time favourite films. Although they contain some horrible mistakes, they get so very much right that I can easily forgive what goes wrong. They are epic in the literal sense, and do the hard work to earn their thematic and emotional depth. So The Hobbit had work to do if it was going to live on those heights.
And The Hobbit has another problem as well: finding a way to deal with the often cutesy tone of the source material. Some sequences are mercilessly, and rightly, cut — such as the elves’ rather jolly nonsense song as the dwarves enter Rivendell. Others are retained, but given a rather different tone: the three trolls are still somewhat comic, but also present a deadly serious threat. The trolls’ magic purse that sings out when Bilbo tries to steal it in the book is wisely excised. (I can’t approve of the change to how the troll sequence is resolved, even though I understand it from the point of view of the Thorin-learns-to-trust-Bilbo arc.)
What remains is a film closer in tone to Book I of Lord of the Rings than to The Hobbit. I’m in two minds about this. Part of me would have loved to see a straight kids’-film adapatation of a kids’ book. But the reality is that you can’t really sell this film as an LotR prequel, Ian McKellan and all, and then have it be completely different. In the event, the new film goes out of its way to position itself as a Fellowship prequel. It takes us right up to within moments of the start of that film, with Frodo running out to meet Gandalf as he makes his way to Bilbo’s eleventy-first birthday party. It may be a bit too slavishly done, but it’s well executed and earned a smile from me.
One area where The Hobbit is unequivocally better than its predecessor is in the casting of the central character. Although both books, and the films based on them, are ensemble pieces, much nevertheless rests on the performances of Bilbo and Frodo. And Martin Freeman is much more believable than Elijah Wood was. Freeman of course has made his name playing ordinary people such as Tim from The Office (UK original) and Dr. Watson opposite Benedict Cumberbatch’s Holmes. Here, as in his role as Arthur Dent in the Hitch Hiker’s Guide movie, Freeman’s ordinary person finds himself in extraordinary situations — and reacts exactly as such a person really would. Freeman has a very naturalistic style and never, ever looks like he’s acting. (There is certainly nothing to parallel Elijah Wood’s horribly theatrical “What Will I See?” from the Mirror of Galadriel scene in Fellowship.)
That said, there’s a natural intensity about Elijah Wood, perhaps in part because of his quirky appearance, that played very well with some of the later parts of Lord of the Rings. In particular, his flat, possessed delivery of the crucial line “The ring is mine” in Return of the King is chilling. It remains to be seen whether Freeman can crank it up in parts 2 and and especially 3 of The Hobbit when similar intensity is required.
Elsewhere, much of the casting consist of old friends: McKellan as Gandalf, Lee as Saruman, Weaving as Elrond and especially Blanchett as Galadriel are all as excellent as we would expect. I found one of the most captivating scenes to be the very simple one of Gandalf and Galadriel talking after the Council of the Wise. Both characters are ancient, learned and insightful; and both actors have enough to them to make you believe in their characters’ wisdom. I like the way that Galdalf, usually so inscrutible and commanding, becomes slightly deferential when with Galadriel.
As for the dwarves: it’s impossible to give a dozen fairly interchangeable bit-parts all distinct characters, and the film makes the right choice in not even trying. Thorin is well drawn, though perhaps a shade over Aragorny. Balin is neatly sketched as his aged but battle-hardened second-in-command. The rest are fairly interchangeable aside from their visual characteristics. I might wish that the prosthetics had been a little less extreme, especially as they made the very human Thorin look not at all like his kinfolk.
Since we had a lot of spare running time to play with, I sort of thought we might get Tom Bombadil parachuted in from Fellowship. We didn’t. Somehow I can’t make myself feel sad about that. What we got instead was some rather good material pulled in from the RotK appendices (Thorin’s back-story, the Council of the Wise) and a surprisingly small amount of invented material, involving Radagast’s rather belated discovery that Greenwood the Great is becoming the Mirkwood. True to form, the invented material was probably the weakest part of the film — nursing hedgehogs back to health, ridding rabbit-sleighs and suchlike. I’d hoped Jackson and Walsh had learned their lesson about trying to improve on Tolkien after the fiasco that was Faramir’s role in the Two Towers film, but apparently not. To my mind, Radagast was played too scattily, divesting him of his wizardly dignity — though I did very much enjoy his sudden unexpected show of power in Dol Goldur.
Keeping Azog alive, and making him Thorin’s nemesis, makes sense in the context of the film, and didn’t do undue violence to Tolkien. I was surprised that he was still alive by the end of the film: I suppose he will track them into Mirkwood in film 2, which doesn’t necessarily bode well.
Finally: like the three LotR films, this one is a joy to look at. It’s just beautiful. Rivendell literally brings tears to my eyes. The dwarf city under the Lonely Mountain was so much more than I’d imagined it my own mind, a vision of what Moria must have been like before the Balrog. Even though I knew they were coming, the sight of the eagles coming to the rescue at the end took my breath away.
All in all, I am thoroughly glad we made the time to go as a family, and desperate to see parts 2 and 3.