Let me preface this review by stating that Lord of the Rings is the single greatest achievement in the history of cinema. I don’t mean that’s my opinion, I mean because it successfully adapted one the highest regarded literary works of all-time into a runaway critical and commercial success of a completely different medium. 6 billion dollars at worldwide box office and 16 Academy Awards.
Lord of the Rings is the ultimate fantasy battle of Good VS Evil, a story so grand that it inspired my career and likely millions of others over the decades, authors and filmmakers alike. The Hobbit is the book that was written 15 years beforehand; a much smaller story about dwarves and a hobbit who all head out to rob a dragon. Not a prequel, as this new film adaptation is, but a precursor. Huge difference. Bordering on children’s literature, this is the story that the someday-LotR fans had read when they were much smaller. As you can probably tell from my tone, I am incredibly biased and not suited to pass fair judgment on this film, but here we go…
For those unfortunate few who have still somehow not experienced the live action LotR Trilogy, then you may be better off seeing these new ones first. However, I’m sure that 99% of people going in will have seen and loved LotR, which is literally an impossible standard to live up to. The Dark Knight Rises had a tough enough bar to reach this summer and most people I’ve discussed it with share similar thoughts on it “getting the job done”. Fitting the bill, not ruining anything, keeping the status quo, etc… Now go ahead with triple those expectations after ten years of anticipation and getting stuck with elementary source material. There isn’t anything bad in The Hobbit, in fact it has a lot going for it, but it’s simply not as good of a story. They must have known this from the beginning though, so my greatest criticism is that instead of telling this as a standalone tale, they frame it as a prequel. A flashback. Minor spoilers ahead, but it’s probably better to know this going in anyway:
The Hobbit opens with a Prologue, as did Fellowship of the Ring, but then we’re back at Bag End with Old Bilbo and Frodo. Guess whose birthday it is?! Elijah Wood is there as fan service, but he’s never serving us anything. Fan service is when they took Samuel L Jackson back onto set of Snakes on a Plane after principle photography wrapped to shoot pick-ups of him swearing a lot more, giving the film a hard R rating per test screeners’ requests. Frodo is here, aimless, only reminding us that once Bilbo’s fun little story is written that it is actually he who will embark on the most important journey in the history of Middle-Earth. Oh, you tease me so. Galadriel’s cameo is my favorite, but Saruman and Elrond are at least justified in their dialogue scene with Gandalf at Rivendell, alluding to a new dark power rising in the land. Not sure how they’re going to resolve this in the next two Hobbit films, since they really can’t, but oh well.
Everyone’s eagerly anticipated Riddles in the Dark scene is one of the film’s best, as Gollum nearly steals the show, so it’s too bad that he’s probably done after just this movie. Although my favorite performance goes to Sir Ian McKellan as Gandalf, at least whenever the old Fellowship music chimes in behind him. Always inspiring.
The real talk of this film though, at least from an industry standpoint, has been the dreaded 48 frames per second. A friend and I were recently debating the issue (aka High Frame Rate in theaters) when I caught myself saying “whatever, let’s see how much it can actually ruin it”. Well, those first few minutes were definitely unsettling. It might not sound possible in laymen’s terms, as I didn’t want to believe it either, but it truly does look too real, at least after growing up watching 24fps films. There isn’t any other way to describe it. You grow accustomed to it by the time the dwarves start showing up (one of my favorite scenes) but there are a lot of moving camera techniques that will constantly remind you. Every time. You get used it, but you’re really more like dealing with it. The 3D was good, but I would have been just as content without.
I wouldn’t call this Lord of the Rings: Episode I. Far from it. The Hobbit works well when it’s just being The Hobbit, but every once in a while we’re given it as a LotR prequel, comparable to Return of the King Extended Edition, in the sense that it’s just too long. The original films are far from flawless, even a big cheap at times, but are easily forgiven because the sheer magnitude of everything involved is awe-inspiring. 95% makes you forget about the other 5%. However, The Hobbit‘s ratio is more like 80-20. It goes too much for Lord of the Rings when it should be aiming for early Harry Potter.
I think it would have been a solid two hour film, the first installment of a great three-part fantasy romp, but instead they went epic. Should have been PG as well. All studio decisions, I assume. The whole movie is pretty funny and New Zealand is still a beauty as Middle-Earth. I wouldn’t hold it against them if they re-release a shorter Director’s Cut a year later for each film, the opposite of what they did with the Extended Editions. In fact I’d be proud to see such ownership and responsibility, as I suspect the next two films will be plagued will similar cases of Prequel-itis.
VERDICT: Still undecided, I need to see it in 2D at home. But there’s a reason they originally chose adapting Lord of the Rings to film: it’s just a far better story. I insist upon your return visit to Middle-Earth, but beware, you’ll be tempted to put the Ring back on…