Before seeing The Hobbit last night, my wife and I were having dinner, when some old friends came up to our restaurant table; smiles, hugs, ‘how you doin’?’ They were going to see Les Mis, told us they’d seen The Hobbit last week. “Lord of the Rings Lite,” they called it. Boy, did they get that right.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is fine. It’s a perfectly watchable entertainment. It looks great, and the music’s lovely, and the acting is all just fine. It’s not Lord of the Rings, not by a long shot. But it has a nice nostalgic feel. It’s enjoyable. I liked visiting Middle Earth again. New Zealand looked as gorgeous as ever, and the production design and cinematography were both as first-rate as expected.
I didn’t see it in 3-D, of course, because I’m old and 3-D gives me a headache. Plus, I don’t care. I’m perfectly well that technological marvels abound in movies like this. I don’t care about that either. What I care about in movies is the story and the characters. And the simple reality of The Hobbit is that the story isn’t as compelling as in LOTR, because the stakes aren’t as high; not even close. The characters aren’t as rich and interesting, because the forces against which they contend aren’t as powerful or frightening. Martin Freeman is a wonderful actor, and he’s great as Bilbo. But Bilbo Baggins is a fat and comfortable hobbit, who goes on a quest because he’s a little bored and thinks an adventure would be fun. He’s not Frodo, haunted, desperate, terrified Frodo. Richard Armitrage is suitably courageous as Thorin, the dwarvish king fighting to restore his kingdom–the main plot thread in The Hobbit. But Armitrage isn’t a tenth as charismatic and exciting as Viggo Mortensen was in LOTR, not because he’s not as good an actor, but because his character isn’t an Aragorn.
Everything in this movie is lower key, less tense, less dramatic, lower stakes. In LOTR, early in Fellowship of the Ring, a group of adventurers gather at Rivendell, to consult with Elrond and the other elves there. The result is the forming of the Fellowship, as Gimli and Legolas and Boromir and Aragorn vow to serve Frodo in a quest to destroy the Ring of power and save all of Middle Earth. It’s a grim meeting; resolute men making a last-ditch effort to save their world. In The Hobbit, a similar meeting takes place. Mostly it involves Saruman lecturing Gandalf like he’s a naughty schoolboy whose been caught running with the wrong crowd. Meanwhile, Cate Blanchett, beautiful as always as Galadriel, reads Gandalf’s mind, and seems to have a better take on things, but doesn’t really say much; just lets Saruman blather on.
Instead of a Fellowship, The Hobbit features a crowd, a whole bunch of dwarves distinguished by truly astonishing varieties of facial hair, but by not much else. They were all named things like Balin and Dwalin and Bofur and Bombur; the names didn’t help at all. I mostly tried to tell them apart by either their weapons–the one with the bow, the one with the really big sword–or body types–the really fat one, the one with the big eyes. An early scene where they eat Bilbo out of house and hearth was pretty amusing, and I liked their singing, but I couldn’t tell the dwarves apart, and, worse, didn’t care that I couldn’t tell them apart. They were just this crowd of guys, who spent most of the movie either fighting orcs, falling off things, or running away from nasty looking critters.
As a result, their last second rescues and victories and spectacular (but non-lethal) falls, though amusing, weren’t particularly engaging. It turned action sequences into pratfalls–the fight scenes were mostly comedic in tone. It felt very Keystone Kops–this crowd of guys in full being-chased mode, followed by a larger and uglier crowd of guys, doing the chasing.
Check out this scene from Fellowship. What I love is the look on Aragorn’s face, as he marches towards this regiment of Orcs, that look of determination and courage and, I don’t know, warrior-ly anticipation. There’s nothing like that in The Hobbit, nothing that approaches that level of moral seriousness. I don’t know, maybe Thorin’s apology to Bilbo comes close, after Bilbo saves his life.
What The Hobbit lacks is a sense of tragedy. I have previously argued that the three LOTR movies are each structured as tragedies: Fellowship is the tragedy of Boromir, Two Towers, the tragedy of Smeagol, and Return, the tragedy of. . . Frodo, who never actually does manage to destroy the Ring. And the powerful redemptive drama of Aragorn overlays it all. The Hobbit is the story of a bunch of guys who want their gold back from the dragon that stole it from them. And the tourist, Bilbo, who they bring along for the ride.
Plus, boy does it fail the Bechdel test. You know the Bechdel question–does the movie have any scene, any scene at all, in which two women talk about anything other than the men in their lives. I would argue that while LOTR probably does fail the Bechdel test, it does include enough awesome female characters to make up for it–the Eowyn plot thread is tremendous, for example. Not the Hobbit. Only one female character in the entire movie, Galadriel, who is in the movie for four minutes, though she is pretty memorable.
So it’s not as good as LOTR. Granted. One scene kind of redeems it; the long scene in Gollum’s cavernous pool where he and Bilbo spin riddles together. Bilbo has stolen The Ring, his Precious, but Gollum doesn’t know it yet, and the riddles are mostly just a game for him, at first, though they are playing for Bilbo’s life. It’s a wonderful scene, with Andy Serkis’ voice work animating the most richly complex character in the series. The riddle scene is very long, but it’s completely captivating, especially since Bilbo doesn’t seem initially aware of just how dangerous and treacherous Gollum is capable of being. And it’s actually a scene with three characters, given Gollum/Smeagol’s split personalities–Gollum is the deadly one, while Smeagol is smarter, better at riddles.
So it’s a movie with one great scene, some terrific visuals, and a really good Bilbo. And it’s great to see Ian McKellen’s Gandalf again. Likewise the all-too-brief cameos from Ian Holm and Elijah Wood. And I really loved Sylvester McCoy’s wacky wizard Radogast, Gandalf’s forest-wizard pal, with bird poo all over his matted hair and his amazing rabbit sleigh. I thought everything he did was delightful.
It’s a fun movie, an entertaining and enjoyable movie. Unfortunately, it invites comparison to three of the finest films ever made, and it certainly falls well short of that standard. I don’t regret having seen it, and will see the next two Hobbit movies. But Tolkien’s Hobbit book is a lesser achievement than the three LOTR books, and we shouldn’t expect the movie versions to make up that difference.