Peter Jackson and his WETA special effects company have kicked off the second act of their Tolkien adaptations with a film that is both triumphant and frustrating. This review refers to the 3D/48fps version of The Hobbit.
The triumph comes from the technical end. Watching this film at 48fps was disconcerting at first until the brain adjusts to the fine granularity of details that are made available at such a high frame rate. There are scenes where it is very distracting; but for the most part it enables WETA to do video compositing of real people with CGI so perfectly that the viewer is taken beyond the “uncanny valley” to a place where hundreds of goblins chasing a dozen dwarves is completely believable. The film should probably win a technical Oscar or two for this, and someone should devise a new one for the actors who have to perform against blue screens and react to something that they can only imagine.
The frustration comes from the script, and that can be laid at the feet of Jackson and the studio. One of the things I appreciated the most about Jackson’s adaptation of The Lord of the Rings is the fact that he cut and remixed elements of the books to make for a more exciting and engaging film. I am not a particular fan of The Lord of the Rings in book form. The Hobbit, on the other hand, has always struck me as a more compact, child-friendly distillation of what Tolkien had to say. I read it with my son, a chapter at a time, earlier this year. When it was announced that the film version would not be two instalments but rather three, my heart sank, because I knew that for the sake of making the studio some more money, Jackson would be doing the opposite operation with this book: expanding and inventing scenes to pad out the script.
And indeed, that is how the film feels: overstuffed and overlong, beginning with the completely unnecessary opening prologue through an unexpected meeting of the minds at Rivendell. Jackson inserts a couple of scenes with another wizard who has been tracking the Necromancer and then brings in Saruman to talk about it, clearly intending to create closer ties between this film and the others where none are needed. The excess is at its worst, unfortunately, in the many scenes where the dwarves are in peril, such as a battle between storm giants or being chased up a tree by wargs; the peril becomes so ridiculously overwrought that it seems impossible for any of them to survive, much less all of them. As a result, the well-choreographed action sequences of the LoTR films is replaced with awkward and frankly stupid set pieces that could have just as easily come from a Transformers film, or the last Indiana Jones picture. Even the Bilbo/Gollum riddling sequence felt long to me.
The cast is generally good, and they do what they can with the cards they have been dealt. Martin Freeman does well as Bilbo, Ian McKellen is his usual wry self as Gandalf. Standouts among the dwarves so far are Ken Stott as Balin, James Nesbitt as Bofur, and Richard Armitage as Thorin, who is clearly being groomed as the Aragorn of the piece.
Much like The Fellowship of the Ring, this first part of The Hobbit ends with the group embarking on the second stage of their journey. Unlike the other film, I am not very interested in following. As I joked with Nicole afterward, I feel like I have already seen the “Extended Edition” that should have come out afterward on DVD; if New Line really wants to boost home video sales, they should offer a Director’s Cut that contracts this thing by an hour.