Director: Peter Jackson
Stars: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage
Plot: A reluctant hobbit named Bilbo Baggins is recruited by Gandalf and a group of dwarves to reclaim the Lonely Mountain from the dragon Smaug.
Peter Jackson, the director who has made himself synonymous with J.R.R. Tolkien and the Lord of the Rings, set his own bar extremely high when he made the now-famous trilogy of books into the series of imperious films. Such is Jackson’s reputation as the doyen of the Rings world, that he was overwhelmingly the popular choice to lead us back into Middle Earth and direct Tolkien’s ‘prequel’ to the legend, that of The Hobbit. Despite a number of setbacks in pre-production, Jackson finally managed to get the project off the ground, but he also decided to take two major risks in filming the entire story over three long films and in 48 frames per second as opposed to the industry standard of 24fps, incurring the wrath of many a traditionalist film critic.
Bilbo Baggins (Freeman) lives a very comfortable, quiet life in his hole at Bag End, near the village of Hobbiton in The Shire. Gandalf the Grey (McKellen) arrives and tricks Bilbo into hosting a party for thirteen dwarves who turn up unannounced and help themselves to the entire contents of Bilbo’s larder. His ‘guests’ have been driven out of the Lonely Mountain where they resided, by the fearsome dragon Smaug and had their treasure stolen. Gandalf reveals a secret door into the mountain through which he suggests that Bilbo could sneak through as the group’s ‘burglar’. However, Bilbo is mortified by the thought of leaving his peaceful existence behind and refuses to leave. The following day, realising that his life is perhaps a little too comfortable and that maybe he is being rather selfish, Bilbo catches up with Gandalf to join the company and reclaim the mountain, despite the fact that he is warned by Gandalf that ‘he might not return and, if he does, he might not be the same’.
Soon after embarking on their epic quest, the group are all captured by three trolls, except for Gandalf, who tricks them into staying out until the sun comes up, at which point they are turned into stone. The dwarves and their lord Thorin Oakenshield (Armitage) get hold of a cache of weapons horded by the trolls, for which they are able to gather for the perilous journey ahead. Bilbo is given a special sword by Gandalf – one that glows blue whenever trolls or orcs are nearby. After resting for a while in the elfish stronghold of Rivendell and receiving advice from Lord Elrond (Hugo Weaving), the intrepid fellowship head out across the Misty Mountains, where they encounter a fierce storm (which turns out to be two mountains having a spectacular fight) and are forced to shelter in a cave, where they are taken hostage once again, this time by goblins. Meanwhile, Bilbo is separated from the rest of the group and encounters the mysterious Gollum and the one Ring, which, unbeknownst to him, harnesses immense power and will have far-reaching consequences for Middle Earth and especially for whoever owns it.
The Hobbit has raised a surprising amount of fury about two aspects of Peter Jackson’s interpretation of this very famous novel. The encroachment of 3D films in our cinemas, most of which have no other purpose than to make us part with even more of our hard-earned cash, has never been more appropriate for a film such as this. The last time we journeyed into Middle Earth in Lord of the Rings, the look and feel of the trilogy was shot in the standard way but on this occasion, many film critics have been up in arms at how Jackson has dared to drag Tolkien apparently kicking and screaming into the 21st Century. There might be a few indoor scenes that look a little on the wooden side and the faces of the dwarves look unnaturally ethereal at times, but in general it is easy to get used to, especially when the action moves on from Bag End. The plodding introduction has also raised a few eyebrows. However, Jackson’s eagerness to stay faithful to the book has to be applauded – instead of going for the easy option of a quick preamble before the epic ramble, there is time to relax back into Tolkien’s world once more and get used to (almost) a whole host of new characters.
Martin Freeman, perhaps better known to UK viewers as Tim Canterbury from The Office, wears Bilbo Baggins’ hairy feet as if Ian Holm had never laid claim to them – he also does this without even hinting at his most famous incarnation. Freeman portrays Bilbo as a charming, bumbling (though without channelling Hugh Grant) little hero who we can get straight behind and root for and makes a very convincing hobbit. You couldn’t possibly imagine anyone else playing Gandalf aside from Ian McKellen – he shows exactly why even he thought himself that no-one would be able to emulate his terrific performance from Rings. Aside from these two fantastic actors, we don’t really get to know anyone else besides Richard Armitage’s Thorin, for whom we get a back story in the obligatory preface which fills in the blanks concerning the fractious history between the dwarves, elves and of course, Smaug. As for the rest of the characters, there is a distinct lack of investment in giving us empathy for the remaining dwarves, who are seemingly just there to make up the numbers and crack one-liners at the right moments. We do fleetingly get to see Weaving’s Elrond, the luminous Cate Blanchett as Galadriel and a-before-he-turned-nasty Christopher Lee’s Saruman.
The Hobbit takes a while to get going, in no small part due to the decision to stretch the story out over three long films. However, every second in Middle Earth is a delight – especially the set-pieces (a wonderful mountain fight) and the more nuanced, tense scenes between Bilbo and Gollum as they engage in a battle of riddles over a certain piece of jewellery. Hopefully, the cynics will learn to embrace Peter Jackson’s 3D vision, which is far from distracting and will no doubt develop with the next two films in the trilogy.