IT WAS THE ESCAPE from the goblin king that did it. Barreling through caverns all topsy-turvy, narrowly escaping one ambush after another through a course of just-so-precariously-positioned wooden catwalks, racing left to right against a camera ever threatening to catch up, and finally the collapse into a deep abyss wherein a fortuitous funnel of rock guides a wooden life boat full of dwarfs, a Halfling, and a wizard to a gentle landing. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” one wheezes. Indeed! *Plop* goes the bloated corpse of the risible goblin king atop the pile and knee-slap-gotcha-wink goes the director. Was this ‘The Hobbit’, J.R.R. Tolkein’s wondrous preamble to a world of mythic mystery and august legend? Or was this ‘Temple of Doom’? A ‘Star Wars’ prequel? Donkey Kong?
Ultimately ‘The Hobbit’ ended up with much more of ‘300’ in it than Donkey Kong, but seeing as both have weirdly over-muscled primates as their reference points perhaps it makes little difference. And yet this snark oversteps itself; first let it be said that ‘The Hobbit’ is a recognizably painstaking work of Peter Jackson’s, at worst a neutral entry into ‘The Lord of the Rings’ film canon, broadly well-acted, and in no absolute terms comparable to the besmirching larceny George Lucas evacuated onto his own monument. At times it fills one with the same surging wonder of the novels and vibrant beauty of Jackson’s prior trilogy…but it does also make one fidget.
It’s understood that ‘The Hobbit’ is more of a children’s tale than is LOTR. Its characters are jollier and its evil less cataclysmic, while the trilogy’s predilection for grown-up themes like lineage, destiny, honor, and alarums over industrialization cede the fore to the more ageless thrills of adventure, discovery, mystery, right big-old-beasties, and even some whimsy. Fair, then, to assume that an expectation of severity and gravity from Jackson’s ‘The Hobbit’ would only ensure disappointment. And yet, the film is more severe than the book, its titular character less a manifest for inquisitive, excitable children, and its heroic dwarf prince a taciturn, heavily-mailed brooder instead of a windy quasi-caricature of nobility.
So why then, does it feel even more childish than the book? For all its fiery battles and decapitations, frowning speeches and portentous encounters, ‘The Hobbit’ as filmed has a sheen of simplification and odds-playing gloss that is hard to locate in the ‘original’ trilogy. This, too, despite its nearly three-hour duration and the exaggerated roles of several characters all but unmentioned in the source material. Perhaps Jackson, Boyens, Walsh, and company felt that the novel’s relative directness (rarely an adjective applied to Tolkien, master of the parenthetical) would not excite younger viewers, and so needed to spruce up its supporting cast and biggen up its baddies. Thus a tomfooling Radagast atop his bobsled of rabbits serves to titillate the youngest moviegoers with his eye-crossing cahoots and coterie of twee CGI animals. And thus, for the slightly older boys (at that bellicose age where vacuum cleaners become flamethrowers and coat-hangers are bows), the Gothmog/Klingon Captain-reminiscent expansion of the orc Azog, now anointed with the epithet ‘The Defiler’ as if his oversized frame and ritual scars weren’t enough to underscore his status as an End of Level Boss. See also his crudely attached mace arm and requisite scene of dispatching an underling in his darksome redoubt, invoking in turn Christopher Plummer’s nailed-in eyepatch (‘Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country’) and Christopher Lloyd (‘Star Trek: The Search for Spock’). This character, even more disappointing for being wrought of CGI instead of flesh (like the pitiless Lurtz of ‘The Fellowship’), distills ‘The Hobbit’s lurch towards video game pastiches of character development and invites the first comparisons to ‘300’.
But it is up to one within our company to complete that picture—Thorin. Sexed-up mightily for this role, the dwarf lord frets harder than Aragorn, yearns more monotonously than Boromir, and strides in ponderous slow-motion more than any non-fauna entity in the franchise to date, save for Sauron himself. The weight of his lost kingdom wears heavily upon his brow, and Richard Armitage does indeed bear it well—but the script injects too much of Zach Snyder’s Leonidas into him for us to empathize naturally, as we might have with Aragorn and did with Boromir. And if Thorin possesses too little of the earthy dwarf spirit his companions possess often too much. Or, at least, what increasingly passes for dwarf spirit in these films, since there exists little balance here, as so wonderfully demonstrated by John-Rhys Davies in the original trilogy. Rather, the dwarf company is almost entirely separable into buffoons and bruisers, the silly and the stern. Their tortuous hairstyles and grossly overblown features (more evocative of Pixar than Poortvliet) follow their personalities categorically, relieving the audience of any obligation to discern for themselves what lies beneath those heavy layers of makeup armor.
At the center of this scrum—indeed, almost a layer or two beneath it—is Bilbo Baggins, the only new character whose performance was fundamental to ‘The Hobbit’s success, given how he was virtually the only one afforded any room for dynamic. Given that ‘The Hobbit’ takes places when Bilbo was about 50 (spry adulthood for hobbits), it was out of the question for Ian Holm to reprise his role and deeply unseemly for Elijah Wood to have a go, either. And so Bilbo is played by a newcomer, Martin Freeman…mostly. Jackson saw fit to bring Ian Holm back for a while to wax didactic about the wheres, whos, whys, and wherefores of ‘The Hobbit’ arc before finally putting his pen to paper to begin ‘There And Back Again’. When he does, and when Tolkien’s own words begin to pour forth (“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit….”), it is a welcome and refreshing breath—and this before Freeman’s younger Bilbo is even ever introduced. An ill omen, that was, but we digress.
Freeman’s Bilbo is a quirky, slightly squeamish fellow with precious little Took in him to start. This makes his blossoming into a lethal warrior rather harder to swallow when it does finally happen, but by no fault of Freeman’s—the script pours such an excess of “I beg your pardons?” and “what do you means?” into his mouth in the film’s first half that it frankly makes him out to be a little dense. Thus, some of Freeman’s best acting is done without having to utter any words at all; his reactions to off-screen events, places, or decisions of other characters range from small delights to the piercingly poignant. And these largely without the intrusion of green screen, herein a more constantly despoiling fiend than any yet encountered by the company. ‘LOTR’ used CGI heavily and revolutionarily—but the heart of the films and the momentum of their actions were human, whereas ‘The Hobbit’ glides about too often and too smoothly on the slick backs of pixels.
But here we must acknowledge Gollum, the most consistently excellent character in the film, who depends upon CGI to enhance the native brilliance of Andy Serkis. Gollum’s conversation with Bilbo is almost completely self-contained and a relatively unadorned tête–à–tête between two of Tolkien’s finest, most complementary minds. Haunting and charismatic, creeping and fumbling, calculating and (almost) guileless, Gollum and Bilbo play off one another splendidly in this intermission of sorts from the outsized action mayhem found in the rest of the film.
Yet alas, although there are riddles, they don’t precisely take place in the dark. Indeed, virtually none of ‘The Hobbit’ seems to glower like it ought, given how much transpires in the presence of dread monsters, underground, or in fire-lit chambers. Of all the minutes spent in the province of the goblin king, the darkest were when the company was on his ‘doorstep’, mere feet below the surface, with a weak (and real) sunlight filtering down through a jumble of tangible New Zealand rocks. Elsewhere, a fondness for the brightness fader flushes out almost every shadow and leaves precious little to our imaginations.
And perhaps that is the central qualm to be had with ‘The Hobbit’. Whereas ‘The Lord of the Rings’ cycle rewarded our daydreams and encouraged our imagination, ‘The Hobbit’ packages it up explicitly and dishes it out in alternately derivative and self-referential bits of increasingly vacant action and chases. Its theatrical version plays like an indulgent director’s cut and then some. To invert an old author’s adage, the film tells us less by showing us more. It is entertaining, yes, but does less honor to Tolkien’s vision. This tale is not a unique and hand-scribed vellum; it is a calculator of inputs chattering out a long scroll of ticker-tape. And the product is sturdy. Mathematically sound. A known quantity for two subsequent equations (i.e. films, thus a second complete trilogy). But its power is captured, defined, and no longer awesome.