By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist December 17, 2012 at 12:15PM
For a long time, it seemed as though "The Hobbit" would never get made. Despite the multi-billion dollar success of Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" films, the rights to J.R.R. Tolkien's earlier novel were tangled up, and Jackson didn't even seem to be sure he wanted to go back to Middle Earth. Even once the film got underway, MGM's bankruptcy delayed the film for years, losing original director Guillermo Del Toro in the process.
But with Jackson back at the helm himself, the new film finally hit screens this past Friday, and certainly seems like it'll be at least as successful as the earlier films, breaking box office records around the world in the last few days, so it's paying off financially. But creatively? Perhaps less so. The film's had its share of good reviews (including our own), but in general it has had notices well below the three "Lord of the Rings" films, and fan reaction seems to be much more mixed (although the film did, in fairness, pick up an 'A' Cinemascore, for what little that's worth.)
The rest of the Playlist team have been catching up on the film in recent weeks, and collectively found a few more issues than our reviewer, so we thought we'd delve into the movie in more depth, and pinpoint, with spoilers, what worked and what didn't for most of us about the film. You can let us know your own views in the comments section below.
One of the bigger gambles that Jackson makes with "The Hobbit" was in the casting of his lead, Bilbo Baggins. For one thing, the character had already been played, wonderfully, by Ian Holm in the original "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, so it was a difficult act to follow. As such, it might have been better to go with a relative unknown, but instead Jackson cast Martin Freeman, star of the U.K. "The Office," as well as the more recent smash "Sherlock." While he's hardly an A-lister, Freeman brings plenty of star baggage to the film, which could have been problematic. Fortunately, it turned out to be a great choice; Freeman is basically the best thing about "An Unexpected Journey." With no shades of Tim or Watson, Freeman slips like a glove into Middle-Earth, seamlessly incorporating some Ian Holm-ish elements into the performance, while also happy to let it stand alone and make it his own thing. He's grumpy, funny, cunning, truly heroic (his charge to save Thorin is genuinely moving) and all in all a much more compelling protagonist than Frodo ever was in Jackson's first three films. We have plenty of reservations about the six hours of 'Hobbit' to come, but one thing we really are looking forward to is seeing much more of Freeman as Bilbo.
Freeman's not alone in giving a fine performance; there really are no weak leaks involved, from returning cast members like Hugo Weaving and Cate Blanchett to all the dwarves (it might be hard to tell them apart, but every one of them is giving their all). Best of all is Ian McKellen, a sight for sore eyes as Gandalf the Grey. One forgets that it's eleven years since we've seen this incarnation of the character (when he returns as Gandalf the White in "The Two Towers," the character is a bit more spritely and samurai-like, with less of a sense of humor), but McKellen doesn't let it feel like a day has passed. One suspects that it's the most screen time that Gandalf's had in the films so far, and McKellen makes use of every playful, stern, powerful second of it, while still letting in a little of that weariness to foreshadow how he appeared in 'Fellowship.' McKellen's always been open about enjoying playing Gandalf the Grey much more than the White, and he's clearly having an absolute blast in the part that won him a Supporting Actor Oscar nomination way back in 2002.
Given the decade of progress that's been made at WETA, and given Jackson's effects company's work on "Avatar" and "Rise of the Planet of the Apes," among others, it's no surprise that the CGI work is pretty spectacular (although there were a couple of naysayers on staff who preferred the work in the original films). The melding of different sized-characters is just as seamless as ever, while Gollum, already a landmark creation, is even more impressive this time around -- the improved facial performance capture techniques developed for "Avatar" and "ROTPOTA" come into play here, every tiny tic on Serkis' face replicated on his creation. And the Goblin King (as played by Barry Humphries), while a brief role, is probably the second-most impressive performance capture creation that's resulted from the Tolkien movies, a memorably grotesque, corpulent character, while the Cockney-voiced trolls are good fun too. We might take some issue with exactly how much CGI there is (did the one-armed albino orc guy really need to be a CGI, rather than practical, creation?), but you can't argue that what is there is pretty much immaculate.
Like Paul Greengrass' "Watchmen" or Lynne Ramsay's "The Lovely Bones," the concept of Guillermo Del Toro's "The Hobbit" will end up as one of the great 'what ifs' in cinema history. The "Pan's Labyrinth" director spent several years as the director of the films, only to bail after multiple delays. But he was deeply involved in the writing process (retaining a screenwriting credit), and while it's tricky to tell exactly who contributed what, some of the film's more inventive moments certainly feel like they have Del Toro's stamp all of them. Again, that scrotum-chinned Goblin King, a truly repulsive villain, feels like a giant grown cousin to the skin-flap-covered Pale Man in "Pan's Labyrinth," (though Barry Humphries' performance is also one of the relatively few moments that nod to Peter Jackson's work -- you can imagine the character having strolled out of "Bad Taste," somehow). And the film's most ingenious action sequence, as the dwarves & Bilbo find themselves caught in a battle between two giant rock monsters -- a complete invention, found nowhere in the book -- also feels like it's a product of Del Toro's mind, given his love for giant monsters (and indeed, ones made of rock -- see "Hellboy II"). It's pretty gratuitous to be sure, but as the dwarves jump between the giants' knees, it's one of the most inventive moments in the film, and we wish there was more like it. Maybe we're being unfair to Jackson by putting the credit elsewhere (it could be that Del Toro had nothing to do with it), but it certainly makes you wonder if the film might have been more distinctive and satisfying in the hands of the first director who was going to make it.
During the frenzied second half of "The Hobbit" there is a brief, beautiful moment of reprieve – the so-called "Riddles in the Dark" scene, where Bilbo (Martin Freeman) meets, for the first time, Gollum (Andy Serkis). The scene is extraordinary for a number of reasons, first and foremost the performances of Serkis and Freeman. Freeman plays the scene delicately, like he knows that the sequence is a moment of "passing the torch" from one trilogy to the next, while Serkis throws himself back into the role wholeheartedly, with even more freedom and elasticity. (In the previous films, he performed on-set as reference and then recorded the motion capture in a blank stage called the volume, with the second performance then reintegrated back into the scene. For these new films, he was able to do the performance on stage in real time.) The sequence, too, has a wonderful sense of playful menace, with a subtly redesigned Gollum playing Bilbo in a deadly game of riddles. The scene takes its time – it breathes deeply, a much needed lull in the film's frantic second half – but you are always on the edge of your seat. This sequence also has what is arguably the single most important moment in the entire prequel series, when Bilbo plucks a tiny gold band out of the dirt and places it in his waistcoat. With this ring, I thee dread.