Review: The Hobbit juggles too many expectations and can't meet them all
The question of whether you'll enjoy The Hobbit comes with more prerequisites than I can count. Do you love the original book? Do you love The Lord of the Rings film trilogy? Are you seeing the film in the controversial 48 frames-per-second format? In 3D or IMAX or some combination of all of them? When The Fellowship of the Ring was released, the only question was whether you were willing to sit through three hours of epic fantasy. Simpler times.
I'll tell you I saw the film in standard, 24 fps, non-3D, just as it should be. I loved the original trilogy of films when I saw them, but I've never read any of the books. I didn't really understand how Peter Jackson and company planned to reach the same heights as LOTR when the source material is, by most accounts, a childrens' novel. That said, I was more than happy to return to Middle Earth if it was done right.
That's probably the best thing I can say about The Hobbit too—it's nice to be back in this world. Thanks to the powers of marketing, fantasy doesn't typically work in Hollywood. It's a welcome return, even if they needed to ride the coattails of Lord of the Rings to get fantasy back in theaters.
Coming from that pedigree doesn't mean more of the same, though. This is a smaller, simpler tale. It's about Bilbo Baggins, Gandalf, and their adventure with a company of dwarves. It isn't about the end of the world and the fate of all living things, but about friendship, courage, and adventure. The smaller scope lends the story a warmness that's not unlike cuddling up with a good fantasy novel. It also means downtime—characters gathering for meals and telling stories by campfire—moments I found refreshing. Those who loved LOTR for the epic battles may lose interest, though.
It's ultimately that necessity to keep the LOTR trilogy fans attention that seems to hurt The Hobbit as a film. As the prequel trilogy to LOTR, we may find that it all works as a grand 20+ hour piece of fiction, but on its own this film seems a bit handicapped trying to cover all the bases.
For one, The Hobbit spends far too much effort pandering to the Lord of the Rings trilogy. There are winks and nods, cameos left and right, and the film simply spends too much time being referential rather than being its own thing. The closest comparison I can think of is the new Star Trek film, which went off on an extensive tangent justifying itself to existing fans. The Hobbit isn't as bad, but there's certainly an identity crisis there.
It also seems that, in an effort to make this story a bit more serious and epic, The Hobbit lost sight of its central protagonist. Martin Freeman does an excellent job portraying the young Bilbo Baggins, but there are long stretches where he falls into the background in favor of more heroic types like Gandalf and Thorin. Had the film been simply titled An Unexpected Journey, it probably wouldn't seem so strange, but as it stands The Hobbit lacks focus.
It just doesn't coalesce into its own tale as much as it should have. Plot points are left on the table, presumably for the next film, but for now seem more like plot holes. The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers both ended on abrupt cliffhangers, but still managed to feel more complete and independently strong than The Hobbit does.
Complaints made, I still found a lot to love. The company of dwarves has more heart and charm than the fellowship ever had. Middle Earth is still a potent setting for stunning cinematography. It's easy to lose yourself in this world, and I still found that sense of wonder I loved about the first films. The Hobbit manages to reach some impressive heights, but not without some noticeable stumbles along the way.