(On Cable TV, September 2015) On one hand, watching The Hobbit after enduring so many generic fantasy films is like sipping very high-quality product: this is how fantasy should be done, respectfully and with big budget and capable filmmakers. Everything feels slick, polished, handled with wit and intelligence. Peter Jackson’s direction is fantastic, the script holds its own, the special effects are still capable of astonishing audiences and there are a number of great moments built into the film. (The Legolas fight on top of a crumbling tower, in particular, is an action-scene showcase.) It decently wraps up the trilogy, makes a solid bridge to The Lord of the Rings and shows how modern cinema can fully realise even the most complex fantasy mythology. Well done. But on the other hand… This third installment of The Hobbit, as well-made as it is, also shows exactly what’s wrong with modern Hollywood filmmaking: The quest for profits has blown a kid’s book into a massive movie trilogy, with added battles, characters, romantic subplot and links to the previous/subsequent trilogy. Perhaps worse: the result feels intensely flabby, everything handled without nimbleness to the point of feeling oppressed by the imposed grandeur of the result. This couldn’t be any more important, shouts the trilogy, as if there weren’t any other modes in which to tell the story. At times, it feels dull –we expect the test questions to pop up at any moment to test our knowledge of all there made-up names and useless complications. But, of course, that’s sort of the point of those films: to appeal broadly to people who aren’t invested in the story, while providing plenty of depth to the aficionados. I just happen to fall on the wrong side of the divide (that is: the casual audience) most of the time. Now that we’re done with The Hobbit, maybe Peter Jackson can do something else with his life than strip-mine Tolkien’s work.
(On Cable TV, November 2014) I had to free my mind of two reasonable notions before starting to enjoy this second instalment of The Hobbit trilogy: First, that it ought to be faithful to the original novel; and second, that it had to be paced efficiently. Once you accept the idea that The Hobbit is going to be a grand fantasy quest put together using the same grandiose tone as The Lord of the Rings, it actually becomes a bit more bearable. The lavish, spectacular action sequences don’t feel out of place, and once you warm up to the tone, the lack of snappiness in the telling of the tale (which will eventually stretch a 300-page book for kids into a seven-hour trilogy of movies) simply becomes something to accept. It’s hard, of course, to fault Peter Jackson from doing the best he can in making The Hobbit seem like an important story and recapture the magic of The Lord of the Rings: This second tome never misses an occasion to harken back to the other trilogy, either by featuring the same people (Legolas, back in fine surfing form), mentioning them (“my wee lad Gimli!”) or setting up portentous signs of Sauron’s return. Still, this is fantasy-epic filmmaking of the highest order: the lavish details are all in place, the camera flows smoothly, the CGI is often flawless and the sheer excess of means used to put together this super-production seems worthwhile in itself. There are some crazy sequences in here, perhaps the best being a long-running battle around rapids –there’s a lengthy shot in there that’s nothing short of beautiful action filmmaking. There are small issues here and there (a shoehorned romance, overdramatic moments, arguably a sequence designed to trigger fits for arachnophobes), but the dragon pretty much makes up for it. The pacing, as languid as it can be, is quite a bit better than the first instalment of the trilogy, and the cliff-hanger ending promises much for the concluding volume. In the meantime, it’s a bit foolish to try to pin down a specific rating for this middle tome –best to wait until the end to take it all in. All seven hours of it.
(Video on-demand, April 2013) Recasting J.R.R. Tolkien’s relatively slight The Hobbit into a massive action/adventure fantasy epic trilogy mold means that it’s best to forget about any meaningful book-to-screen comparisons. It’s best to judge it as a follow-up to the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy, and assume that it’s going to be cast in the same mold. In this light, first film An Unexpected Journey hits most of the expected notes by leisurely introducing the characters, sending them off on a quest and indulging into plenty of action-packed adventures. None of it is presented economically, meaning that fans get a lot for their money and non-fans can find the whole thing overdrawn. Still, much of what made The Lord of the Rings so successful is still visible here: the attention to detail, lavish set-pieces, depth of immersion in Middle-Earth… and the care with which Peter Jackson handles his directing duties. It’s presented with a quasi-reverential respect for Tolkien’s mythology, and a great deal of excess in the way its action sequences are conceived and presented. It fits rather well with the previous trilogy (something that the drawn-out prologues make sure to accomplish), ensuring that whoever expected a follow-up to Lord of the Rings is fully satisfied. It’s not quite as good, but the most accurate comparison is to the countless imitators that have tried to recapture the success of Jackson’s trilogy: An Unexpected Journey is a markedly better work than most of the fantasy adventures that have popped up on-screen in the near-decade since Return of the King, and that’s a significant achievement in itself. This newest trilogy won’t conclude for another two years, but no matter: it’s a safe bet to say that more of the same is in store.