Ah, Middle Earth. We last visited in Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy and we’re back again in “The Hobbit,” a visual retelling of the book that started it all. Filmed in the part of New Zealand that has far fewer sheep than the majority of the country, Jackson’s Middle Earth is vast and epic, dotted with jagged mountains and deep woods, powerful rivers and gentle pastures. “The Hobbit” is a visual film, as much as its predecessors, but it relies a bit too much on CGI.
While the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy relied heavily on it as well, most of the Orcs and Goblins were played by actors in prosthetics and makeup—very good makeup that added realism and verisimilitude to the story. “The Hobbit,” unfortunately, is full of CGI bad guys that lack the depth that was such a benefit to the original trilogy. I can only imagine what it would look like on the screens where the film was shown in 48 frames per second. The word cartoony comes to mind. But despite my annoyance at CGI monsters, “The Hobbit” was enjoyable and will likely please many fans.
“The Hobbit” was the first story of Middle Earth, the story that introduced Hobbits and Elves and Wizards and Orcs, Sting and Glamdring, songs and whimsy. This whimsy is what defined “The Hobbit,” which is much lighter in tone than the trilogy. It is, at its heart, about a loveably homebody who finds adventure in a magical and dangerous world. In the process, Bilbo Baggins learns that the world is wide and his place in it is more important than he can imagine. It’s a nice story for young kids looking to discover where they fit in their own worlds.
Peter Jackson has taken this idea and run with it, in exhausting and deliberate detail, creating a nearly three-hour spectacle that is fun but tiring. I’ve seen far too many films this year that take up the majority of my day. I’d really like to see a story told in a shorter format, but Jackson is not a filmmaker known for brevity.
If you don’t know the story, it’s fairly simple. Bilbo Baggins is recruited as a burglar by a company of elves looking to return to their homeland after being driven away by an evil dragon. Along the way, the group encounters all sorts of magical creatures and faces enormous danger. It’s an adventure story, nothing more. Jackson, however, doesn’t see it that way. If he did, he wouldn’t have made three movies.
Martin Freeman does a competent job as the titular character—although Bilbo doesn’t always seem to be the star of his own film. Instead, there is more time given to the dwarf king Thorin Oakenshield. On one hand, this makes sense, as Bilbo is having his first adventure and Thorin has had several. But on the other, the film might be better served by focusing on Bilbo’s eccentricities and discomfort on the road. This is woven into the dialogue, but I’d like to have been shown more of it though action. Ian McKellen is back as Gandalf, owning the role as only he can, but the strongest performance here is from Andy Serkis as Gollum. Serkis has shown his abilities time and again and it is far past time that the Academy gives him a nod. He has more talent than most well-known actors working today.
Ultimately, “The Hobbit” is a film that was made for fans of J.R.R. Tolkien. It is unlikely to win over new disciples or make much of a splash in the critical world. All that needed to be said about Middle Earth can be found in the original trilogy. That was the better story. It legitimately deserved three films and exquisite detail. The Hobbit trilogy, at the end of all things, may end up being a letdown. Time will tell.