Bear with me here, this may sound a little strange. There's these things called hobbits, which are basically people, but they're quite a bit shorter than humans, with big hairy feet, and they live in the ground in houses with big round doors, and they have a penchant for pipes. One of these hobbits, Bilbo Baggins, is paid a visit by a wizard - stay with me - called Gandalf, who arranges for said hobbit to go on a quest with thirteen dwarfs - kind of like hobbits, but a little taller, bulkier, hairier and grumpier - to travel a really long way in order to break into a locked mountain and kill the giant dragon that's sleeping on a huge pile of gold that rightfully belongs to the dwarves. Oh, and one of the dwarfs, Thorin (their king), chopped off the hand of a giant pale orc (a kind of, um, ogre?) after the orc (called Asok the Defiler, of course) killed Thorin's grandfather, and understandably Asok is out for revenge. Oh, and there's a mass of caves full of goblins, some giant wolf-creatures called Wargs, great big problem-solving eagles and another wizard called Radagast the Brown who keeps birds under his hat, their faeces in his hair and rides a sleigh pulled by big rabbits. Actually, now I think about it, there's nothing all that weird about any of this.
Of course, I jest. I love The Hobbit (the book), and I read it many times as a child, far more than The Lord Of The Rings (currently only once, and that took me a year to get through), and have since re-enjoyed it as someone who is now technically an adult. When it was announced that it was being made into a film I nearly jumped for joy (were that not how we do things in England), but the prolonged difficulties in the film's production had left me expecting the worst, and a slew of disappointed and less-than-impressed reviews had me thoroughly concerned. It is after this subsequent lowering of my expectations that I can happily report that not only was I happy with The Hobbit; I thought it was brilliant.
I'll grant that it's not without it's flaws, one of which quite clearly is that a book that could be justifiably described as slim does not necessarily require three films to cover it, even with the inclusion of added material from The Lord Of The Rings' appendices. The ensuing over-extended running time is therefore a tad unnecessary (I was fully on board with the initially proposed two-film structure), but all this means is that I get a whole extra three hours of Middle Earth adventures to watch, which in my opinion cannot be a bad thing. Even still, I did start to drift off a little during the company's respite in Rivendell, but I think the fact that I only almost fell asleep once in a 2 hour and 47 minute movie, after having driven for three and a half hours and then been assaulted by the pre-January sales, can still be seen as a compliment.
I wasn't overly keen on the opening scene either, setting up the story as being written by Ian Holm's older Bilbo for Elijah Wood's Frodo to read later. I presume this kind of scene will either prefix all three films in the trilogy, or it'll just be used to bookend the entire piece, but I think it would have worked better as just a surprise cameo ending for Holm and Wood as the finale of the last film. It does work as a way of narrating the history of Middle Earth, establishing the set-up for the story, and the bitterness Thorin (Richard Armitage) feels towards the elves, whose reluctance to help his ancestors may have caused the death of his grandfather. I think a way around this could have been found without the use of Holm and Wood at this point, but there we go.
My one other issue was the Goblin King. Peter Jackson has always been an advocate for practical, non-CGI special effects, wherever possible, and the Goblin King really sticks out as an overly-computer generated, cartoonish character. Barry Humphries voice-work didn't fit either, he sounded too human, not grotesque enough for someone so repulsive, and with such an impressive goitre.
So, that's the negative out the way, onto the positive. Martin Freeman is absolutely perfect as the young Bilbo. He completely nails Bilbo's initial blend of fussiness, caution and fear, slowly becoming more adventurous, understanding and outgoing. In fact, whilst it is difficult to judge this film as a standalone story when it was clearly created as part of a greater whole, it does work effectively as an arc for Bilbo, who by the end of this film has been through all he needs to in order to set him up for the second and third instalments. And Freeman's expression when he first encounters the pony he is expected to ride could not be better.
As it's been shot in New Zealand, the scenery is obviously breathtaking, not least in a mountain cliff section, that features some stellar effects-work with an encounter with mountain giants. I don't remember that part being in the book, but it is one of a few welcome additions that creates a new cinematic spectacle to liven up an otherwise straightforward segment of just travelling. The mountain giants do, however, pour fuel onto the fire of criticism that was levelled against The Lord Of The Rings for being three films purely about walking. Kevin Smith famously said in both one of his stand-up DVDs and via Randall in Clerks 2 that even the trees walked in those films, and here the same can be said of the cliffs.
So how does it compare to The Lord Of The Rings? Well there are obviously more than a few similarities, what with the same director, setting and a few returning cast members, but even in terms of story there's more than a little in common; starting in the Shire, heading to Rivendell, an underground battle. There were clear attempts to make further parallels, with Gandalf (Ian McKellan) at one point bellowing "This way, you fools!"
I also couldn't stop myself from making mental comparisons between the members of Thorin's dwarf gang and Frodo's fellowship. Bilbo is obviously Frodo, Gandalf is the same in both and Thorin takes both the Aragorn (stoic leader) and Boromir (a bit mean to Bilbo) roles. Bifur (William Kircher), Bofur (James Nesbitt) and Bombur (Stephen Hunter) provide comic relief in the Merry and Pippin vein, Fili (Dean O'Gorman) and Kili (Aidan Turner) are the arrow-shooting, pretty-boy Legolases and the angry, aggressive Dwalin (Graham McTavish) is Gimli. There's no real Samwise replacement, but Balin (Ken Stott) will become something of an ally for Bilbo in the later films, so he's close enough. It's no real surprise that the remaining dwarfs, Oin (John Callen), Gloin (Peter Hambleton), Nori (Jed Brophy), Dori (Mark Hadlow) and Ori (Adam Brown) didn't leave much of a lasting impression, seeing as how little characterisation they received. This did mean that when any of these five were put in some kind of individual peril, as happens near the end of the film, there is little-to-no tension, as I couldn't really care for these characters I knew nothing about. I'm sure this will be rectified in the sequels, where each individual dwarf will have a little more time to prove themselves, and it's also a criticism of the book, in which even less of the dwarfs stand out.
So whilst there were some areas for improvement, I'm still impressed and happy with the film, and am more than looking forward to the next instalments. This is certainly a more childish approach to the tales of Middle Earth, but that's not necessarily a bad thing, and there are more than a few breathtaking and spectacular sequences within the film. And I'm fairly sure that most of the problems I have with the film will pay off in the sequels, and just like the Rings trilogy, the combination of all three films will probably be greater than the sum of its parts.
Choose film 8/10