Well, not that unexpected really. Not with three box-sets of Lord of the Rings (Special Edition) DVDs sitting on the shelves. In book terms, they’d be classed as well-thumbed. And I did choose to go to the cinema with a bloke who had a habit of reciting the exact line about two seconds BEFORE the character got around to it. (Ok, that only happened twice, but it still gives an indication that this wasn’t an entry-level viewing experience).
It’s safe to say we were pre-disposed to like the film. It’s also safe to say that a few qualms had started to creep in. I read a few early reviews: it was long; it was ponderous; it was nausea-inducing; it was emphatically a disappointing take on a much-loved story.
Ignore the naysayers: The Hobbit is great fun. Lighter in tone than its predecessor, the film luxuriates in the world that Peter Jackson and team have lovingly created. It has a bright, vivid and vibrant texture that conveys the sense that this is a younger, happier, more innocent world than that of Lord of the Rings. I saw it in 2D (I had a hangover), so can’t comment on the 3D HFR-whatsit; but I can say that it works perfectly well even without a gallon of snot shooting out from a troll’s nose, or a globule of pus glistening on a goblin’s bum.
The Hobbit is a simple story sympathetically told: the dwarves, led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) are on a quest to take back their stolen homeland of Erebor. Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) is the hobbit who has been press-ganged into service by meddling wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen). What qualities this home-loving prude can bring to the group is unclear at the outset. But he takes the plunge and willingly signs the contract that will bind him to the fate of the dwarves, and ultimately to that of Middle Earth itself.
Martin Freeman is the beating heart of the story. A pipe-smoking, quick-thinking interloper, he doesn’t fit into this motley bunch, yet quickly proves his worth in a number of unexpected ways. While the dwarves are portrayed collectively as back-slapping, head-butting oafs, Bilbo is a quiet, contemplative observer, eventually finding fellowship and respect as a trusted member of the group. His face-off with Gollum is a stonking scene straight out of the book, with a few inspired additions. We are told in Fellowship that “it was pity that stayed Bilbo’s hand” against killing the creature; here we see close-up the intent, the doubt and the overwhelming triumph of mercy, captured in a single expression. It’s a touching moment, and one which transcends all the CGI’d battles as the defining scene of the film.
There are some minor quibbles – the journey doesn’t feel as memorable as that of, for example, The Fellowship. There is no town of Bree, or Mines of Moria. Instead, there are open plains, unexceptional forests, and a never-ending cave chase that wouldn’t look out of place in the Temple of Doom. One of the dwarves (Ori?) is an irritatingly bad actor, which is especially noticeable when you have the calibre of Ian McKellen, Ken Stott and Hugo Weaving in close proximity. I’m also not sure about the decision to completely CGI (or motion-capture) the main villains. Fine for Gollum, but the albino goblin Azog looks too much like a character from a computer game. He doesn’t have the physical presence of Lurtz or the yuk-factor of Gothmog and offers a convincing argument for prosthetics over pixels.
The tone is variable. On the one hand you have a sing-along dishwashing scene (brilliantly executed) and a cute hedgehog called Sebastian, while on the other, there are decapitations galore and a procession of character nasties with nods towards Jackson’s unique brand of body horror. It’s a kids film for those with a strong constitution.
Overall, however, it was entertaining stuff. I especially enjoyed the visit to Rivendell, showing a more carefree land than we’ve seen previously. This is embodied by the character of Elrond (Hugo Weaving). Whereas in Lord of the Rings he had the weight of the world on his shoulders, here he is a subtly younger, brasher and more mischievous character. If elves could ever be described as impish, he would fit the bill.
I think this is one of the fundamental reasons for the success of these films. Alongside the undisputed craft of the film-makers, screenwriters, designers, model-makers and SFX pioneers, there is a solid backbone of theatrically-trained actors holding it all together. Amongst the battles and costumes and occasionally cringe-worthy dialogue, there are characters with histories and backstories, played by people who know their stuff, and who seem to be having an awful lot of fun.