The Unrelenting Journey: My review of “The Hobbit”

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Like Lord of the Rings, I approached “The Hobbit” with no knowledge of the source material but an open mind which was ready to enjoy the tale. Alas, like LOTR I was ultimately disappointed. In a nutshell: a ragtag group of characters heads out on an “adventure” which mostly consists of one roaringly loud fight after another. Little actual drama ensues, since our heroes’ survival is assured at all times. Instead we’re left to marvel at the remarkable technical sophistication on display and to realize that, while literally anything one can imagine can now be put on the screen and look utterly convincing, a good screenplay that gives us characters we can truly invest in and that has real adventure in it, not just thundering CGI slugfests, is clearly still a challenge.

I found myself asking many questions. Why does Bilbo Baggins decide, seemingly on a whim, to renounce everything we know about his character and join a highly dangerous undertaking? The grounding for this important (and essential, I realize) decision was not remotely well prepared.

How does he, at the finale, display such extraordinary skill with a sword, having had no training at all that we can see?

Having given LOTR 2 and 3 a pass, this was my introduction to Gollum as much as Bilbo’s (his pop-culture presence has reached me secondhand). I have to say, I don’t find his split-personality, Peter Lorre-esque presence to be something I need to see any more of.

Is 48 frames per second a better way to present films? I did look forward to seeing a truly state-of-the-art presentation, not only on frame rate but IMAX 3D as well. In the end, I saw some differences, clearer detail when there was movement and panning, but also a slightly weird televisual quality that made me long for a more filmlike look. By all rights, twice the frame rate should be more realistic-looking. Maybe that’s just what big screen realism looks like. Bottom line, I spent far too much time thinking about it since I wasn’t emotionally engaged.

Also, have Middle Earth architects never heard of safety railings? Folks are constantly having conversations on landings overlooking some vertigo-inducing precipice with nothing to prevent a Wile E. Coyote-style plunge.

These are not, of course, my main problems. I felt the storytelling was lacking in some basic respects – like creating characters you truly care about. Martin Freeman has great appeal as our reluctant hero, but it seems telling that, other than a moment of recognition and apology he receives at the end, my only other emotional reaction in the entire nearly-three-hour film was to the plight of a wounded hedgehog.

Going in, I tried not to think about my “King Kong” experience, Jackson’s earlier epic wherein another group of adventurers – along with the audience – were subjected to one pounding attack after another by a series of ever more grotesque creatures, such that it felt more like a hyperrealistic, exhausting video game than a movie.

I am actually a tremendous fan of Peter Jackson, which is partly why I was there for LOTR 1 and The Hobbit. But it’s the Jackson that gave us “Heavenly Creatures” that I admire. There, he expertly blended fact and fantasy in a film featuring two teenage murderers who are more sympathetic than most anyone in The Hobbit. Given gigantic resources, and I would propose given a story without any grounding in fact, his penchant for excess seems to get the better of him.

I had heard much talk that “The Hobbit” was a gentler, more humorous and whimsical book than the “Lord of the Rings” stories, and that this film was expected to have a similarly lighter tone. I didn’t see that at all. It struck me as just like “LOTR” in its near-unrelenting string of overwhelming mega-battles with precious little breathing room for us to get to know – let alone love – our hero. And as a final arbiter of Jackson’s success or failure to capture the spirit of the book, I can turn to no less an authority than my wife Christine, who read and loved it long ago. She was terribly disappointed and told me they’d utterly messed it up.

So, I’m afraid I won’t be in line to see the remainder of this saga. But Christie are going to read “The Hobbit” together in the new year. No 3D, Imax, technical wizardry, just the magic of Tolkein’s original words on a plain white page. I’m looking forward to it.

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