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I’m not the same hobbit I once was.

Movie

The Hobbit – Extended Editions
An Unexpected Journey (2012)
The Desolation of Smaug (2013)
The Battle of the Five Armies (2014)

 

I waited to “savour” the extended Hobbitses until they were all released, anticipating the experience would probably be just as it turned out; where The Lord of the Rings is, for the most part, enriched by its additions and expansions, the reverse is true of The Hobbit. Undeservedly foisted with trilogy status, it resisted the weight of such epic trappings, saddled with ill-fitting character detours that detracted from the relative neat- and sprightliness of Tolkien’s text, and left a three-piece in which its central character felt at times superfluous. The extra material merely compounds these issues. Too frequently, The Hobbit is an ordeal, a slog, even from the comfort of an armchair, Peter Jackson having missed the Mirk-wood for the trees. Yet there are points in each of the three where he succeeds in reminding us why he walked off with an Oscar for the first trilogy; edited down, rather than up, it might even be possible to distil something pretty good from what he has over-done, although divesting the trilogy of its over-abundant CGI might prove an impossible task.

Jackson’s willingness to go off the leash with cartoonish, mood-destroying special effects can probably be traced back to his cheerfully undisciplined early splatter excursions, but there the results were off a piece and integrated. The first signs of the wrongheadedness with resources could be seen as far back as the first Lord of the Rings, helicopter tracking shots taking in vast landscapes populated by virtual characters and structures, or the never quite tangible CGI cave troll. By the third movie, no one was very surprised at the knockabout dwarf tossing and Legolas surfing an oliphant’s trunk. None of this was enough to spoil the movies, but it was an indulgence that came from misjudging the material; responding to perceived popular reactions rather than showing continued respectfulness. This virtual blundering was further highlighted in King Kong’s subsequent goofy, unreal dinosaur stampede.

With The Hobbit, the tail is finally wagging the dog. Jackson, thrust into directing when he never intended to, was ill-prepared (he essentially needed the third film just to give himself enough space to decide what to do with the ending) and required trinkets such as the experimentation with frame rates to pique his interest. Guillermo Del Toro, meanwhile, would have been much better to have remained on board and fashioned his two movies with due care and craft, rather than settling on material none but his acolytes really cared for.

It wouldn’t be fair to accuse The Hobbit of wall-to-wall CG-indulgence, although it feels like it at times. Rather, it’s the combination of elements, realising the artifice is in your face to an extent that wasn’t the case with Lord of the Rings. Orlando Bloom, other than keeping his agent in deep-fried Mars bars, has no business showing up here (or further Pirates of the Caribbean, come to that) but Jackson shoehorns Legolas in anyway, for reasons best known to himself, and the results are waxily, age-regressingly unimpressive. Added to which, the director equips the character with the usual acrobatic elf antics, reaching their ridiculous nadir in The Battle of the Five Armies when he flies a bat upside down, taking down an army of Orcs along the way.

CGI orcs, of course, taking a foolish leaf out of Lucas’ prequel book. These movies never quite plumb those depths – there’s usually a semblance of a tangible world somewhere in the frame – but they don’t appear to have learnt any lessons from such mistakes. Having a lead villain threaded through the three films realised by CGI is fundamentally an error, and a case of hubris to think it would work (brought on no doubt by Gollum, the exception that proves the rule). It adds to the sense that Jackson isn’t really there, getting dirty on the ground, that he’s slackened his grip and not just in the editing suite. The biggest offender in An Unexpected Journey is the sojourn in the goblin kingdom, something Barry Humphries’ spirited performance can’t rescue; it ends up feeling like we’re watching Super Mario Dwarves. Ironically, this is intercut with one of the best scenes in the trilogy, Bilbo’s encounter with Gollum.

Offenders in The Desolation of Smaug include the barrel escape from the Elvish realm and the Alien 3 antics as the dwarves attempt to trap Smaug, while The Battle of the Five Armies encourages Jackson’s battlefield excesses and the aforementioned Legolas business. We get Billy Connolly riding a CGI pig, dwarves riding CGI goats, a CGI bear freefalling onto a (CGI) battle field. But, while I could well recall the CG-overload, I had forgotten quite how tarnishing other intrusions are. Evangeline Lilly’s Tauriel is certainly a preferable addition to the return of Legolas, but her dwarf romance is spectacularly awful, and Aidan Turner’s Kili is actively offensive; Jackson’s message appears to be that love is skin deep, as the only way for this inter-species love to blossom is if he looks nothing like a dwarf at all. Most damningly, of course, is that the entire affair is utterly banal. It’s a blessed relief when Kili finally gets killied off.

Jackson, like Lucas, seems bound to make his prequel cosy up to and anticipate his main work in a frequently annoying fashion, such that at times The Hobbit translates as an over extended build-up rather than its own thing (see also the Bilbo problem). There’s no good reason to have Saruman there, except as a kind of Emperor/Palpatine “Look at me, ain’t I dubious?” distraction. The anticipation of events seventy years hence reaches the daftest of points when Lee Pace tells Legolas to go looking for Strider. At other times, it’s merely a chance for Jackson to indulge some greatest hits moment; see Galadriel getting her anger on.

On the other hand, every time Howard Shore’s rousing theme comes in, he’s instantly able to win the viewer over emotionally, much the same as John Williams could do with Star Wars. Which is fortunate, as Martin Freeman’s Bilbo, as roundly celebrated as he has been, isn’t as inspired a choice as Elijah Wood was, and certainly can’t compare with Ian Holm. Mainly because all he’s doing is being Martin Freeman, and if you know his tics and mannerisms well enough they can grow old very quickly.

Part of the problem is also that Bilbo just doesn’t have the emotional beats to engage us, and we’re left with a tell, don’t show, feeling when Gandalf waxes lyrical about the bravery of Hobbits for the umpteenth time. Meanwhile, the amount of time invested in the dwarves entirely fails to justify their indulgence. Thorin’s role, good as Richard Armitage is, would have been better served more economically. That said, on balance his obsession, and gruffness, is well observed with and his confrontation with Azog at least is an aspect of The Battle of the Five Armies that very much succeeds.

So too Luke Evans as Bowman, Sylvester McCoy’s endearing Radaghast (most surprrrrrisingly, as I didn’t rate his Doctor Who, of which Jackson is clearly a fan, right down to Bilbo’s Colin Baker dressing gown), and Lee Pace’s glacial Thranduil. Jackson may have been playing things by ear, but enough of his essential choices here are strong, such that it makes the failures appear even more unnecessary.

Certainly, each of the episodes has at least one classic scene; the riddles in the dark with Gollum is superbly realised, as is the woozy, tripped-out Mirkwood sequence (before the elves show up), and Bilbo’s confrontation with Smaugerbatch (a good villain should always enjoy their villainy), Bard’s slaying of Smaug and Thorin’s madness. Jackson gets the scenes that no doubt fuelled his passion to make The Lord of the Rings in the first place just right. It’s elsewhere, where he’s at a loose end or willing to go overboard, that he comes a cropper.

There’s very little garnish in the Extended Editions that feels essential, though some sequences are at least worthwhile. The extended prologue is okay, if trying too much to mirror Lord of the Rings for epic portend, but it also means it’s a whole forty minutes before Bilbo leaves the shire, with the addition of a Dwarvish ditty. Additional bear fellow at the beginning of Desolation of Smaug works reasonably well, though, providing engrossing exposition rather than the equivalent part of its predecessor at Bilbo’s.

The added Lake-town scenes rather drag, however, and there’s the sense of dawdling to save the dragon for as long as possible (Stephen Fry’s Master of Lake-town and Ryan Gage’s Alfrid are okay, but over-serviced). Gandalf meets Thrain, a Dwarf equivalent of Michael Palin’s “It’s…” but to little consequence other than beefing up Gandalf’s role. I’m in two minds about this, as McKellen is masterful in all his scenes, but anything with him requires a veer to the epic, rather than the more localised affair this should be. Alfrid’s death is quite amusing in The Battle of the Five Armies, and Bilbo’s has a strong scene with James Nesbitt’s Bofur.

The Lord of the Rings, seen in its entirety, back-to-back, is a satisfying and affecting experience. The Hobbit is plain exhausting (I found it a stretch to sit through any single one of them on one sitting, so consumed them over three nights). These don’t besmirch The Lord of the Rings the way the prequel trilogy does the original Star Wars, but there’s so much unnecessary or misconceived material included that they’re roundly inferior. No doubt there are reduced fan edits out there already; it will be interesting to see if Jackson is possessed by the urge to hone down his unloved progeny at some point. More likely, he’s fed up to the back teeth with Hobbitses.

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