My first response is Wow, what a movie.
My second is vast relief that they didn't blow it: this is the HOBBIT movie those of us who love the book and enjoyed the Peter Jackson LotR films have been hoping for. Apprehensions about Del Toro's take on the story or fears THE HOBBIT might be co-opted into the launching pad for a bridge movie (or movies) covering the events between Bilbo's and Frodo's adventures turn out to be unfounded: this is Bilbo's story, told at full length.
My third is to puzzle out the changes and try to figure out why they made specific alterations, additions, interpretations. Some things the filmmakers changed jump right out (Azog didn't die at Azanulbizar?), while others are more subtle (Bilbo is a less gracious host to his uninvited guests) -- and some aren't changes so much as choices of emphasis (the dwarves' plate-clearing scene). I'm probably more sensitive to such changes than most, since I know the text of THE HOBBIT really well (something that comes with the territory of transcribing the entire manuscript and comparing it point-by-point with the published text, as well as having just re-listened to five adaptations or readings or abridged readings of the book).
So, with that in mind, on with the review (spoilers alert!)
The CastMartin Freeman is flat-out amazing as Bilbo. I'd been one of those who wished somehow that Ian Holm might be able to play the role despite his age, so good was he in the role in THE FELLOWSHIP, where his was one of the standout performances. Failing that, I've thought all along the perfect actor to play Bilbo wd be Hugh Laurie, who can do both comedy (Bertie Wooster) and drama (Dr. House) impressively. Freeman I'd only seen as the modern-day Doctor Watson in the recent BBC SHERLOCK, which I watched specifically to see what he was like***
Martin's performance is good enough to carry the movie, and I think will hold up better than Elijah Wood's has done for LotR (though to be fair Wood did a good job in the first film, which played to his strengths, and only faltered in the second and third, which didn't). But THE HOBBIT is both Bilbo's story AND v. much the story of Thorin and Company, and thus requires an ensemble cast that comprises its own Fellowship. Here Jackson must have been sorely tempted to reduce the number of dwarves from thirteen to the six or seven (Thorin, Balin, Bombur, Fili, Kili, and maybe Gloin or Dori) Tolkien gives a bit of personality to in the original.
Instead, Jackson decided to play fair and tackle the hardest task straightforwardly: keep all thirteen dwarves while differentiating between them. Most readers probably can't even name all the dwarves without checking the book, in which some only have a line or two of dialogue all story long, so this is quite a challenge. I'm glad to say they accomplished it w. great panache, albeit occasionally by falling back on silly beards/hair (I think poor Nori, with his starfish hair, drew the short end of the stick on this one). Some still fade into the background -- e.g., making Bifur mute from a head-injury was an interesting idea, but there are so many dwarves that the fact one never talks is hard to notice unless you know to look for it**** -- but still I was able to tell which dwarf was which all through the film, from prissy Dori to wickedly mischievous Bofur (who emerges as Bilbo's best friend among the dwarves) to little Ori. In short, Jackson managed to bring his full cast of all thirteen dwarves into play as individuals: quite an achievement, and one for which he shd receive due praise.
Oakenshield (Son of Thrain, son of Thror King-Under-the Mountain) is, after Bilbo and Gandalf, the film's main character (or, to phrase it differently, is the third of the film's three leads). I saw some reviewer (I forget which) describe him as Boromir and Aragorn in one, which more or less nails it. He's suitably Shakespearian, a la the Rohirrim in Jackson's TWO TOWERS, but I think needs to be made more sympathetic if the audience is to root for him. The book's Thorin is an admirable, honorable character who essentially goes mad at the end and behaves in all sorts of uncharacteristic ways, driven by the Dragon-sickness. The film's Thorin v. much carries the seeds of that all along; he's brave and loyal but also capricious and bitter. This makes him complex, and early on lays the groundwork for what's to come later -- but it also means the big surprise of the reversal Tolkien builds towards isn't likely to come as a surprise to anybody, which wd be a shame. Let's hope for more camaraderie and less angst in the next film.
Radagast the Brown
I was greatly curious to see what they'd do with Radagast, having made myself mildly notorious for including a twelve-page essay on this character in my edition of a book in which he doesn't actually appear or have a single line of dialogue but is only referred to in passing. I was glad to hear he'd been included, and apprehensive to hear that Sylvester McCoy, the second-worst-ever DOCTOR WHO, was going to play him.***** I have to say, that as with my earlier misapprehensions about Christopher Lee as Saruman in Jackson's FELLOWSHIP, this is a case where I was totally wrong: McCoy does a great job. The bird-poop on the face was a mistake, as too the silly face when smoking (what is in Gandalf's pipe?), but those quibbles don't detract from an offscreen character brought into the main story and actually given something important to do. One of the most momentous changes between book and film is that Jackson collapses time so that the darkening of Greenwood the Great into Mirkwood is happening at the time of Bilbo's journey, not a thousand years or more in the distant past. Even the rabbit-sled, which I was inclined to mock from its brief glimpse in the trailer, turns out to be effective and amusing. In keeping with his disappearance from LotR (where his fate is never revealed by Tolkien), HOBBIT-movie Radagast's fate is unknown: the Shakespearean stage credit wd prob. read "EXIT, pursued by Wargs". Admit to being curious whether he'll re-appear in the second and/or third movies.
The Goblin King
Think the jury's still out on how well the grossly overpaunched Goblin King came out. The first time through, I was put off by the mix of physical grossness and faux-suavity, while on the second viewing I thought it worked: like a pirate-king or bandit-king toying with his victims and playing to the crowd (i.e., his minions). The fact his eyes don't track may have had something to do with my ambivalence; makes him seems more like an effect than I like. Still, his last words were appropriate.
This scene changed a lot in detail, while keeping to the general outlines of Tolkien's story (i.e., beginning and ending at the same points). The new version wasn't bad (except for the gross-out joke) but don't really see it as any improvement over Tolkien's original: that's no doubt the purist in me. Tom is still the dumb one, and William the one with unexpected depths (here, an interest in cooking, including the finer points of seasoning); Bert is less the nasty one and more 'the other one'.
Azog the White
Rounding out the new cast is the continuing villain, Azog the orc-king, atop his great white warg. In the largest departure from the original in the film, Jackson et al has taken the Company's pursuit by goblins after their escape from the Misty Mts (which Beorn warns them is still afoot as they prepare to leave his steading) and woven it back into the story starting much earlier, while the dwarves are still west of the mountains and approaching Rivendell. It then becomes a recurring element in the story, just as interference from Saruman was in the latter half of Jackson's FELLOWSHIP. So far he's just a fantasy movie monster-villain, right down to the scene of his killing a henchman for bringing him bad news. We'll have to see how this character develops in the second and third film -- as a nemesis, I suspect he'll be overshadowed by the dark forces gathering at Dol Guldur, which is most effectively sinister and spooky in the glimpses we've seen of it so far.
Smaug, the Chiefest and Greatest of Calamities
The movie was v. coy about the major villain of the story. The first time we see the dragon, my first thought was "huh. what a terrible special effect", only to realize they'd done a fake-out: that first dragon is a child's toy, a dragon-kite (you did remember that Dale was famous for its toysmiths, right?). Then comes Smaug's attack, ruthless and devastating and unstoppable. But through it all we never see the dragon himself, just the effects of his attack (the fiery breath, the shattered trees, &c) and his sinister shadow. At the v. end of the movie we get a fleeting glimpse: a single nostril and a single eye, emerging from where the great dragon lies buried under the even greater pile of treasure.
So, Jackson showed his major villain in the opening scenes in THE LORD OF THE RINGS, but here he's keeping his powder dry and saving the big reveal for film two: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG.
December 13th, 2013. I can hardly wait.
Next Up: Returning Characters
......................................*certainly don't ever need to do that again. Almost three hours of wearing glasses over my glasses, ugh. And dark glasses at that, for someone who suffers from night blindness.
**which I reviewed, back in the day, for Wizards of the Coast (wotc.com)
***his SHERLOCK partner in crime, Benedict Cumberbatch, got not one but two voiceover roles, but for this first film is limited to just a single line of blurred dialogue (as The Voice of the Necromancer).
****it's also hard to notice the axe-blade buried in his head; unless you know what it is, you're likely to take it for just another dwarven hair- or beard- ornament. Bifur does speak Khuzdul once, to Gandalf, but again you have to watch closely not to miss that one exchange.
*****the bottom rung being reserved for Colin Baker's Sixth Doctor. To be fair, McCoy's Seventh Doctor did have his moments, esp. early on in his run, but not even gosh-awful scripts can excuse his overall standard of hapless mugging (just look at Patrick Troughton for an example of good acting rising above dodgy scripts)