[Disclaimer—I have not edited this at all as I am trying to get it out there as fast as possible due to many requests from my friends for my opinion on the film]
Angie and I went with some friends to the midnight show of The Hobbit last night and we had a great time! It was so enjoyable to act like I was young and had the energy to go to a midnight show (even though I don’t anymore!). Here’s the snap review (with minor spoilers!). I’ll put it into two categories. But first let me say this. I think most of the negative reviews spring from seeing the film in the 48 FPS. While I will be negative in this review (it is for the Tolkien fans, after all), let me say that the movie itself really was an enjoyable experience. I laughed, I was on the edge of my seat (even knowing what happens), and I looked at Angie’s face many times to see if she was getting as much enjoyment from it as I was (and to see if she was asleep!). That is why what I have to write next is so hard.
For the Tolkien purists…you probably won’t want to see it…and it’s really frustrating as to why. The problem lies in the fact that Peter Jackson et al, actually get so much right, that what they get wrong is glaringly problematic. It isn’t so much in the additions that they’ve made (most do, in fact, adhere closely enough to the appendixes and The Silmarillion), and they actually pull in some very interesting deep lore from the mythos, but rather in the understanding of the inherent Christianity of Tolkien’s work. Anyone familiar with Tolkien will be aware of Tolkien’s idea of the “eucatastrophe.” The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are full of moments when hope seems lost, progress is dead, and the characters are at their wits end. Something, somehow, outside of their control, comes along and progresses the story. While the ancient Greeks called this the “dues ex machine”, Tolkien calls this the eucatastrophe—when man (or character) realizes they are at the bottom of the well, the end of their rope and only God can rescue them. To Tolkien, this was the ultimate purpose of fairy stories—to give the insubstantial picture of salvation. There are several times in the story when Bilbo and the dwarves are in this position. Rather than let the story breathe itself out through the screen, though, Jackson has to give them something to do. Trapped up here with nowhere to go? That’s fine, we’ll just charge our way out. Can’t get out of the cooking pot? Okay, let’s have Bilbo show his wits. Rather than empowering the characters it actually makes them feebler. Character, we are told through Scripture, comes through suffering. It builds into hope—not a hope in yourself, but hope in your deliverance. Thus the character that Jackson hopes to build in his players in the film becomes not one of a hope for external salvation, but rather internal salvation. For instance, at the greatest moment of intervention, when the eagles drop of the company on the Carrock, the focus is on Thorin’s possible injury rather than being on the “joy of their salvation” from the orcs (yes, orcs, not goblins). The internal focus of this humanist take on The Hobbit means that the action is always centered on the individual and thus cannot rise above it to a higher understanding that is always implicit in Tolkien’s cosmology.
The second reason why it is hard for the Tolkien purist to watch the film is in the dialogue. Tolkien was a master at creating different dialogue that inherently fit the situations in which it was expressed. This is never more obvious than watching a movie where someone attempts to add dialogue. Tolkien was effortlessly able to shift from the colloquial to the epic in both of this works. It is this that ultimately grounds the hobbits in the larger world around them, allowing them to be simultaneously an entry point into the fantastical world for the reader and an astute observer of that which occurred around them. Nowhere is this more evident than when you hear someone try to add dialogue to what was already existent. The Gollum/Bilbo scene is a perfect example of this. The laughter, shock, horror, and gasps of the audience where palpable in the theater (at 2AM in the morning!) and the scene adheres to the text almost exactly, even down to the pacing. Most of the additional scenes added in the film sound either anachronistic (trying to add jokes that don’t fit) or overtly epic (which doesn’t really fit with the story of The Hobbit). It is both jarring—removing the viewer from the experience—and reaffirming of Tolkien’s mastery. This is a generalization; Jackson, Walsh, and Boyens do get some of the additional sequences right. But there are enough to pull the viewer out of the experience.
As to two much maligned additions: Radagast the Brown and the Azog orc story—the Radagast line is actually handled fairly well. He isn’t remotely a Jar-Jar Binks character and, in the universe itself, he is given nothing to do that is not already implied that he does (expect the sled race). The Azog story for Thorin is more problematic. I know what Jackson is attempting. He is trying to give a good reason for the orcs to be present at the Battle of Five Armies—there is an orc pursuing Thorin with a vendetta. But the trade-off just doesn’t hold up. You can’t give an orc that much screen time and not have a developed character, and it’s pretty tough to develop an orc’s character. Also, in some ways, it takes away from the pay-off in the end of Thorin’s inherent greed—his single-minded pursuit of the treasure and his kingdom that is so essential to understand his redemption after the battle itself.
Ironically, it is when the company hits Rivendell that the story finally seems to gain heft and weight, a cohesiveness that had been missing from the tale. Azgog was supposed to be that glue, but, in fact, the meeting of White Council—with Gandalf, Elrond, Sauruman, and Galadriel—becomes that point. Seeing Gandalf at his political best—and imperfect and flawed—provides a depth that had been lacking. It is an authentic depth because it is a very human depth, as opposed to the contrived character development elsewhere in the film. Until this point, Jackson and company had tried so hard to build a cohesive thread into a narrative that was intrinsically episodic, that the larger parts simply felt “shoe-horned” in. The White Council, which actually happens in the books (one of those appendices things), is true adhesive.
I will say this; the acting is really top-notch overall. We are not talking Academy Awards here (and I don’t thing Jackson will ever direct a Best Actor nominee), but definitely more than serviceable. Martin Freeman is truly outstanding as Bilbo, in the same way that Sean Bean was born to play Boromir. The dwarves, for my money, did enough of a job distinguishing themselves from one another (they become a little lost in the books, too), and of course Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett, and Christopher Lee are all back and as imperious as ever. Richard Armitage plays the role given to him well. I have disagreements, as stated above, with the handling of Thorin’s character arc, but Armitage embodies the persona quite capably.
Finally, and I spoke about this on my father’s podcast a couple of weeks ago, Jackson struggles with the difference between tone in The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings. The former is an adventure story, and the later is a quest tale. The shift in tone between the two, on several occasions, clangs like a symbol. Again, it is only with the introduction of the White Council that the underlying epic world of the story is given its rightful place. That is the central misunderstanding. The Hobbit is a fairy story that takes place in a mythological universe. While its underpinnings are epic, the story itself is not. There are too many times in the film where Jackson attempts to be epic with something that is merely fun. And in doing so, he loses the scope of the epic and the value of the fun, both simultaneously.
There is much to love about the film for the Tolkien purist—and that is what is really so tragic. The stone trolls are really so much fun, even with Jackson rewriting; and when Gandalf appears in the goblin caves it is fully as dramatic as the Bridge of Khazad-Dum. The advancements in the CGI are breathtaking and the New Zealand landscape is as awe-inspiring as ever. While the soundtrack doesn’t really pick up its beats until the end of the film, the songs from the story are all there and gloriously rendered. In fact, the whole “Unexpected Party” scene hits so many of the right notes in my imagination that a laughed aloud several times! If only…if only….
Finally, as to the HDR/3D/IMAX and the dreaded 48 FPS issues: I consciously chose to see it in standard DLP for my first viewing, and it basically looks exactly like the old Lord of the Rings films, only better. I do plan on seeing it in IMAX 3D, principally because there is nothing in the film that I could see in which they consciously made use of the 3D as a gimmick (Resident Evil series…I’m looking at you). It seems only as if it will add more depth and clarity to the image. The standard IMAX 3D is not in 48 FPS; only specifically equipped theaters have it. We have an IMAX theater that is not 48 FPS, but is 3D and apparently another theater is converting to 48 FPS/3D specifically for the film. So I can’t speak to what it will look like in this frame rate, but I can say that I will probably see it in all three versions. If you do choose to see it, take in the standard one first so you can focus on the story and the magnificent cinematography, which really does take a step up from the Lord of the Rings films.
In my coda I will say for the non-Tolkien purist, the second party of my first paragraph: you aren’t as picky as we are? No problem, go see it! You’ll enjoy it and probably have a good time. But I
don’t think you’ll have a great time. Even for the casual fan, the uninformed observer, the fundamental misunderstanding Jackson has of the central tenants of the text will cause a dissonance. It will be interesting to see if the casual fan will be able to figure out why.