It would be easy, and it is certainly tempting, to use a review of The Hobbit as the occasion for an all-out assault on High Frame Rate (HFR) digital cinema. HFR is, after all, the Big New Thing about director Peter Jackson’s return to Middle Earth after the enormous effort and even more enormous success of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, bigger even than the dragon Smaug (glimpsed but not beheld in this first installment). And this Big New Thing is, to my eyes, a very bad thing: a technology so bent on making things look clear that it forgets about making things look good. (Has anyone ever thought that the Mona Lisa would be improved if we could make out her pores?)
I could go on. But HFR is not the whole story of The Hobbit, especially when it is also available in IMAX, ordinary 3D, and (best of all) plain ol’ 2D. So I will launch only a couple of additional salvos and then move on. First, there is the mangling of light. Every outdoor scene looks like a Thomas Kinkade painting; every indoor scene seems to glow from within. (When the wizard Gandalf asks the hobbit Bilbo Baggins for a little more light so that he can display a map during an after-dinner conference, Bilbo fetches a candle, a candle that makes absolutely no difference at all.) Second, it strips movies of whatever magic they might have left, reducing Ian McKellan’s “wandering wizard overlooking the Elven city of Rivendell” to a guy with a fake nose and a big beard, wearing a funny hat and standing on a stone platform.
Still, one wonders if the Big New Thing wasn’t what finally brought Jackson onboard for this second trilogy. It doesn’t seem to have been the prospect of writing another Tolkien-based script; this one begins and ends with a clunk. Early on, an elderly Bilbo writes to his nephew Frodo that “quite by chance, and by the will of a wizard, fate had decided” to involve him in this particular adventure. Well, which is it: chance, will, or fate? And it wasn’t the prospect of telling a different sort of story than The Lord of the Rings — say, the lighter, more straightforward sort of adventure found in The Hobbit, the book. Jackson pauses for flashbacks to horrible wars between orcs and dwarves, side trips exploring the rise of malevolent forces in the larger world, and bouts of petty personal drama on the part of ostensible heroes: in this case, exiled dwarf-king Thorin Oakenshield. It wasn’t even the chance to show his chops as a director; I spotted not one but two glaring breaks in continuity: a sudden shift from forest to plains during an orc ambush, and a sudden shift from daylight to nighttime during another orc ambush. Tricksy orcs.
For better and for worse, apart from the Big New Thing, The Hobbit is more of the same, a prequel that sets the stage for The Lord of the Rings as it tells the story of 13 dwarves who hire a burglar to help them take back their mountain kingdom (and its treasures) from an invading dragon. For better: the creation of a believable fantasy world through well-pitched performances (Martin Freeman makes a fine homebody hobbit, and Andy Serkis’s Gollum gets to mix comedy with his menacing pathos), resonant themes (the dwarves are seeking to regain their homeland after a diaspora), and really fine costumes. For worse: overlong fight scenes, special effects that lean heavily on cartoon physics, and a tendency to overstuff.