Concerning Hobbits

So… this is going to get deep into the weeds of geekdom pretty quickly, so here’s a brief, spoiler-free review of the first installment of Peter Jackson’s “Hobbit” trilogy for folks who don’t want to wade through minutia and plot-points:

Overall, I thought it was good. There were some bits I disliked, but far more often than not, I enjoyed how the story was handled. It’s true that some of the whimsy of the source material is lost in an effort to make it jibe properly with the “epic” scale of LotR, but I didn’t mind the tonal nudging that much.

The Crazy Frame Rate tech was… curious. In places, it really shone and the results were pretty amazing. It worked best in chaotic action sequences where things normally get muddled and hard to follow. But when things slowed down, it was distracting and tended to make things feel less believable. In particular, things like dwarf axes looked blunt and fake – like all the weight was missing from them. Still, it’s PROBABLY worth seeing it in Crazy Frame Rate mode, just so you can see what the fuss is about.

Compared to the LotR films, I would say it’s not as good as any one of those, but it falls short of them by a relatively slim margin and is definitely worth seeing.

From here on out, it’s all spoilers and super-geek stuff, so be warned.

First off, some personal reference:

I LOOOVE “The Hobbit”. It’s one of the first stories I remember being aware of as a child. When I was very young, I had an adapted version based on the Rankin/Bass animated movie from the late-70s that was presented in a “See-Hear-Read” format. It featured an illustrated book with text that was also narrated (and the dialog performed) by the cast of the film via an accompanying record album. It was AWESOME. Gollum was a purple fish monster with crazy-huge, solid-white eyes. Bilbo had an ENORMOUS head and giant sasquatch feet. There was the weird, warbly “Greatest Adventure” ballad that went along with it. The adaptation was only 15-20 minutes long, but I loved it and it stuck with me for years.

Thus, while I’m not the biggest Tolkien nerd in the world, the roots of my fandom run pretty deep and my expectations were pretty high. So – as a lifelong fan – how did the new film measure up?

I’ll start with the various changes/interpretations in the film. First up, stuff I disliked:

– Beardless/short-bearded Dwarfs. Not cool. Not cool at ALL. I get the need to make them all look different, but having some of them just sporting five o’clock shadow beards is unacceptable. I also found the lack of colorful hoods to be a bit of a bummer.
– The addition of the entire Azog subplot. It was unnecessary and seemed to contribute to the overall rushed feeling of the entire presentation. Yes, the original book is pretty jam-packed with activity, but it still takes time to meander here and there and generally feels like a journey, rather than a non-stop chase scene.
– Orcs just hangin’ out on Weathertop. It felt weird – like they had the set still lying around and figured they’d just use it again. It made the world feel smaller somehow.
– Cutting out the entire section that takes place at the aerie of the eagles. This makes them – yet again – seem like random, inexplicable creatures. And it makes them seem like lazy jerks for not dropping everyone off closer to the Lonely Mountain, since you miss the entire explanation for WHY they won’t go there.

Stuff I am skeptical of, but will wait and see where it’s going:

– The inclusion of Radagast as a significant player. It felt weird and very wedged in. And I’m not sure there’s ever a way to make a rabbit-drawn forest sled look cool. Also, I could do without the crusty bird poop-sideburns. Still, this COULD go somewhere interesting later.
– Making Bilbo into something of a warrior. Having him run out of the tree to save Thorin felt pretty out of character.
– Making the dwarfs less silly/stupid. I really like the original version of the troll story, where the dwarfs stumble in one by one to get captured. It made them feel like appropriate companions for Bilbo and Gandalf. I’m not sure I like them as relatively savvy fighters from the get-go.

Stuff I liked:

– The opening sequences in Erebor. Loved all of that.
– Making Thorin more noble and inspiring. In the book, he’s kind of an idiot and not much of a leader. I like the idea that he’s got faults (he’s overly judgmental and prone to Captain Ahab-esque bouts of revenge fantasy), but is the kind of person that WOULD inspire other people to follow him on what amounts to a probable-suicide mission.
– The appearance of the White Council. The LotR films make it seem like every powerful person in Middle Earth aside from Gandalf is totally out of touch with what is happening in Middle Earth, either due to laziness or just being an aloof weenie (or evil). The “power structure” of the world is much clearer if you read the books and it makes motives and actions of the various “power players” make proper sense as a result. Having a quick scene with them in the new film adds a surprising amount of depth and context for the entire Jackson/Tolkien library.
– Splitting Gandalf up from the rest of the party in Rivendell. I’ve always hated the way Gandalf just sort of… zaps away when the goblins grab everyone from the cave. Having a reason for him to be slightly behind them was a very good adjustment.
– The Goblin kingdom. Just… AWESOME. I loved every bit of how this was presented. I didn’t even mind the crazy Indiana Jones escape sequence at the end.
– Everything with Gollum. They have really perfected the tech for making CG faces “work” and the entire sequence was a lot of fun to watch.

As for everything else, I thought it was more right than wrong. It’s missing some of the whimsy, but usually for good reasons. Mostly, I forgive it its sins because it’s a joy to see more Middle Earth on screen. I’m not sure how it plays for someo

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