The decision to trisect an adaptation of J.R.R Tolkien's The Hobbit (likely clocking in around nine-hours in total) appears to be misguided and foolish, but I actually didn't have a problem with how Peter Jackson stretched the first epic instalment's plot (which only covers six chapters of the classic book). It gave everything a grander feel and the whole ambition felt closer to The Lord of the Rings trilogy's, which this also works as a prequel to. What I'm saying is that, yes, they could easily have split The Hobbit into two films (as originally planned), but I don't see the issue with spending longer in Middle-earth if there's enough material to sustain an elongated adventure. And by expanding on Tolkien's appendices and aiming to have The Hobbit explain some of the mythology and background of Rings along the way, I can well imagine the nine-hour opus being justified in retrospect.
The Hobbit tells a superficially simpler story than Rings, set 60 years before The Fellowship of the Ring, as wizard Gandalf the Grey (Sir Ian McKellen) enlists the help of a homebody Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins (The Office's Martin Freeman), to accompany thirteen dwarves to the Lonely Mountain to reclaim their lost kingdom of Erebor from the mighty dragon Smaug—who broke into their stronghold and claimed all their gold. They're led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), a warrior dwarf who famously injured beastly Orc chieftain Azog (Spartacus' Manu Bennett) during a battle where dwarf King Thrór was beheaded. Like the Rings trilogy, it's essentially another excuse for an adventure that includes lots of trekking across beautiful and mysterious lands, most filled with dangerous creatures and murderous monsters—from stupid cockney Trolls, to fearsome Wargs, and ugly Goblins.
There's more of a lyrical quality to The Hobbit, meaning less doom and gloom, although Jackson wisely makes the film considerably darker than the children's book—knowing most of the audience will be expecting an atmosphere akin to what they've seen before. To be honest, beyond a few jokes and one-liners, most of the humour resides in the first hour of the movie back at Hobbiton when the dwarves arrive unannounced at Bilbo's home and proceed to eat all of his food. But the essence of comedy is certainly stronger than Rings ever allowed for, with the likes of antisocial wizard Radagast the Brown (Doctor Who's Sylvester McCoy) and his woodland sled pulled by high-speed rabbits.
Martin Freeman's performance also proves something of a master-stroke. He's more engaging than Elijah Wood as Frodo; perhaps because he better embodies the stereotypical qualities of a Hobbit, so watching him earn his stripes in battle and the respect of the belligerent dwarves elicits heartfelt emotion. I'm in full agreement with Jackson (who halted production to ensure Freeman's availability while filming Sherlock) that he was the only person who could play a younger Bilbo—as he shares qualities with Ian Holm (returning as the older Baggins in a fun prologue alongside Wood) and truly becomes the heart of the piece. The only problem is that The Hobbit's less focused on its eponymous hero than the book, by virtue of all the sub-plots and flashbacks designed to prolong the story, so there's definitely a period of time when Bilbo's role shrinks considerably halfway through... until the stand-out moment when he makes the acquaintance of franchise anti-hero Gollum (a rasping Andy Serkis) in a gloomy cave, to play a life-or-death game of riddles.
It's been a remarkable 10 years since The Return of the King was released, so advances in film technology naturally means The Hobbit looks more impressive—although the difference isn't so stark as to throw up problems, as encountered by the Star Wars universe appearing considering more advanced in the prequels. Nothing looks awkwardly better than the Rings trilogy, it's just that everything's been refined and the interim advances in CGI and motion-capture means Jackson can deliver more spectacles with less of the headaches. There's an escape sequence from hordes of goblins across rickety bridges that makes a similar escape in Fellowship look pretty antiquated—such is the increase in complexity of action, choreography and backgrounds that can be achieved in 2012. Rings pushed the envelope for fantasy on the big screen; The Hobbit polishes and refines the process.
The movie does have its problems, I'll grant you. I can understand why some people balk at the lengthy runtime (although for me it was a pleasure to spend time in such an elaborate and beautifully realised world), it's true that it takes awhile for the adventure to get under-way, there are no female characters of note beyond Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), and most of the dwarves haven't gelled as three-dimensional characters, but I honestly didn't feel these things were enough to spoil the movie. It's a simple story that's been made a great deal more rambling because of intentions to make this a Rings-rivalling epic, but would audiences really prefer a shorter and more trivial feeling movie that befits the book? It's best not to think of this as a direct adaptation of The Hobbit, because it's not really. It's a trilogy that's using Tolkien's book as the foundation for something more sprawling and imaginative. It's an indulgence, no doubt about it, but the movie's so full of heart and goodwill I found it impossible to hate. No fantasy movie comes close to achieving what Jackson manages with his forays to Middle-earth, because the attention to detail and obvious care drips off the screen. Feel free to nit-pick about the bloody deus ex machina Eagles again, how Gandalf's magic is mostly remembering the Sun exists, gnash your teeth over a trifling book being expanded into an EPIC, and bitch about the "unreal" 48fps format (I experienced a 24fps Real-3D presentation), but there was much to enjoy here.
Overall, I'm not a fan of J.R.R Tolkien's books, but these Kiwi-made films are a marvel to me. The Hobbit isn't as heavy-going as Rings, contains far more action and incident than I recall in Fellowship and Two Towers, there's intriguing foreshadowing to Rings scattered about (most notably with the briefly glimpsed Necromancer character, who may be the Dark Lord Sauron resurrected; and Bilbo receiving his glowing sword Sting he'll one day bestow on nephew Frodo), and lots of questions for fans who aren't au fait with Tolkien's literature (why aren't those chilling Ring-wraiths summoned when Bilbo puts the notorious One Ring on?) Feel free to criticize its "shaggy dog story" feel, but I think my next few Christmas outings are catered for...
directed by Peter Jackson / written by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson & Guillermo Del Toro (based on the novel by J.R.R Tolkien) / starring Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Andy Serkis, Sylvester McCoy, Ian Holm, Cate Blanchett, Christopher Lee, Ken Stott, James Nesbitt, Graham McTavish & Aidan Turner / 169 mins.