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The Hobbit was my most anticipated movie of the year and on Boxing Day I was able to watch it in 48fps 3D. I had heard mixed feedback from people regarding the 48fps however in my opinion it looked fabulous.

Not to say that this was a perfect movie though, I do think it was a very good movie. If you haven’t seen it yet, then you might want to go and watch it before reading any further as I won’t be taking care to avoid spoilers.

There are some things about this movie that are difficult because the source material is difficult. Tolkien does not spend much time developing the dwarves characters, and I would imagine most people would struggle to remember much more about the band (other than Thorin) than the fact that Bombur is fat, Fili and Kili are young, and Balin is friendliest to Bilbo. The movie does give Balin and Bofur character development, but there is not time to develop the others beyond very simple characterization. The fact that there is this image doing the rounds on the internet is evidence of the problems (and solutions) the filmmakers had differentiating the dwarves –  a problem that is not as big in the book as you are not constantly reminded of the fact that you don’t remember which dwarf is which as you can’t see them. It is not surprising to know that this is one of the major struggles the filmmakers dealt with and according to Philippa Boyens, the solution was found only when the realised that 13 dwarves is not “too many” but “too few” – too few to have a realistic chance of retaking the hoard under the mountain from Smaug, that is.

Those who have read the book will know that no major character dies before the Battle of Five Armies right at the end of the book. This is a problem in making the Hobbit a trilogy, although to be fair it was already a problem when it was a two-film story. Fellowship of the Ring had the deaths of Gandalf and Boromir to remind us that this was a world with real and deadly dangers, but An Unexpected Journey has no opportunity to show us such danger unless it departed from the script significantly in sacrificing one of the band to one of the many dangers the party face in the first film. We can expect more of the same in the next film as well. This is a problem as no matter how desperate a situation the party or any individual finds themselves in, we find that watching the film we do not really fear for their safety because it seems as though nothing can really hurt them.

This is not helped by what is probably my biggest gripe about the film, and this is really Peter Jackson’s most glaring weakness as a film-maker – his fascination with spectacle. Whereas in the book Bilbo knocks his head when being carried by a dwarf, in the film he falls hundreds of metres down a chasm. In the book a race down scree on the side of the mountain to escape the goblins becomes an almost free-fall slide on a broken platform down the entire side of the mountain before being crushed by the goblin king. Where there is a line referencing stone giants throwing boulders in the mountains, this is a temptation Peter Jackson can’t resist to include an entire scene where the path the party is on breaks apart and is part of the stone giants as they battle each other. In each of these cases, the survival of the characters without so much as a scratch tells the viewer they are in a world more akin to that of roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote than our own. These only exacerbate the problem of the audience not feeling any fear or concern for the characters’ safety.

I don’t have a problem with the introduction of the dwarf-hunting orc band. The film needed its own story arc, and Thorin and Bilbo in particular needed an arc within this film. The issue of Bilbo rushing out to rescue Thorin fits in the arc of this story, but would not have happened if the Hobbit had remained a two-film story as Bilbo has his opportunity to demonstrate his courage against the spiders in Mirkwood (watch for this in the next film). Azog is also a fitting adversary for Thorin, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they end up killing each other on the battlefield in the Battle of Five Armies. Most of the other changes from the book I can also accept without too much of a problem.

The Quest of Erebor storyline was well played. The scenes with Radagast in Dol Goldur and Rhosgobel were some of the few where you really feared for the survival of a character you cared about. We get a sense that Saruman has already turned evil and Gandalf and Galadriel are beginning to have doubts about him.

The Unexpected Party, The Riddle Game and the backstory of the dwarves were excellently done. I found myself marvelling at the scenes of the dwarven kingdom under the mountain, and the battles between the dwarves and orcs, and the entrance of Smaug were suitably spectacular – after all, despite Peter Jackson’s tendency to go over the top with spectacle – when the moment calls for it, no one does it better, although he does have the advantage of being able to call upon the wizards of Weta Workshops, whose prop, model, costume work and overall design is second to none. And the CGI and motion capture is at as high a level as you will see in any other movie. Andy Serkis is excellent as Gollum of course.

Peter Jackson will face similar challenges in the second film. In this film the company overcame trolls, an orc hunting band (twice), stone giants, Gollum and goblin town with no casualties. They are going to have to contend with the spiders of Mirkwood and the Elven king with an escape in barrels and possibly an encounter with Smaug as well in the second movie also without casualties (if you don’t include ponies). This is going to be a challenge to maintain the tension over 6 hours of storytelling without anything irreversably bad happening. Perhaps there are elements of the Necromancer storyline that can help alleviate this problem but we know that the characters in that storyline who we care about all survive to the Lord of the Rings.

As the credits started to roll I was somewhat surprised that almost three hours had past and so the film passes this most critical of tests of not boring the audience. And the second film, despite my concerns will still be my most anticipated film of 2013.

 

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