So where do we begin? Because the beginning is important. Should we start with the good or the bad, or just the surprising? “The Hobbit,” as written by J.R.R. Tolkien is as much about the power of storytelling and oral history as it is about dragons and valiant dwarves, after all. So we should tell the story of this film extremely thoughtfully.
Directed by: Peter Jackson
Written by: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson and Guillermo del Toro
Starring: Ian McKellan, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage
I can’t imagine you don’t know about this movie if you’re reading this review, but here goes: Jackson has finally released his incredibly long-awaited follow-up to the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy (after the disastrous “King Kong,” of which no more will be said). “The Hobbit” is the tale of the hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and his journey with a merry band of dwarves and the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellan) to reclaim the dwarves’ ancestral home, which has been claimed by a gold-hungry dragon named Smaug.
Sounds pretty good, right? But here’s the thing. The “Lord of the Rings” trilogy is based on three separate novels. An actual trilogy. “The Hobbit” is only one book- and a relatively short one at that, coming in at around 316 pages depending on the edition. But the gods of the Tentpole Production Strategy demand not just a movie, but a franchise. With several years of Blu-ray sales, and posters, and collectible Ian McKellan dolls and marathon screenings until we’re all living and breathing “The Hobbit,” inhaling it like revenue-churning asbestos.
So they turned director Peter Jackson loose, said, yeah, sure, make a three-hour movie about the first third of a 316-page novel. Where the dragon doesn’t even really show up. And he did it, because he’s a fanboy who could probably make a three-hour movie about a single chapter in “The Silmarillion” using only Elvish poetry for dialogue.
It’s not that I was bored, watching “The Hobbit.” Because I wasn’t, really- Jackson is still a good enough storyteller to keep anyone occupied. There are events that I guess could be called a plot when all strung together- a voice-over laden introduction about the dwarves losing their home, a trip to Rivendell to consult with the elves, a showdown between the head dwarf Thorin (Richard Armitage) and the orc who killed his father. There are a few battle sequences, including one involving Tim Burton-esque goblins that is just fantastic. But it all felt like an exercise rather than a real story. It never feels like it wants to entertain you, or move you, or spur you to any kind of emotion. Things happened for three hours and then it was over.
It’s not the actor’s fault. McKellan plays his Gandalf with his usual majesty and wry humor, Freeman is exactly the person to play a young Bilbo. Armitage as the dwarf-king (and an unusually handsome dwarf, it should be mentioned) has tremendous screen presence. And as Gollum, Andy Serkis briefly brings the energy back as the unstated star of the show. Serkis is tremendous, and it cannot be said enough. For years now, he has played Gollum by incorporating aspects of our own untouchables- the homeless, the criminally-minded, the addicted, the mentally ill- into one complete embodiment of self-destruction and pain. The ten minutes or so Serkis is on the screen is more human and relatable than anything else Jackson throws at us.
If you read about movies at all, then you’ll know about Jackson’s use of the new technique of filming in 48 frames-per-second (fpr), known as High Frame Rate. At it’s best, the new film technique resolves gorgeously. Usually these are in still shots, using gorgeous light that seems reminiscent of a Dutch oil painting. It also solves the ongoing problem of dimness in 3D shots, lighting up the frame like a Christmas tree and giving the scene shape and texture (it should also be mentioned this was one of the few 3D films I’ve seen that did not give me a blasting migraine.)
Still I don’t know how this got out of the editing room. The clarity is so sharp it actually shows the cracks in the production- the most egregious I saw were some CGI flames that seemed like they’d been added by Photoshop. It gives the action scenes an unforgivably made-for-TV quality, incredibly distracting and amateurish. Worse than that, the film seems speed up and slow randomly, with characters zooming around the frame like they’re on fast-forward.
“Lord of the Rings” was magical because it seemed so tangible. Middle Earth was not some fantasy cartoon, but a cohesive balance between the bloody, sulfurous Mordor and war torn Gondor with the sunlit waking dream of Rivendell and the Shire. The visual is critical to the success of these movies- it’s all about the environment, the meticulous creation of an entire universe. It doesn’t matter how clear the picture is if you can’t get lost in what you’re looking at.
There was a way to make this movie. Not in three hours, obviously, that was ridiculous and self-indulgent. But perhaps it would be better to not even attempt to re-create the epic good vs. evil legend of “Lord of the Rings.” Because “The Hobbit” is a different sort of beast. It’s about stories, and the lyricism of everyday life. It’s about the pull of the homeland and the idea that to grow up you need to live among strangers. It’s a simple and lovely tale. Instead of spending all his time trying to wedge 48 frames-per-second into our eyes and create three hours of movie out of 100 pages of text, Jackson could have taken a look at the heart of his movie. Is it beautiful? Does it tell a good story? In the end, Jackson needs to realize that can be enough.