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17 Dec 2012

Initial review: The Hobbit – As I promised in my last entry, I went to see The Hobbit last Saturday. We got the whole package: IMAX 3D HFR. When I got home, I sat down and wrote about three pages of notes that I intend to turn into a full, play-by-play review, but that is obviously going to be full of spoilers. While most of my readers will already know the story of The Hobbit from the book, the film is a very different beast, so for the sake of those readers who don’t want to have those surprises spoiled for them, I am going to divide the review into a spoiler-free part and a spoilerific part. Breaking this up into two parts also has the advantage of making it a little more digestible, and it will allow me to get out my initial comments more quickly. What you will be reading today is the spoiler-free version, so if you haven’t seen the film yet, put your mind at ease.

“I enjoyed The Hobbit, but I don’t think I was quite as blown away as when I saw The Fellowship of the Ring for the first time.”

I’m not really one for suspense when it comes to reviews, so I’m going to give you my conclusion first: I enjoyed The Hobbit, but I don’t think I was quite as blown away as when I saw The Fellowship of the Ring for the first time. This is partly because, before FOTR, we didn’t really have a viable film version of Middle Earth (not counting the animated versions). Peter Jackson and Company accomplished something new and wonderful, and I think it took the world by storm. With The Hobbit, though, that blush of first love is gone, and we are revisiting a world that is now familiar. It is also possible that I am romanticizing or idealizing FOTR in retrospect. Unfortunately, it is impossible for me to go back now and compare what I feel now with what I felt then. Even if I did have a review of FOTR from right after I first saw it, that wouldn’t tell me how I felt at that time.

So, ultimately, I’m not sure how reliable a comparison of my subjective reaction to The Hobbit and my memory of my subjective reaction to FOTR is as an indicator of the quality of the film. But I said that I enjoyed it, and that is true. The film departed from the book in numerous places, but although I would have liked to see a more faithful adaptation, I can say that there were no “Ent moments” for me. That is, I could understand why the filmmakers made the changes that they did; even if I didn’t fully agree with those decisions, there was nothing that I found unacceptable, either. I won’t lie to you—I would have enjoyed a single film that followed the book more closely (and I think that, unlike LOTR, this would have actually been possible with The Hobbit, although stuff would no doubt need to be cut), but as we are going to get three films with a lot of extra stuff crammed in, whether we like it or not, I think the filmmakers did a good job.

If you read my pre-viewing thoughts on the film, you’re probably wondering if I was on target with my concerns. I will obviously go into more detail in the spoilerific review, but I can say that most of my concerns did make an appearance in the film: 1) The dwarves were portrayed both as comic characters and as heroic figures, which made the comedic parts seem somewhat incongruous, but it wasn’t as bad as I feared it would be—for one, I appreciated that they didn’t pick on Bombur too much. 2) The fact that this was only the first of three films, yet only a third of a book that is shorter than any of the LOTR books, did indeed affect the pacing of the film, as a lot of extra content was added. I will go into specifics next time, but there were definitely points where I felt that the story of Bilbo got lost amidst the events of the larger narrative. One thing I hadn’t considered, though, was the flip side of this equation: that each film in the trilogy needs to stand on its own as a distinct story, which meant that the emotional arc would be different from what it is in the book. 3) The curse of the prequel does raise its head on occasion, although it wasn’t as much of a problem as I thought it might be. However, it’s nearly impossible to talk about this without spoilers, so I will save this for next time.

Now that I’ve addressed my expectations for the film, I can talk a little about some of the things that impressed me in some way. There is one thing that I feel I should start out with, as an addendum to what I said above about the story of Bilbo getting a little lost: while there is no doubt that the pacing was very deliberate, the film never really dragged for me. When the film ended (at pretty much exactly where I suspected it would), I was surprised that I had been sitting there for nearly three hours—it certainly didn’t feel like it. I’m not sure why that is. It could be because I was continuously looking forward to the next part, waiting to see where the filmmakers would take the story. It could also be because I was just having a good time.

The acting in the film was excellent. I am tempted to say “flawless,” because I really did feel that there were no weak points in the cast. There were, of course, stand-outs. It should come as no surprise that Ian McKellen is a pitch-perfect Gandalf, or that Andy Serkis steals the show as Gollum. Both of them have, of course, had time to perfect their characters. The newcomers, though, also deserve mention, especially Martin Freeman and Richard Armitage as Bilbo and Thorin. In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that Hyunjin has been a big fan of Richard Armitage for some time now, which means that I have seen quite a bit of him in action. He is a good actor, with a great voice and an imposing presence, and I think he is a good fit for Thorin. His personality as an actor obviously influences the depiction of the character, as the casting of John Rhys-Davies influenced the depiction of Gimli in LOTR, but I think that for the most part this is a positive thing.

With apologies to my wife, though, Martin Freeman is the real star here as far as I am concerned. His portrayal of Bilbo was everything I could have hoped for—like Ian McKellen’s Gandalf, I was fully convinced by Martin Freeman’s Bilbo from the very first moment he appeared on the screen. To be honest, I wasn’t as convinced by Elijah Wood’s Frodo in FOTR. For one, he’s far too young to be Frodo when you compare him to the other hobbits—especially Sam. Sam is twelve years younger than Frodo in the books, but in the films he clearer looks older (Sean Astin is, in fact, ten years older than Elijah Wood). Merry and Pippin (who are related to Frodo) are even younger than Sam, but at least Merry looks older than Frodo (Dominic Monaghan is five years older than Wood; interestingly enough, Billy Boyd is actually the oldest of the four hobbit actors, but he doesn’t look his age and pulls off being the youngest). In the end, I thought Elijah Wood’s acting was fine, but it took me a while to warm to him as Frodo. I had no such problem with Martin Freeman as Bilbo; the casting was spot-on this time.

Another welcome note (ahem) in the film was the score by Howard Shore. The new music is up to par, and there are moments when we hear hints of some of the LOTR themes as well. It is obvious that the goal here was to create a musical connection between the two trilogies, but that didn’t make the technique any less effective. Hearing those strains was like catching a whiff of a pleasant and familiar aroma, like baking bread or freshly-cut grass, things that bring me back to happy times. These themes generally emerge while familiar places (Hobbiton, Rivendell) are on the screen, making the connections that much stronger. I’ve seen some reviewers refer to this as a blatant and desperate attempt to take advantage of the positive feelings toward LOTR, but I didn’t feel the same way. Like I said last week, I was looking forward to revisiting a beloved place, so those connections were welcome.

Finally, I suppose I should comment on the technology of the film as well. We saw the film in the IMAX format, which is very nice as long as you don’t sit too close to the screen (we sat in the second row from the back, which seemed to be just about right). The sweeping vistas and massive sets are much more engrossing in the larger format—it was easy to get sucked into the beautiful visuals. The film was also in 3D, and on the positive side I can say that it did not suffer from the problem that a lot of 3D films have, namely that they are too dark. The 3D itself was also not too intrusive or gimmicky—there are some moments where you do see things flying out of the screen, but I think the filmmakers deliberately avoided having things flying directly at the audience. In the goblin caves in particular, the 3D adds depth to the film, but most of the time I didn’t really notice it. As such, I have to wonder whether or not it was really necessary. I suppose I will only be able to answer that question after our second viewing, which will be of a 2D version, but I’m not sure how pure of a comparison it will be, since that version is neither in IMAX or HFR. Speaking of HFR, the 48 frames-per-second made a noticeable difference in the film. I had heard before seeing the film that some viewers had grown nauseous because of it, but I didn’t have that problem. Rather, the high frame rate made the film super crisp, which in turn made some of the swooping camera moves less dizzying, I think. On the downside, sometimes it seemed like the picture was a little too crisp, and some of the special effects didn’t look quite as realistic. Overall, though, I didn’t have any real complaints with the visual technology used in the film. I’ll probably come back to this briefly after our 2D, normal frame rate viewing to see how it stacks up.

And I think that about covers it for now. I already said at the beginning of this review that I enjoyed the film, so in closing I will just elaborate on that a bit: I don’t know if The Hobbit is going to be the epic classic that LOTR was (at this point, I kind of doubt it will), but it was still well worth seeing, and I have every intention of getting the expanded edition DVD of the trilogy when it comes out. Peter Jackson had lightning in a bottle with LOTR; this might not be quite the same, but the spark is definitely still there. And I expect that I will grow to enjoy The Hobbit even more as I come to terms with its departures from the original story, recognizing it as a separate and independent work of art. That coming to terms will have to wait at least until after the spoilerific review, though, since there I will be focusing on the differences between the film and the book, and how successful I think the filmmakers’ choices were. That’s probably going to end up being a much longer entry, and will require some research, so don’t expect it immediately. I may even put up another note or entry before then, just to mix things up a bit. We’ll see.

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