- Released Internationally on 13/12/12
- Released in Malta by KRS on 13/12/12
Preview (first published 01/12/12 in VIDA Magazine)
It’s finally here. When the The Lord of the Rings trilogy came to a resounding conclusion back in 2003, the general feeling was that there had never been a more satisfying and well-made trilogy of films in memory, and that there weren’t many other books out there that could be adapted and reach such heights. The trilogy also managed the tricky task of pleasing both obsessive fans of the source material and the general film-going public, and there was hardly any aspect of the whole production that was not standard-setting and flawless. So, inevitably, the ending of the trilogy also brought with it a certain feeling of sadness, like that empty feeling you get after a great holiday. Is that it? Do we go back to normal mediocrity now?
Possibly, but it was inevitable that the ‘other’ great Tolkien story would also get the big screen treatment, despite it being a shorter, less epic and more childish tale. But hey, it’s got hobbits in it, and Gandalf, and even Gollum, so why not at least try. Things got delayed, and there was even a point when Peter Jackson, the director and driving force behind the initial trilogy, took a backseat role and handed the project to others. Common sense eventually prevailed, and sure enough we are now getting this prequel part of the tale with the same cast and crew that fared so excellently a decade ago.
Not all the cast needed to return, of course, but it was paramount that Ian McKellen reprises his Gandalf role, since he had inhabited those grey and white cloaks with uncanny precision and he became Gandalf on screen. Less evident but equally talented was Andy Serkis as Gollum, in that ground-breaking marriage of visual effects and character acting, which resulted in a CGI character that has yet to be matched. He’s back, of course, for the expansion of the infamous ‘riddles in the dark’ scene that got a brief mention in The Lord of the Rings but occurs in detail during the events of The Hobbit.
Bilbo Baggins is also back, since this is of course his story and not Frodo’s, but although Ian Holm does reprise his role, a younger Bilbo was needed for most of the plot, so the main new casting choice was the delightful Martin Freeman (The Office, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Love Actually, Sherlock) as the titular hafling. Accompanying him on his first adventure are thirteen dwarves, portrayed by interesting-looking but lesser-known actors who all seem to share a fine, manly singing voice.
In a nutshell, the plot involves Bilbo accompanying the dwarves, hesitantly, on a quest to reclaim their ancestors’ gold from the hoard of the deadly dragon, Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch - Sherlock, Atonement). Trolls, elves, ‘shapeshifters’ and unusual towns stand in their way, not to mention the pitch black depths where Gollum is fiddling with his precious ring.
The adaptation was originally planned as two films, but earlier this year a not-too-unexpected announcement was made that it will be a trilogy. I hope Peter Jackson has tonnes of great material, and I guess after his previous films we can rest easy in the knowledge that he knows what he’s doing. Let’s just hope it was a mostly artistic and not mostly financial decision. In the previous trilogy it was remarkable how he managed to end each film wonderfully, despite not strictly adhering to the book endings. Here it’s just one book with no immediately obvious satisfying endings mid-way, so that’s at least one surprise those who love the book can look forward to.
At the end of the day, watching more of those characters, in more of those locations, with more of Tolkien’s dialogue, to the sound of more of Howard Shore’s music is better than we can hope for with most other film releases nowadays, so even if it fails to reach the lofty standards of its predecessor, this is still the undisputed highlight of this festive season.
The Hobbit is no The Lord of the Rings. The scale of the book was much smaller, and the tone was more childish. But Peter Jackson has very evidently set out to make a Hobbit trilogy that is very similar to his previous masterpiece trilogy, and this might be the main reason why I left the cinema disappointed.
My first problem was one which was rather inevitable. By deciding to make the rather short book into an entire trilogy, and a hefty nine-hour one by the looks of it, there was always going to be a lot of extra material thrown in. This turned out to be even worse than I feared, with plot lines and incidents that are mere footnotes in the book getting entire sequences and lavish detail. They’re interesting to watch, and one might argue that they are fascinating when looking at the Tolkien world as a whole, but with regard to this film in particular they are sometimes dragging, not always very relevant or needed, and they detract from the essence of the quest at hand. I was more than happy when Peter Jackson released the extended editions of the Lord of the Rings films on DVD, with added scenes thrown in. But if he plans to appeal to the general movie-going public, the focus should be on telling a good story in style, rather than on less necessary padding.
The second problem was unexpected. The two trilogies unfold in the same world and share many characters, but I was disappointed to see Jackson rehash and recycle entire concepts, scenes and ideas from his previous films. He seems so intent on reproducing the success of the previous trilogy that this one has been structured in more or less the same way, even where the book doesn’t call for it. We therefore get a prologue in the same style, which is fine, except that it includes scenes of battle (with Thorin the dwarf versus the pale orc) that are uncannily similar to the flashbacks of Isildur battling Sauron. The pale orc is then elevated to a status very reminiscent of Lurtz, who led the Uruk-hai in Fellowship.
Even small ideas like Gandalf appearing to grow in stature when he gets angry, and mounted warriors circling unexpected visitors, are repeated. The whole wargs chase scenes and Rivendell sequences also end up looking like leftover footage from the previous films. We even get a council of sorts half-way through the film, just like in The Fellowship of the Ring, which also serves as a very unnecessary opportunity to bring back some of the old cast for a reunion. And just as Gandalf delivered a memorable line to Frodo before (“All you have to do is decide...”), everything grinds to a halt and sounds the same as Gandalf tries to impart a similar quotable line to Bilbo this time (“...simple acts of kindness...”). It starts to get annoying once the moths and eagles return, and it is ultimately distracting from the story at hand.
Thankfully, the story does contain numerous completely new elements which allow Jackson to present something that looks fresh and original. The new wizard, Radagast, is one of them, and the disgusting but somehow endearing Goblin King is another. The pivotal ‘riddles in the dark’ scene is also a joy to watch, largely thanks to the excellent performances by Martin Freeman as a young Bilbo, and Andy Serkis (via motion capture) in a continuation of his acclaimed Gollum role. The pivotal moment when Bilbo finally picks up the ring, however, doesn’t look like the scene many will remember from The Lord of the Rings, and this is one occasion where some continuity and consistency would have been appreciated.
The arbitrary choice of ending point sort of works, although it hardly has the emotional impact of the ending of Fellowship, and Jackson wisely drops in a tantalising glimpse of the much anticipated dragon, as he did in the prologue, since it is mostly once he joins the fray that we can expect proceedings to pick up in intensity, and hopefully in a fashion completely unique to this trilogy. The end credits song, by Crowded House frontman Neil Finn, is my last minor complaint. It sounds just slightly out of place, and doesn’t blend in seamlessly with the famous orchestral themes of Middle Earth like the three stellar songs from the previous trilogy did.
Don’t get me wrong, this is still a spectacle to watch - especially in 3D and in the brand new HFR (high frame rate) presentation. There’s enough orcs and dwarves and action and humour to keep everyone entertained, and the overall quality on display far exceeds most films we’ve seen in recent years. If this had been released in a world where The Lord of the Rings didn’t exist, it would be taking the world by storm and wowing us all into silence. But ultimately, it tries too hard to repeat the formula of its predecessor, which is not a wise move since it is a weaker story. Maybe a different director would have been a good idea after all, but then again I’ll reserve judgement because I still hope that Jackson has some surprises in store for the next two instalments, and that the trilogy as a whole will be looked back on as a wonderful piece of fantasy cinema.