I love movies. I love writing about them. Hope you like reading what I write.
This is my 100th review on this blog. To mark this occasion, I’m going to do something a little different. A retrospective on a popular film franchise.
I find that this is almost a lost art in film criticism. Deadlines and many movies a week force professional versions of me to review each instalment of a franchise, as I do, while not allowing for a separate article some time after the final instalment to review the series as a whole.
This I feel is a tremendously important thing that is often being missed out by critics, save a few lines in their review of the last part in the trilogy, quadrilogy, pentalogy, hexalogy, octaligy etc. amounting to “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” which in all cases should go without saying.
So I’m going to retrospectively review (almost a tautology) one of the biggest film series of all time, that has after a short year and a half been pretty much forgotten. The Hobbit Trilogy.
After the gargantuan success of The Lord of the Rings Trilogy a live-action adaptation of J.R.R Tolkien’s earlier, more kid-friendly novel The Hobbit was near inevitable. Following many production problems, a director change and an expansion of one movie to two and then to three, Rings director Peter Jackson gave us another trip into Middle Earth, every Christmas between 2012 and 2014.
Reviews at the time were mixed, for all parts of the series. Some saw it as a fun return to a fantasy realm they had forgotten how much they missed. A number saw it as too long, over-bloated by plot-lines invented by the screenwriters and just not the right feel. Some in fact felt it was an improvement on LOTR.
Because of the timing of the releases, I only was able to review Part 3 when it came out and I am willing to admit my writing was not as good as it is now. On top of that, my opinion has had time to settle.
To complete my collection of Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth films, I recently got my hands on the Extended Editions of all 3 films. It is these that I shall be reviewing in detail here.
THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY
“In a hole in the ground, there lived a Hobbit.” The famous opening sentence to the beloved classic novel The Hobbit. It sets the scene of that book.
In the film, however, no sooner are we back in Bag-End mere hours before The Fellowship of the Ring starts, that we are whisked back some 100 years earlier as we get a Rings style prologue showing the moment Smaug the Dragon destroyed much of and hence became the sole resident of the once mighty dwarf Kingdom of Erebor in the Lonely Mountain.
This sets the scene for what I feel is the major difference between the way Tolkien and Jackson tells the former’s original stories. While Old Bilbo (played again by Sir Ian Holm) bookends the trilogy, implying the entire film is in his voice, the tale feels far more objective than the Book.
In his Books, Tolkien appears to have to have translated Bilbo’s red book he writes in (which Frodo and then Sam continued to write in) telling the story with his eyes, only finding out crucial backstory when it is told to him. In Jackson’s version, we see all through his God-like lens sometimes departing Bilbo entirely to follow another character or group of characters when they are doing something more exciting.
This is a Dwarf story. While Bilbo is the protagonist, he is Nick Caraway to our Jay Gatsby. He tags along and helps when he can.
Speaking of Dwarves (that’s how you spell the plural), at the whim of Gandalf the Grey, thirteen of them arrive at Bilbo’s residence many years after the taking of their home by Smaug and still 60 years before the events of LOTR.
I genuinely love these dwarves. Thorin, Balin, Dwalin, Fili, Kili, Oin, Gloin, Bifur, Bofur, Bombur, Nori, Ori, Dori and yes I do remember all of their names. While I understand the concern some had over being unable to tell them apart, if you cannot tell those apart that have less screen-time I feel that’s part of the joke, but if you do, you find that each of these little characters have got personalities better developed than in the book.
After a raucous party, the details of the planned quest to take back the Lonely Mountain from Smaug and following some well-written, acted and directed deliberation, Bilbo joins the company of Thorin Oakenshield, King Under the Mountain.
Thorin is played by Richard Armitage. I did have my reservations at an actor so young playing the part of the leader of these Dwarves, but his performance throughout this trilogy cannot be faulted. For all the jokes one can make about him playing Aragorn 2.0, his is possibly the most complex character in the entire Middle Earth Saga since Gollum.
I won’t discuss at length the scene with the three trolls, since it impacts the plot little and deviates little in the fundamentals from the book more than providing Bilbo with a better chance to prove himself by deceiving the three and Gandalf taking their very presence as a sign something in Middle Earth might be off.
Soon after this, the company encounter Radagast the Brown. He is a wizard like Gandalf, though is not at all present in The Hobbit book, though he does in LOTR in the books.
I used to not care for Radagast in The Hobbit. He is an effective story device, setting up Gandalf’s story in this trilogy by providing anecdotal evidence of a Dark Power’s return to Middle Earth. However, I found him just a bit too weird and somewhat out of place.
He has grown on me since then, but some of his humour still does not leave me laughing. Unfortunately, that was not the last time in this film series.
This then is followed by a chase across many fields, the Dwarves trying to get away from an Orc pack riding Gundebad Wargs while Radagast tries to divert them.
This seemingly random Orc Pack, which attacks the Dwarves suspiciously close to the borders of Rivendell, it turns out is under the command of Azog the Defiler. He is a giant pale Orc with a thirst for blood of anyone in Thorin’s family.
He did appear in the book, though his role is greatly expanded for the movie. While I have problems with the design of this field (I shall come back to my issues in the Art Department later) and his motivation is vague, even for an orc, I do like his included story. It provides a stick for the journey of Thorin & Co. when otherwise there was only the carrot of their mountain.
The Orcs are dispatched by some Elves and the Company escape through a hidden path toward Rivendell.
Once they arrive, Thorin, with the aid of Lord Elrond (played thankfully again by Hugo Weaving) discovers from a map belonging to his father, that they must get to the secret entrance to the mountain by the last light of Durin’s Day, supposedly a Dwarvish Bank Holiday. Now they have a time limit in which to complete their quest. Ooh drama.
Elrond, concerned about the Dwarves’ quest to enter Erebor, invites Gandalf to the “White Council”. This is another committee of which Gandalf is a member along with Elrond, Lady Galadriel (played again by Cate Blanchett, the most beautiful woman in the world) and Saruman the White (played again by the coolest actor of all time, the late Sir Christopher Lee).
This scene, another addition to the movie from the four screenwriters, sets up the side-plot Gandalf follows for the rest of the trilogy. He must investigate a Necromancer who has taken residence in Dol Guldur, an apparently abandoned fortress in Mirkwood.
This was a story Tolkien wrote down and hoped to be included in the never published third edition of The Hobbit and was included in the Appendices of LOTR. It was meant to tie together the two stories.
I have heard quite a few critics saying that this is proof that Jackson cannot understand the fun romp nature of The Hobbit, a story written J.R.R for his children. I believe that the inclusion of Galadriel, Saruman and the plot their presence creates is proof that Jackson understands Tolkien better that most. He knows that the author liked things to connect. He wanted LOTR the book to connect to his earlier work and since circumstances forced Jackson to film the sequel novel first, he could not allow Gandalf, one of cinema’s most beloved characters in recent memory, just wander out of the story and then come back, seemingly for no reason, as he does in the text.
If I had a problem with this scene it would be that for all the talk in it, Elrond and Saruman never explicitly state why they are so opposed to Thorin’s Quest. All it would have taken was one line: “If the Dragon still sleeps on that treasure, disturbing him could lead to terrible damage upon the men who live nearby”. Put this into the mouth of the then good Saruman and all would be well-explained.
Nevertheless, the following private exchange between Galadriel and Mithrandir (Elvish for Gandalf) is writing considerable skill.
Galadriel asks Gandalf the obvious yet easily missed question: “Why the Halfling?” – referring of course to Bilbo.
Gandalf replies (here I paraphrase) that he does not know, but that he finds ordinary folk in their everyday lives “keep the darkness at bay”. Bilbo, he says, gives him courage.
This is brilliant writing. We don’t often give credit to the writers of The Middle Earth Saga for their skill in not only adapting these complex, often un-cinematic books into screenplays. Here we get the heart of Tolkien’s entire oeuvre in some fleeting, beautifully spoken by Sir Ian McKellen, the most perfectly cast actor I can remember.
Thorin’s Company at this time have gone out of Rivendell and have begun trekking through “the wild” allowing for glorious helicopter shots of New Zealand, a highlight in any Middle Earth Movie, set to an orchestral version of the “Misty Mountains” song composed by the genius Howard Shore.
After a run-in with some stone giants, Bilbo considers abandoning his Dwarvish friends. Before he and Bofur, a highly sympathetic Dwarf, have a chance to part ways, the floor under them in the mountain cave in which they find themselves caves away for an enormous drop into which all 14 members of the company fall.
Of course, this drop which all the Dwarves and Bilbo survive should have killed them leading to the criticism I’ve heard from many that there is simply no tension in the action in this movie.
I would argue that in the majority of action movies, LOTR for some parts included, there is already a systemic problem in the movies that there is not enough tension in the action. This of course does not excuse a further violation of the rule that tension and action should go hand in hand, but it does show that The Hobbit is not alone in this boat.
The Dwarves are taken by some CGI Goblins (I shall comment further on the use of CGI later) who take them to the Goblin King.
I did not like this character in the cinema, but, as with Radagast, he grew tolerable, the more I thought about him. He’s not a funny or scary villain, but he is a large enough obstacle for our heroes.
Unfortunately, the Extended Edition of this scene includes a song at the beginning which, quite frankly, is insufferable. Say what you will about the numerous songs in Tolkien’s books, the 2 or 3 songs already sung in this movie, but at least none of them were some rock ballad which fitted just as well as an Austin Powers reference in Schindler’s List. I’m not kidding folks. The Middle Earth Saga up to this particular point, as much as I adore it, had its dumb and sometimes genuinely bad moments, but this moment is the only one which makes me question whether to pause and skip a scene. 14 hours of movie with no break and this scene does it to me.
All of this is practically amended when we cut back to Bilbo who has been separated from the company and has fallen (again) down a great pit.
It here we find Gollum. This is when Riddles in the Dark, THE SCENE we have been waiting over 10 years to be performed in full, is delivered.
Gollum will show Bilbo the way out of the caves he finds himself in if Bilbo can best him in a game of Riddles. If “Bagginses” loses, he is to be eaten Gollum.
Not a lot needs to happen in a scene for it to be dramatic. All you need are two characters with competing objectives and get them to go at one another.
This is everyone’s favourite chapter in The Hobbit and the writers know it. In the “Making Of” Documentaries, the two actors present here said it felt like theatre and does play like excellently written, funny, tense theatre, drenched in character.
In this scene we have the immortally brilliant Andy Serkis, playing once again the role that changed his life and it is just as wonderful a reunion as you could have hoped for. This man IS Gollum. If them Oscars won’t acknowledge him, I certainly will.
The chaps at Weta Digital also have given an excellent performance. Gollum still looks the way he does in LOTR but just that bit better. It’s wonderful.
The stand-out in all of this is not even Gollum, though. It’s the new boy Martin Freeman.
I haven’t mentioned up to this point Freeman’s performance. It is flawless. Nobody could play Bilbo better than Martin. The man is a Hobbit, with all the homeliness, subtle British with and ticks which come with it.
These two riddle it out in one of the best scenes in the whole M.E.S (Middle Earth Saga). Gollum figures out that his “Precious” is in Bilbo’s possession and chases after him. Bilbo slips the Precious (ring) on his ring finger (an interesting change to form) and he discovers that he is invisible.
Meanwhile, the Goblin King is about to have the Dwarves executed when Gandalf appears in an explosion of magic and awesomeness. They fight their way out in CGI filled comically OTT fashion. Possibly not what Tolkien had in mind when he wrote this vague chapter, but authorial intention be damned, it’s cool and the Goblin King is dead.
The Dwarves and the Wizard escape, leaving Bilbo with Gollum who cannot see him, with a chance to end the poor creature’s life and be free.
This is when we finally see that “Pity of Bilbo” which Gandalf described in Fellowship of the Ring so beautifully. With the unmistakable music of that scene playing, Bilbo Baggins leaps over Gollum and out of the cave, leaving him in want of the mysterious ring.
The Dwarves stop running under some trees. When Gandalf inquires as to the location of Bilbo, Thorin rants on the hobbit’s cowardice before Bilbo appears from behind a tree.
At this moment to stop for breath, Bilbo explores very clearly his motivation for keeping with the company. He has a home. The Dwarves do not. He wants to help. Simple, but heroic. Exactly what Gandalf wanted. More than just a bored Hobbit in need of a mission, but one who is doing what he is doing out of courage and kindness.
Taking aside the fact that Bilbo has no choice, but forward at this point, this is some fine writing.
Soon it turns out that the company is “Out of the Frying Pan & Into the Fire” (the name of this chapter in the book and a quote in the movie from Thorin & Gandalf) as a pack of Wargs attacked them.
In the novel this is a freak occurrence forcing them into the trees which are burnt by Goblins which have caught up to them under the rising darkness of night.
In the movie, however, this is one coordinated attack by Azog the Defiler who had picked up the tail of his Dwarvish pray after a letter from The Goblin King.
The pale Orc appears, surprising Thorin who had assumed he was dead. As the trees collapse (they had indeed gone up the trees as in the novel) Thorin summons his might and charges for Azog. It doesn’t matter that he is struck down as quickly as he gets to him, he looked cool doing it.
One thing I have not yet mentioned in regarding the Pale Orc and other orcs in these movies is that they are altogether slightly different from those in LOTR. Not only do they look a little different (a forgivable change) they also noticeably more digital.
Of course CGI was used in LOTR more so than in any movie prior. What I will say in regards to it in this film is that there was a little more balance in those days. Practical effects were often used in conjunction and there was altogether more make-up.
The CGI is definitely better than it was decade ago, but I have to admit that, at least in some areas (including Azog) the spell is slightly broken.
Another difference in these orcs is in their lingo. It seems that in the 60 years between The Hobbit and LOTR that Saruman and Sauron found it important to make “The Common Tongue” (a language which to us moviegoer and readers of Tolkien’s work sounds and reads like the Queen’s English) their language of choice. In this movie, David Salo and the other Tolkien linguists involved in the production had their work cut out for them as every single line of dialogue uttered by the Orcs (not the Goblins which are unaffiliated with any other allegiance and are just different) is in Black Speech, the language of the Baddies.
This decision does add some depth to these (depth which otherwise is lacking) and the script never calls upon them to switch languages upon a whim like in many films, including these ones. However, one could argue it puts the drama an unnecessary distance from the audience.
Regardless, Azog decides that he himself does not need to kill Thorin (he flip flops on what level of involvement he should have) who is now barely conscious and seemingly hopeless and orders another orc to kill him.
At this point young Bilbo surprises everyone by leaping and killing this orc. This is Bilbo’s first shows of courage to the Dwarves and his first intentional kill.
Just as hope seems lost for the Hobbit and the rest of the group, the Eagles arrive rescuing them from the Jaws of Death with their talons of freedom.
They take the 13 dwarves, Gandalf and Bilbo over to a great rock in the middle of a valley, once again showing some beautiful shots of New Zealand.
Thorin is revived by one of Gandalf’s Deus Ex Machina spells. He gets up and advances on Bilbo.
He embraces his Burglar. A respect as been formed. The audience tears up a little.
They turn and see some ways off, a solitary peak. This, Gandalf explains, is Erebor, the place their quest shall end.
“I do believe the worst is behind us.” Bilbo says.
The audience laughs a little as the camera follows a thrush from them to the mountain where it begins to crack the shell of a snail.
In the mountain, all is quiet save for the knocking of the thrush. The gold pile of the Dwarves is still.
Suddenly, the pile explodes as if something underneath as just exhaled. Smaug stirs in his golden bed. He opens an eye at us. Cut to Black.
THOUGHTS: I like this film. It’s not perfect. There are moments in it that don’t quite work and there are a couple of moments that are downright awful. It’s not as a good as LOTR, and it didn’t need to be. We needed a filmic introduction to Thorin’s quest and a re-introduction to Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth and we got it.
The additions to the book’s story DO AID the film’s story. I cannot think of a means to effectively adapt The Hobbit without using Tolkien’s other Apocryphal work to fill in the many gaps in a fun, yet incomplete book. (If you think that is heresy, the author would have agreed with me.)
The Extended Edition of this particular instalment is only 17 minutes longer, adding some nice scenes which are generally worth their time to give a little more depth to the story while also giving many, many hours of Behind the Scenes extras. All is good apart from the extra song for the Goblin King, which is just abysmal.
This is my favourite part of The Hobbit Trilogy.
But wait. If the Dwarves are stuck on that rock, why don’t the Eagles take them all the way to their destination? As The Dude in The Big Lebowski would say: “I hate The F***ing Eagles, man!”
I shall explore this and many more things in Part Two, when I shall review The Desolation of Smaug.
I had intended to release this entire review in one part, but as Tolkien said and I’m sure Jackson would agree, “This is a tale which grew in the telling”.