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The Hobbit, Part One, reviewed

SPOILER ALERT

I loved The Hobbit when I read it as a child.  It remains one of my favourite books as a consequence, and, though I have not read it in decades, it retains a hold on my imagination, though I no longer clearly recall the conclusion very well.  I also enjoyed The Lord of the Rings, the books, but not as much, and probably skimmed them over.  They felt too adult to me then.  Now, I am older, and came to the screening of Peter Jackson's fourth Tolkien adaptation with much anticipation, not least because his first trilogy of films was brilliant - arguably the most faithful and beautifully executed of any literary adaptation for film.

Jackson has tried new things here, technically - 3D, and a faster rate of film speed - and neither, to my mind, caused any of the aesthetic or medical problems some audience members have reported.  The film did not look shoddy nor did it occasion nausea.  However, I cannot say the film is as much a triumph as before.  At times the movie is magnificent.  Sometimes it lags, though.

The main challenge was always going to be that this adventure was on a smaller scale, and, literally, a smaller, quainter map.  The enemy, rather than being a sort of Satan, is a mere dragon, and there are no major battles.  Jackson has tinkered with the storyline a bit, to very much put this back into the world of the later books that Tolkien wrote, papering over the cracks, and deepening the sense of dramatic irony: now Gandalf is very much the foreshadowing prophet of doom, sensing a "darkness" coming across Middle Earth; and, in a startling scene, one of the major villains of Lord of the Rings appears.

Jackson has done a very good job of tying it all in, though the first ten minutes are confusing, switching too soon from a narrated, epic event, to Frodo and Bilbo.  Martin Freeman as young Bilbo grows on one - at first he seems to be comically mugging all the time; but later, he manages to be physical enough to believably fight orcs, and smart enough to outwit Gollum (the highlight of this first instalment in the new trilogy).

The dwarfs are too many, but the few who get speaking parts are mainly enjoyable.  It remains annoying that all the bad guys and monsters have "working class" English accents, as if trolls are all "chavs".  Also, where are the women characters?  There is only one in the whole film.  And I found some of the massacres of the trolls, goblins, and orcs disquieting and a little brutal, though I realise they are "monsters" and I suppose fair game for our heroes.

My main concern is that I can't believe Smaug is such a force of power and evil that all the dwarf forces could not defeat him (with all their skill and mastery how did they not build a fortress impregnable to dragon fire)?  Jackson has depicted the dragon (barely glimpsed) as a sort of flying atom bomb of destructive force.

In terms of emotional beats, the first film ends with Bilbo having bravely earned his keep as the 14th member of the party, the heart-of-gold "burglar" who ironically spares Gollum and burgles the most important ring in the world.  Gandalf seems older here than in the earlier films, though actually he is meant to be 60 years or so younger, but we must make allowances for real time.  The action scenes are impeccable and as exciting as anything in the earlier films, perhaps at times even more so - and the choreographic sequences are up their with the best of Spielberg.  Jackson is clearly a mainstream film-maker of genius.  As well, and as before, the use of the landscape is simply ravishing.

No one who has ever read The Hobbit can, should, or will, miss this film, which really warrants viewing in the cinema over the holidays.  It seems to me to be too frightening for young children; at times I was terrified.  While sometimes worthy, plodding, and a little forced, in general, this reminds us how poor the Potter films were - and will be one of the most popular and treasured movies of this decade.


--- Todd Swift
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