This is it. Whether you’ve waited all year or many years for this film, it’s here, and it’s dividing critics and making tons of money at the box office. And I loved every moment of this glorious film.
With a running time of not quite three hours, the film is still shorter than any of director Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings films, and more importantly, none of that time fails to entertain, even if not everything that happens on-screen necessarily advances the plot. The story, which takes place decades before the events of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, is told as a flashback from that time period, by the titular hobbit, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman). He often doesn’t seem like the starring character in his own story, however, as he shares the stage with returning wizard Gandalf (Sir Ian McKellen) and a company of rambunctious but excitable dwarfs (and we could argue about the proper spelling of that plural form all day). What on earth are they doing in his house, staging their own ‘dinner party’ without so much as an invitation?
As it turns out, the dwarves have been run out of their kingdom of Erebor by a fire-breathing dragon named Smaug, who has also destroyed a nearby town. This is where the film showcases only the first few of its many technical marvels, as the town of Dale is believably lively, brimming with men, women, and children of all ages, each going about his or her own business, before all of it is burned to the ground in a grim showing that sets the stage for the story to come. (This is also the moment of introduction for another of the film’s heroes, a dwarf named Thorin Oakenshield, and for his distaste for the elves who would not help the dwarves in their time of need.)
So why have the dwarves come all this way to Bilbo’s house? They need a ‘burglar’ (essentially a scout), and Bilbo, being a hobbit, is small and agile. Naturally he, having no experience in such matters, couldn’t be less interested in the job–at least at first.
(It’s at this point where I’ve seen the film receive criticism. A large part of the movie’s opening is a simple dinner party, with the dwarves consuming enormous amounts of food, much to Bilbo’s annoyance, and staging an impromptu song-and-dance routine that looks like it could have come from a Disney movie–not that that’s a bad thing. The dwarves are hilarious enough to watch on their own, and Bilbo eventually joins them on their quest to reclaim their home, after they’ve already departed from his house.)
The plot that follows is largely a random series of events, from monster encounters that may or may not have any bearing on the plot, to locations that lead the heroes conveniently to where they need to go. And that’s just fine. At one point the venerable wizard Gandalf makes the powerful observation that great deeds are not the only ones that matter. Being faithful and noble in the small ones is just as important, and while the film may seem at times to be wandering randomly, the story opens itself to a grand option of reinterpretation–even though certain events may not seem important or even necessarily be all that important in the long run (such as an early encounter with a group of trolls), those events are consequential enough when they occur, and what matters is that the heroes act. Bilbo’s journey is an adventure, and as such it concerns itself more with what’s around the corner than with what lies at the end. Many otherwise insignificant events then begin to feel relevant and meaningful, even if only for the time being.
Not all of the events to follow are random or meaningless, however. The storytelling truly does improve as the film goes on: while I adored The Lord of the Rings movies, one of the few things that bothered me about the stories was that a number of the characters seemed to get by on their ample charisma without necessarily developing or becoming wiser. The Hobbit truly develops itself in this way toward the end, as Bilbo learns a powerful and touching lesson about the value of pity and mercy, and the movie’s storytelling becomes very subtle at times with numerous nods to the earlier films. Several important objects from those movies reappear here, and the story doesn’t always stop to explain everything again; it assumes the viewer already knows about these things, and the film lets the music and the camera positioning speak for themselves. One especially well done moment occurs late in the film when a particular character makes a particularly foolish decision, and the music becomes a very specific kind of ominous. “This person isn’t simply about to do something dumb,” I tell myself. “This person is about to do something very, very evil.” And so it goes.
The film as a whole succeeds in its narrative, creating a great deal of suspense from an preexisting story and developing new and old characters in engrossing ways; in its artwork, with some of the most gorgeous and convincing scenery I have ever seen in a movie; and in its technical aspects, showcasing an amazing variety of set pieces and dramatic fight scenes. (Parents may want to note that some of the fight scenes could be rather disturbing for young viewers, as they feel somewhat more intense and brutal than a number of those in Jackson’s previous trilogy, including instances of onscreen decapitation and dismemberment.) I’m not sure which version of the film I watched in terms of frame rate, but the movie looked fine. The 3D effects felt “just right,” and while they were too subdued, slightly, to match the likes of Avatar or How to Train Your Dragon, the film seemed to make better use of those effects than did movies such as The Avengers and the second half of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, both of which often seemed too dimly lit to suit the 3D very well. The structure of the film may not match the grim tone that the beginning of the story suggests will follow, but the story that is there does enough of a fine job on its own to have me more than excited about what’s just around the corner.
Oh, and the Song of the Lonely Mountain is probably the greatest end-credits song I have ever heard in a movie.