You guys, Peter Jackson loves Lord of the Rings. He loves the Lord of the Rings SO MUCH. He loves it so much that when it came time to adapt The Hobbit, a hugely different work in scope and tone, he poked and pulled and prodded until it was as Lord of the Ringsy as humanly possible. However, out of the Venn Diagram of Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, Peter Jackson has made a circle.
Did you like things from the Lord of the Rings? You get them again! Did you like things from The Hobbit like the slightly sardonic tone, the up-tempo pacing, the feeling of light adventure in the air? They'll try for that, too! (This movie contains Every Tone.)
That's not to say the film is all bad; there are enjoyable moments, and as always, stunning production design helps frame and support a cast giving it their all. But the sense of tension that carried through most of the Lord of the Rings trilogy (even his failures - *COUGH*FARAMIR*COUGH* - were attempts to keep stories moving through a sprawling canvas without losing momentum) is nowhere to be found in The Hobbit, which has to handle three hours of material in a ten-hour jug. Time to re-read the appendices! Which you'll have time to do in the theatre, so that's convenient.
In the meantime, here are ten things you should know about The Hobbit.
1. Bilbo. Bilbo Baggins is a complex character - a homebody with a yen for adventures he never has the courage to set out on until Gandalf comes knocking; he discovers in short order there are many kinds of courage, and he'll need them all - particularly the courage to stay on a road that looks impossible, and the courage to show mercy. This trilogy, much more focused on the single group rather than a scattered ensemble, rests almost entirely on Bilbo being interesting for ten hours. And Martin Freeman delivers. There are initial fumbles as he Early Hugh Grants his way through the movie's first forty minutes, but by the time they hit the road (forty minutes in; this movie unfolds in real time!), things are better, and he ably carries what's asked of him in the sympathetic, relatable protagonist department.
2. For everything else, there's Thorin Oakenshield! Since we're trying to Epic This Thing, he's given a massaged storyline of redemption for his family and his people that is probably more palatable than "I'd like all the gold, please!" They also position him as tortured antagonist, so he spends most of the movie being rude as hell to Bilbo about hilarious things. "I bet you the Halfling just ran away like a coward when were captured by all those goblins who beat the shit out of us and tried to kill us! What a weenie."
It would be unbroken Jerkinshield, except that Thorin is handsome. You can't tell from the promo photos, where they tried to make him look more dwarfly, but the movie knows what it's doing. And though he is already being played by the chisely-yet-determined Richard Armitage, which would take care of most of your handsomeness needs, the movie doesn't want you to ever forget how smokin' the Dwarf Lord is, so it spends all his shots licking his face with light. In the forest? Dappled flicker! Goblin cave full of fire pits? Perfect amber glow! ("It's a trap! I can't believe it! I am so handsome about this.") This comes in handy as a distraction when he's a rampaging jerk, or when he's telling Bilbo to get his whiny ass back to the Shire, or refusing to go to the elves for help because elves are the worst and if you are a wizard who brings him to Rivendell for shelter he's going to be pissed as hell. ("I am so handsome at you right now, Gandalf.")
3. He is one of thirteen dwarves who, to varying degrees, appear in this movie. Some of them...simply appear. (Bombur had two lines; both of them were "Oof.") Some luck out and are given personalities: Balin is a fatherly foil for Thorin, Bofur is the Everydwarf (who, because he's James Nesbitt, can give you more in one scene than some do in a whole movie); Ori is The Dumbest; and Kili is Legolas. At times, the attempts at group dynamics slip close to tedium - the unexpected party, for example, takes seventeen days. But overall they serve their purpose, which is more than some can say.
4. Speaking of, let's talk about Radagast the Brown! For anyone who wondered what Tom Bombadil would have been like, Radagast is a good canary in the mine; it probably wouldn't have gone well. The tone of Radagast's screen time varies wildly minute to minute, from birds nesting in his hair to being overwhelmed by the shadows of horrific undead megaspiders, from cross-eyed pipeweed puffing to an orc race in a rabbit sledge. The pipeweed joke comes directly on the heels of a flashback to his investigation of Dol Guldur and attack by the Witch King, trying to exchange dread for a Benny Hill moment. No dice.
5. And when it comes to flashbacks, oh, there are plenty! Balin tells Bilbo and the dwarves about Thorin's extremely Isildury attack on orc-swarmed Moria, as Thorin handsomes nearby (and the dwarves listen like they didn't know Thorin had battle prowess whatsoever. Were they selected for this quest by lottery? What's happening?). Radagast gets his Dol Guldur flashback. And of course, the entire movie is a flashback, told in a frame story of Older Bilbo writing his memoirs for Frodo...starting with a flashback within a flashback, to the fall of Erebor and the coming of Smaug.
6. Thranduil is in that one! For two seconds. He bows briefly to Thror the dwarf king. Later, he rides a huge moose up to a cliff, makes an immortal bitchface at Thorin, and immediately departs with his cadre. It's everything you could have asked for, unless you're asking, "Wait, moose?", in which case you'll be holding on to that one until 2013. (Mirkwood Elves ran out of other transport, eh? Well, Thorin's going to get to the handsome of this!)
7. We fare better in Rivendell, where Gandalf and Elrond are joined in council by Saruman and Galadriel. Saruman plays the most hilarious game of "Attacked by evil? Really? My stars, that DOES sound random and like nothing to worry about and not at all related to me nobody look at me!" ever, as Galadriel and Gandalf have the sort of telepathic conversation that makes you wonder who Elrond's real dad is. All manage the appropriate creeping terror and/or guilt trip for the Witch King's blade. (Never underestimate four great actors in a room.)
Later, Gandalf takes leave of Galadriel in a way that both builds naturally on her reaction to his death in Fellowship of the Ring, and seriously, seriously makes you wonder who Elrond's real dad is.
(ETA: It's been brought to my attention that technically we're still wondering who Elrond's dad is, since Galadriel's an in-law. JOKE RUINED.)
8. Gandalf also explains to Galadriel, at length, why he chose Bilbo to be the company's reluctantly self-elected burglar. And while it all makes sense, it's also all things that the movie answers more nimbly at other points; I was reminded of Gandalf's advice to Frodo about the time that is given to us, and how it came along succinctly, to a character who needed it, and how here it was so much longer, and unnecessary.
In fact, perhaps the greatest drawback of going once too often to the Lord of the Rings well isn't exhausting the vocalists in your Dwarf Lord and Eagle Transport Choral Ensemble, but relying on callbacks for nearly all the moments of emotional impact.
Gollum actually escapes this callback fever nimbly, though he looms so large in LOTR; Serkis presents a Gollum torn to pieces long before Bilbo finds him, and Smeagol's eagerness to play at riddles is somehow creepier than all Gollum's ranting. The riddles scene is nicely tense, and the moment Bilbo moves to kill Gollum, and then draws back, is evocative. It's a dramatic centerpiece, played out well.
9. The other dramatic centerpieces mostly involve orc and warg attacks. Sure, there's a way-too-long goblin fight scene that calls back to Moria but mostly highlights that goblins have terrible infrastructure and how much better this sequence was back when it was Moria, and sure, there's the too-long troll scene, and sure, there's the rock giant sequence where everyone hangs on to rock pieces and goes "WoooAaooAaaAAHHH" for five minutes (you think I'm kidding), but trust me, we have a main event. There are eight million wargs in this movie. You cannot sneeze without hitting an orc on a warg. "Never a dull moment," is the Middle Earth saying, followed immediately by the saying, "Because of all the warg attacks." The head orc, casually nicknamed the Defiler, lost an arm to Thorin in battle; it has been replaced by what looks like a monster salad fork, and he spends the movie tracking them down with his orcs in tow, meaning any time we're petering out on a subplot, wargs show up.
And near the end, as wargs close in on the dwarves in the trees, Thorin has to stand up and go into solo combat to avenge his father's honor. ("You fiend! I shall draw my handsome and meet you on the field of battle!") He immediately loses, because as you know from all these flashbacks and fight scenes, if there's one thing Thorin is bad at, it's combat. Handsomeness, and combat.
This is, as it turns out, all so Bilbo can leap in front of him and fight to inspire the rest to battle, until the eagles can come and spirit them to the end of the first movie. Then you realize Thorin was robbed of a subplot that isn't even really there so Bilbo could have a hero moment, because the hero moment of showing mercy to Gollum didn't count as much as one where he was fighting, I guess. (That...does not bode well.)
There's some echoes here of Boromir, except Boromir got a good fight in first, and Merry and Pippin's hero moments were natural and earned; here, it feels disjointed and sketchy, and by the time the eagles show up and Thorin wakes from plotsleep to apologize to Bilbo and set sights on the second movie, you're so disconnected from the emotional through-line that you're mainly thinking, "Gandalf did not even thank the eagles, what the hell." (Imagine the Lord of the Eagles soaring high into the air above a picturesque New Zealand mountain range, his feathers gleaming, his piercing cry straight to the clouds: "Uh, you're WELCOME? BuhGAWK?" I did.)
10. The movie isn't entirely bad; there are moments done very well (maybe particularly the dwarves singing "Far Over the Misty Mountains Cold" - a small moment, but evocative, and one that does much to characterize the dwarves for the next three hours that the rest of the movie does not do). But overall, the magic of the Lord of the Rings has not come again. Maybe the availability of the breadth of canon has hindered more than helped, and left the movie with the distinct sense of being someone's favorite parts of The Hobbit, some Appendices, and a little deleted-from-LOTR action stacked like precarious wooden blocks on top of the LOTR legacy.
The half-movie of real content remaining seems to be skewing toward half a dozen more lengthy fight scenes, swiftly-knitted subplots, and leftover lightheartedness from the book; it's a formula that also exists in the LOTR trilogy, but there, somehow, it's only moments that fall flat, and not entire half-hours. It will be happening amid beautiful scenery, rich production design, moments of grace from its actors, and one spectacularly well-lit King Under the Mountain, but I'm not sure if even that will be enough to bring this all together; we have seven more hours of movie in which to find out.