Hmm…alright if you like this kind of thing.
Sorry, that was churlish. As a point of fact, I do happen to like this kind of thing. You may already be vaguely aware that there was a mildly successful three part adaptation of J.R.R.Tolkien’s Lord Of The Rings out a while back, and while I’m as sneeringly dismissive of wizards, goblins and dwarves as the next hipster there are times when I start to wonder whether these just might be the greatest movies ever made. Sure, there are moments when they get a bit cheesy, and some of the elven interludes remind me of shampoo commercials, and I could certainly live without Orlando Bloom using his shield as a skateboard, but the sheer massiveness and confidence and verve and downright beauty and magnificence of the locations and the sets and the models and the costumes makes any criticism of the odd bit of new age indulgence seem piffling. The fact that Peter Jackson and his cohorts managed to carve out such a thrilling and dynamic throughline from such distinctly stodgy and over-detailed source material is a minor miracle: these three films run to over eleven hours in their extended versions and there’s no noticeable sag or longeurs at all, at least not until you get to the famous multiple endings.
The last part of Lord Of The Rings came out nearly ten years ago, and at the time the feeling was in the air that after knocking that ball out of the park so decisively surely it wouldn’t take much longer than a couple of New Zealand bank holidays to bang out a matching version of Tolkien’s earlier, and much less complicated, children’s classic The Hobbit? Turns out it wasn’t nearly so easy. First there was a legal tangle-up concerning which studio held the rights to resolve, followed by a whole bunch of vagueness about how many films were going to be made, and which bits of Tolkien’s other Middle Earth writings might be considered for an adaptation, and whether Jackson was going to direct or produce (at one stage Guillermo del Toro, of Pan’s Labyrinth and Hellboy fame was assigned as director), and who out of the Rings cast might be available to reprise their roles. Eventually, it was settled as two films, with Jackson directing…until fairly late in the game, when it mysteriously became a trilogy. All of this shuffling about didn’t really inspire much confidence.
Anyway. Now it’s here, the first part anyway, and what with the calendar getting a bit stuffed with pre-Christmas commitments I sloped off to catch an 11am screening along with a lot of other skivers and orc-fanciers. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is what it’s ended up being called, and it’s…well…alright if you like this kind of thing, but I’d struggle to make a case for it to anyone Tolkien-sceptical. The good news is that it’s very much of a piece with the earlier films in terms of how it looks, and how it feels, and how it plays. The fabulous New Zealand landscapes are present and correct, Bilbo’s house is exactly as it was ten years ago and continuity is respected to the degree of rehiring actors from the Rings trilogy to recreate roles that don’t even appear in the book of The Hobbit – say hello again to Elijah Wood as Frodo, Cate Blanchett as Galadriel, Christopher Lee as Saruman and Ian Holm as the older Bilbo. We also get Ian McKellen returning as Gandalf, Hugo Weaving as Elrond and, in probably the film’s best sequence, Andy Serkis gets to voice and motion-capture Gollum again. A Star Wars: Phantom Menace reboot fiasco this is not – if you loved the world of Lord Of The Rings this is absolutely a return trip. You even get to hear a few of the old music cues, like those for The Shire and the ring. Casting’s pretty sound in the new roles too, with Tim-from-The-Office aka Martin Freeman a canny everyman pick for Bilbo Baggins.
So everything’s reassuringly sumptuous, and when the story gets going Jackson and co handle everything with the surefootedness and invention that they displayed before, with advances in CGI technology meaning they can deliver spectacles like the thunder battles on the misty mountains and trolls turning to stone and our heroes fleeing from armies of goblins with aplomb. The problem, and it’s a glaringly obvious one, is that they’ve got three hours to fill and only about a hundred pages of a light and charming children’s book to fill it with. Everything takes AGES, even after a lengthy prologue setting up the motivation of the dispossessed dwarves who reluctantly recruit Bilbo on their mission to reclaim their homeland and various other interludes I don’t remember from the book (Sylvester McCoy’s turn as the nature-loving wizard Radagast is particularly trippy). They’re in Bilbo’s kitchen for ages, then they’re being hunted by orcs for ages, then chased by goblins for ages in a sequence that reminded me of disinterestedly watching someone else playing a computer game, then they’re being hunted by orcs again. For ages. Before Gandalf once again gets them out of a pickle through his wizardly wisdom.
And it doesn’t help that there are so many of them. Dwarves, that is – thirteen of them, and despite the production crew’s best efforts in differentiating them by giving them different beards and accents you don’t really find yourself bothered about working out which one is which. The only ones to really register are Richard Armitage’s glowering King Thorin and Ken Stott’s faithful retainer Balin.
So in the end I’ve got to confess that I found this film a bit of a trudge, and I’m not sure I’m looking forward to finding out how they’re going to pad out the next two installments. This is one case where I might be tempted to buy a special edition DVD, but only if it had a shorter running time rather than a longer one. Like about two hours shorter.