J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, if you’re not familiar with it, was written before The Lord of The Rings. I haven’t read it in 30 or 40 years but I recall it as a fairly light-hearted book, aimed more at teens (Tolkien’s kids, specifically) than adults. When Tolkien wrote Lord of the Rings, during World War II and heavily influenced by his own experiences in World War I, he continued the world that he’d started in that earlier book. The Hobbit has had a long and twisted cinematic history.
There was a short animated version done in 1966 as a Czech/US coproduction.
1977 brought a 77 minute animated version made for TV by the Rankin-Bass group, featuring the voices of John Huston as Gandalf, Orson Bean as Bilbo, Richard Boone as the dragon and my late, lamented friend Brother Theodore as the voice of Gollum.
Both were relatively low key, modest affairs of interest to very few outside of Tolkien fans.
Then came Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, a massive global success, and it became a given that there would be a big screen big budget version of The Hobbit. There was massive arguing over who actually had the rights to do it. Once those were securely in Jackson’s hands, his idea was that he would produce it while directing chores would fall to Guillermo Del Toro. Del Toro and Jackson had some sort of falling out during pre-production and Jackson ended up taking over as director.
Jackson announced that the 319 page (with illustrations by the author) book was going to be expanded into two movies. And then three. Depending on who you want to believe, this is either a desperate grab for money by a starving studio and a director who has had little commercial success outside of Tolkien or the logical expansion of the original story (drawing upon subsequent writings by Tolkien).
Now, just to stir up the shit a little bit more, Jackson decided to shoot the film not just in 3D but also at 48 frames per second. 24 fps has been the standard since 1927, but Jackson said that with the advent of digital there was no reason to stick to that old standard anymore. Some preview audiences reportedly found the 48 fps projection rate induced dizziness and nausea, others said it was just fine and dandy.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, aka part 1 of the new trilogy opened in Hong Kong yesterday, in the U.S. today. Reviews have been decidedly mixed, with a score of 68% over at Rotten Tomatoes (just 49% from “top critics”).
We went to see it yesterday, 3D and IMAX but not at 48 fps – that’s only available at iSquare and I decided that I’d sacrifice the exposure to new technology and possibly 3 hours of feeling sick to convenience, as the UA cinema at Megabox is just 20 minutes from where I live.
What did I think of the movie? I rather liked it. For something with a running time of 169 minutes, it moved along rather nicely. It is bombastic and excessive and I’m crossing my fingers that this doesn’t mean the entire trilogy will run 9 hours and perhaps run 12 hours in some future home video director’s cut edition. There are no surprises – but that also translates to pretty solid production design and effects.
Ian McKellan, Iam Holm, Elijah Wood, Christopher Lee, Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett and Andy Serkis all reprise their roles from LOTR while Martin Freeman does a terrific job as Bilbo. Benedict Cumberbatch is also there, very briefly and unrecognizably – presumably his role gets expanded in the next film. The riddle scene between Bilbo and Gollum is exceptionally well done. I enjoyed the film, I’m glad I went to see it, I feel no particular urge to rush out and see it again but I will see the two sequels when they come out should I live that long.
On the other hand, there is that feeling of having seen it all before. If I wanted to be really cynical about it, I could say it’s six movies about people who go hiking in New Zealand and get attacked by CGI a lot. On the one hand it’s nice that Jackson has done all 6 films. You get a nice conceptual continuity by having the same essential production design and the same actors throughout.
On the other hand, I can’t help but wonder what Guillermo del Toro had in mind. And perhaps a different, dare I say fresher, vision might have proven more interesting.
(My girlfriend, btw, who never read the books and knew nothing of The Hobbit and had no idea it was a prequel to LOTR until I showed her the trailer right before we went, absolutely loved the film. She laughed out loud during the comedy sequences and audibly gasped several times during the action stuff.)