Some spoilers if you’ve somehow managed to go your entire adult life without reading the book.
Yes, yes, The Hobbit is not a game, or a science. It is however a film I went to see yesterday in glorious 2D, and so I may as well talk about it while the memories are still fresh, especially since – as you may have heard from other sources – The Hobbit isn’t a very good film. Like, at all.
A common criticism levelled at it is that it’s one third of a children’s book that’s around 300 pages long, and yet it clocks in at nearly three hours’ running time. I really dislike movies that are long when they don’t have to be – I was continually looking at my watch all through the second half of The Dark Knight – but weirdly I did not have this problem with The Hobbit. It’s a decent length for the story it’s trying to tell (which actually goes up to about halfway through the book) and every scene in the film has a decent claim to being in the final product. The only thing I’d say they should maybe have cut was Elijah Wood’s stupid fifteen-minute cameo at the beginning, which added exactly nothing to the story; everything else would have worked if it was done right.
The problem is, there is very little in this movie that is done right.
Let me explain. I really like The Fellowship of the Ring as a film. It’s mostly about a small group of plucky adventurers trekking across Middle Earth while being pursued by evil forces, and all of the story elements just work. The Ring provides an impetus that drives both the main story and interpersonal relationships within the group. The Nazgul are an effective threat for the first half of the film, and the mines of Moria are a sinister and creepy environment in which to set the second. Peter Jackson adds his customary wacky, goofy shit with which he ruins all of his other films, but in Fellowship it’s nearly all concentrated in the bit in the Shire where it almost seems appropriate. And of course you have those stunning helicopter shots of New Zealand, which work perfectly in the context of a story about a journey.
The reason I went to see The Hobbit is because it’s a story very similar in tone to Fellowship. I thought The Two Towers was average, and I thought Return of the King was awful, and this was because the latter film especially was more concerned with smashing huge CGI armies into each other than it was with telling an interesting story. I don’t rate Peter Jackson very highly as a director; I think he got lucky with the LotR trilogy because he was working with some very talented artists, set designers and model makers1 who were able to camouflage his lack of talent with amazing visual spectacle. In particular there was somebody working on the first and second films who grasped that a single stuntman in a rubber orc costume is a more threatening than a whole army of CGI orcs, because the stuntman is real and if you shoot him right you won’t be able to see the seams. I went to see the Hobbit because I thought the story wouldn’t give him too much latitude for that CGI shit, and that he might therefore produce something of a similar quality to Fellowship. I was wrong.
Ironically, though, some of the best bits of The Hobbit are entirely CGI. It opens with some shots of the dwarf kingdom at its peak, and these are incredible. The storm giant fight is also impressive, not to mention being the only event in the film that actually generates any real sense of tension. The other good bit is the encounter between Bilbo and Gollum, largely because it’s a scene that involves just two people even if one of them is heavily CGI-ed.
The bad bits are everything else. The main group is made up of thirteen dwarfs and one hobbit, and there’s no attempt made to characterise any of the dwarfs past Thorin and Balin. Oh sure, James Nesbitt plays the Northern Irish dwarf, and Fili and Kili are the young dwarves, and Bofur is the fat dwarf, and Dwalin is the bald dwarf and Oin is the stupid dwarf, but these are all physical attributes that should be obvious after half a second of looking at them. As far as characterisation goes they’re just this amorphous entity that comes under the heading of “Dwarfs”, and no individual dwarf gets enough screen time to do any more2. Which is rather impressive considering this is a three hour film.
This makes it kind of difficult to care when they’re in danger, especially when that danger comes in the form of prepackaged CGI wargs and goblins. Oh no, the CGI is about to eat… that guy! The one whose name I was told during the dinner scene and who was never mentioned again! During fight scenes you can’t tell what’s going on anyway because everyone is dressed identically and has long flowing beards and the shots all last half a second; it’s just a protracted sequence where a random dwarf cuts something and then the director does too.
And of course they always win, because even though they are nameless and disposable none of these dwarfs are going to be killed by a mere CGI. I don’t think I’ve ever been quite so bored watching an action sequence as I was when the dwarfs were fighting their way out of the CGI goblin kingdom mowing down dozens of disposable CGI goblins on the way, and I think this is something Peter Jackson realised was going to be a problem because he throws in all manner of ridiculous set pieces to try and liven things up, with the dwarfs leaping from shifting platforms suspended over thousand-foot drops and using enormous bits of wood to push CGI goblins off the same. It’s honestly more like a Hobbit-themed theme park ride than it is a film you watch at the cinema at this point, and I still couldn’t find it in me to give the tiniest iota of a shit about the outcome. Even when there’s a closeup shot of a real person in goblin makeup they’re much less threatening when the dwarfs just massacred several hundred of them without breaking a sweat.
Then there’s the B-plot about the Necromancer and Dol Guldur, which – again – could really have been made into an interesting story if it had been given to a director who was less concerned with cramming in as much visual comedy as possible. Mostly it’s treated as an excuse for Sylvester McCoy to relive his early days of gurning as the seventh Doctor, and for Cate Blanchett and Christopher Lee to take a paid vacation in New Zealand for a few weeks. Hugo Weaving tries, god bless him, but he gets naff all screen time in the White Council meeting because it’s mostly given over to Gandalf and Galadriel having mind-smoochies3. As it is you probably could cut those scenes if they weren’t going to be needed to explain where the hell it is Gandalf is going to go for a large portion of the second film, because as it is they add exactly nothing to this one.
I mean, I’m not sure I’d call The Hobbit bad, because there is some good stuff here – Martin Freeman and Rupert Armitage are never less than watchable – it’s just that the good stuff is swallowed up in this amorphous mass of the average, the crap and the downright incomprehensible. And remember, I’ve read the appendices that the non-Hobbit bits of the story are supposed to be based on, so I’m going to have a somewhat better grasp of what’s going on than most people will. The Hobbit is a sprawling mess of a film that somehow managed to leave almost no impression on me despite its three hour running time. Maybe if del Toro had stayed on board it wouldn’t have turned out this way, but then del Toro is also responsible for the cinematic atrocity that is Hellboy 2. It’s not that the story of the Hobbit is badly suited for adapting into a film, or even three films – if anything it’s ideal, as the short length of the book means they can add in other story elements like Azok that do serve a necessary narrative purpose even if they’re badly executed – but what I saw last night was a Cinema Event like Transformers or your average superhero film rather than an attempt to tell that story. Perhaps that was inevitable given today’s movie industry and how much bank the last trilogy made, but it’s disappointing all the same.
- Not to mention the actors, who were exceptionally well cast. ↩
- Except James Nesbitt, who uses it to cement his “Northern Irish” credentials with the additional character attribute of “wiseass”. ↩
- The funny thing about this is that Christopher Lee was massively pissed off when his scenes in the theatrical release of Return of the King were cut. I wonder how he feels about his dialogue in The Hobbit being almost entirely drowned out by the Gandalf/Galadriel telepathic snogging. ↩