Why does this film exist? As the line between art and commerce grows increasingly blurred with the unchallenged rise of franchise filmmaking, it’s certainly a fair question. Of course, on the heels of a billion-dollar franchise like Lord of the Rings, a second trip to the well was a virtual certainty. I ask this question not out of some naive sense of entitlement for artistry to emerge from the studio system, but rather as a self-contained quibble with the film itself. As I watched a nearly shot-for-shot remake of a sequence from 2001’s The Fellowship of the Ring, featuring hobbits Bilbo (Ian Holm) and Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) – looking 11 years older as actors, but inexplicably younger as characters – I found myself wondering what exactly was the point of this protracted exercise in nostalgia. The film is saddled in equal measure with sequences that simultaneously pad the runtime and remind the audience of the horrific fate that awaits Middle Earth in the trilogy we’ve already seen. And yet, it was only as I got to know the younger version of Bilbo (Martin Freeman) that my skepticism and apathy began to fade a bit. For it is Freeman’s light touch and sympathetic performance, as well as the film’s characterization of Bilbo, that allows it to pass as a standalone adventure story. Even as it frequently seeks to undermine itself by adhering to self-referential bits of fan-service.
To cultivate audience sympathy with a reluctant hero is a daunting task. In this very same weekend, I saw Rise of the Guardians, an unfortunate misstep from Dreamworks Animation that mingled brilliant visuals and a strong supporting cast with an utterly unsympathetic protagonist. The Hobbit was saddled with a similar burden – to allow Bilbo Baggins to initially be the most useless and reluctant member of a party of dwarven warriors who all ostensibly have personal reasons for being there. The wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellan), who seems just a bit more capable now than in his twilight years, imposes upon Bilbo’s hospitality relentlessly (in a sequence that is nearly interminable), and insists upon the hobbit’s value to the endeavor. And yet, the wizard compels him to join by appealing simultaneously to his boredom and racial guilt, rather than any specific contribution he might make. And what is their noble quest? This band is setting off to reclaim their stolen homeland, yes, but also to recover the massive bounty of gold – mined through dubious labor practices under a monarchic regime – that is cached within. They are initially no better than a band of pirates at eliciting audience sympathy, and are just as minimally characterized. And yet gradually, Bilbo comes to truly believe in their quest, and when he finally explains his motivation for sticking with this diminutive baker’s dozen, I found that my own interest level had risen similarly.
Dwarf leader Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) is given a nice, meaty revenge tale to work with, and acquits himself well on-screen. But the other dwarves are given scarcely more characterization than Snow White could muster, with their attributes reduced to simple, one-word descriptions. Thinking back to how effectively Jackson’s previous trilogy managed to characterize a nine-member ensemble and myriad supporting characters, I can’t help but wonder whether nine was simply the breaking point. Apart from plump gourmand Bombur (Stephen Hunter) and ancient, genial Balin (Ken Stott), I could hardly tell you a single one of these dwarves’ unique strengths or contributions to the party. We hear that some of them are farmers, merchants, and miners, but I would task anyone to point out which is which, without the aid of Wikipedia or the IMDb. I’ll admit, my memory of the novel (which I read when I was 12) is faint, but if any such differentiation was present in the source material, it hardly makes an appearance in the film.
But speaking of appearances, I must address the film’s 48 frame-per-second 3D presentation, if only because I ended up quite unexpectedly enjoying it. Yes, every bit of rapid motion looks jerky and anomalous, but I found myself asking whether it really looked bad to my eyes, or whether it simply looked unfamiliar. After about 10 minutes of staring into what looked suspiciously like British TV, I found that my brain had adjusted completely to the illusion, and these events – and the gorgeous cinematography that captured them – were simply a window that I was gazing through. Apart from the occasional wandering audience member in the foreground, the illusion was never broken for me throughout the film, and I found that it worked hand-in-hand with the obvious advances that Jackson’s Weta Digital FX shop has made in rendering all-CGI characters in the past decade. Whether I was gazing upon an overlong cameo from Gollum (Andy Serkis) or a grotesquely blubberous Goblin King (Barry Humphries), I felt an overwhelming sense of being there, in the presence of these entirely real creations. While not all of The Hobbit‘s technical virtuosity serves to the story’s benefit (I still don’t quite understand the point of those brawling mountains), it is certainly one of its great strengths.
Bilbo asks Gandalf a simple question at the outset of the film. “Can you promise that I will come back?” The wizard answers no, and yet the audience is capable at all times of answering yes. The film is at its best when it allows Freeman to emphasize Bilbo’s personal stakes through his performance and characterization, rather than reminding us that a far greater threat – and a certain safe return – loom in the hobbit’s narrative future. Likewise, the dwarves (aided a bit by flashback) manage to eventually present their quest as a noble endeavor, worthy of story and song. And as long as they can carry it to a swift completion, they may manage to give this series of films a real raison d’être. But as it stands, the film just meanders from setpiece to meaningless setpiece with no room to breathe in-between. The quest never picks up any steam, and the party seems more like an ambling family R.V. that can’t make decent time because Dad insists on stopping off for a family photo in front of the Great Big Lawn Chair off Route 6. They may eventually reach their destination, but they might find the journey was scarcely worth it. And when Grandpa is a wizard capable of summoning air support with the slightest effort, you can’t help but wonder whether hiking across every mountaintop was really worth it.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what a strained metaphor looks like.
FilmWonk rating: 5 out of 10