It’s Christmas time, and director Peter Jackson returns on cue to Middle-earth for the third and final film based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. The end result is an uneven but engaging prequel to his hugely successful version of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (LOTR) trilogy released in 2001-2003. Yes LOTR is already that old. And yes, you are getting older. If you are a fan of dwarves, elves, hobbits, wizards, wargs, and orcs, you will go see this movie whatever I say. And you probably already know that The Hobbit is the story of Bilbo Baggins, who is hired by a company of dwarves to steal a precious stone from a nasty dragon named Smaug (deliciously voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch). Along the way, Bilbo discovers a mysterious ring, which comes back, big time, in LOTR. What is the point of this review, then, if you are going to see the movie anyway? First to admit that the movie is a mixed bag, offering both good and bad. Second, unlike unconditional LOTR fans, I think The Hobbit is well worth seeing because of the introductory place it now occupies in the Jackson-Tolkien universe. Some of the good:
- It’s great to see dwarves, elves, hobbits, wizards, wargs, and orcs again. As with any series, familiarity has it pleasures. A singular pleasure of The Hobbit series is getting back to Jackson’s version of Middle-earth in all its amazing production detail. But the chief pleasure of the film is getting back to familiar actors and characters, such as the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) or the elves, Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Galadriel (Cate Blanchett).
- Jackson and the writers clearly use this film to set up the backstory to the LOTR trilogy. While Tolkien purists will no doubt blog to their hearts’ content on discrepancies with the novel, The Hobbit trilogy offers necessary background as to how evil spread in Middle-earth and how characters such as Gandalf, Legolas, and Galadriel began to stand up against it.
- The Hobbit’s lighter tone provides a good starting point and illustrations for families and teachers to discuss some themes dear to Tolkien, such as the corrupting power of avarice and the bonds of deep friendship.
Some of the bad:
- The dragon Smaug disappears far too quickly in this film, a narrative problem tied to Jackson’s decision to turn a short children’s novel into three lengthy movies. Without Smaug, the film struggles to find its focus. I hope at some point Jackson will release an “unextended version”—all three films cut down into one.
- The movie focuses too much on the dwarf king Thorin (Richard Armitage), who lacks the, hmm, stature of the LOTR human king in the making, Aragorn. As a result, Jackson neglects Bilbo, excellently played by Martin Freeman, who is the true center of the story.
- Jackson does not make enough use of New Zealand’s spectacular beauty as the natural backdrop to the plot. Too much of the action, especially the lengthy battle scenes, seems staged, the product of putting actors up against a green screen and adding computerized orcs and trolls later.
Unless you love a cinema’s big screen, you can indeed wait to see The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies on DVD. But if you do so, I suggest starting with the first Hobbit movies and continuing straight through with the Lord of the Rings films. The end result will be an appreciation for the continuity of production design and cinematography between the six mega-productions. Such continuity allows Jackson to stress the thematic progression in the films, as one hobbit and then another bears the burden of the struggle between good and evil. And if you are not convinced, then try do the same with the six Star Wars films! (Warner Bros)