Gandalf the Grey: “Those are goblin Wargs! They will outrun you!
Radagast the Brown: “These are rhosgobel rabbits! I’d like to see them try.”
What kind of movie combines the epic music, breathtaking vistas, and heart-pounding fight scenes of a Hollywood blockbuster with the silly songs and antics of a children’s book?
This movie. And it works (Mostly. Almost entirely. Seriously, it’s reeeeaaaaally close, and I can’t think of a way they could have done it better).
But let’s get down to business. Netting a measly 65% on Rotten Tomatoes, it’s evident that many reviewers have a beef (or mutton, if you’re a troll) with the film. Whether it’s the high frame rate (admittedly a horrible, horrible decision that does nothing to enhance the film and much to distract from it), or the slow, deliberate pacing, it’s evident that many reviewers were expecting something different, and were disappointed with the actual product.
And I will admit that the first 15 minutes filled me with a terrible sense that the reviewers might be right. The high frame rate (48 FPS as opposed to the standard 24) makes the opening minutes of the film seem amateurish and jerky, more like an extremely well-done fan video rather than something coming out of Hollywood. Some points in the “Fall of Erebor” sequence in the beginning reminded me most of the old Narnia movies (the good ones, not the new ones), while other points made me think more of what the video game is sure to be like, wondering when the “cut-scene graphics” would fade into the in-game graphics, and I would pick up the controller to cut my way free of the wreckage.
It was disconcerting and disheartening, to say the least. Nothing about the opening sequence captured the same realism and drama as the storming of Helm’s Deep, or even the many smaller battles of the LOTR trilogy. The high FPS practically screamed “fake” to my poor, indoctrinated eyes and brain. But just as the dwarves–consumed though they were by rage and sorrow at their lost homeland–shouldered their burdens and soldiered on, I, too, decided then and there that I was going to enjoy this film, darn it, and nothing could stop me.
And I have to say from that point on, the film did get progressively better. Although Frodo’s exchange with Bilbo struck me as slightly unnatural, there were some extremely nice touches connecting the story of the Hobbit to the events of the later trilogy: The remembrance/story-telling takes place early on the day of The Party with which the Fellowship opens, and after Frodo’s unnecessary (but thankfully brief) interlude, we witness him heading off “to wait for Gandalf,” holding his book. Bilbo, watching him go, blows a single smoke-ring… and with that, the “real” movie begins.
The dwarves? Brilliant. The dinner scene? Fantastic. The first song, in which the dwarves taunt Bilbo with threats of grievous crockery harm? The intro is a little forced, but the song itself is well-executed but very silly (as, indeed, any adaptation seeking to preserve the spirit of the book must be). The second song, in which the dwarves lament their lost homeland? Haunting and breathtaking. Rivendell was wonderful, as usual, but Goblin-Town caused me to utter a quite audible “whoa-haha! Look at that!”, much to the amusement of my wife and the irritation of the other moviegoers.
To my surprise and joy, the movie retains many of The Hobbit’s particular quirks: A paragraph detailing the exploits of the rock giants, never again to be seen or mentioned, is transformed into a tense 10-minute interlude of mountains fighting other mountains, with the dwarves caught, quite literally, in between. The trolls are delightful (a term never before used about trolls, but certainly applicable here), and there are many chunks of dialogue lifted whole from the book itself and inserted, quite successfully, into the film.
But of course, no book gets transformed into a movie without some changes, and a book that’s rather short to begin with can expect even more transformation when turned into three movies. As someone who really, really hates the two latest Narnia movies for the many [too many negative adjectives to list] changes made to the story, this had me worried as I sat in the theater.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I found myself not only accepting but actually nodding in approval at the vast majority of the changes. The book itself is isolated, and only a concerted effort after the fact can bring it into the larger Middle-Earth narrative. The movie attempts to eliminate that sense of isolation: this is, from the very first scene, a tale of Middle-Earth’s larger battle against the darkness.
Almost all of the changes and embellishments in the film can be traced back to this single motivating idea. Thorin’s distrust and even hatred of the elves (even the elves of Rivendell) finds its roots not in The Hobbit itself, but in the larger narrative that the movie reveals–and in that context, it fits extremely well. The same applies to the discovery of the Ring itself: The audience is never under the illusion that the ring Bilbo finds is anything less than the world-breaking Ring of the trilogy, whereas the book treats it as nothing more than an interesting and useful trinket. The re-taking of Erebor is important as a personal quest of the dwarves, but the quest is much more important as a means of defeating the great power of Smaug before it can be joined to the even greater power of the mysterious Necromancer.
The Necromancer! Discovered by Radagast, believed in by Gandalf and Galadriel (and maybe Elrond), scoffed at by Saruman… even though we only get a brief glimpse of this shadowy figure, accompanied by the characteristic scream of the Nazgul, we are appropriately terrified of him (as is Radagast). Although he merits but a handful of sentences in the book, we already know that he will play a much larger role in the next two films.
This first installment left me happy with the decision to expand the story. The movie (as I had hoped) is fantastic. The project is, thus far, a resounding success. The Hobbit is being transformed from an isolated and amusing tale into one more amazing and epic battle in the yet more amazing and epic war against the greater darkness of Middle-Earth.