Of all the films that could have done with an extended edition, this ain’t it.
Perhaps it was a natural move to make after the enormous success of the Lord of the Rings films in the early-2000s to adapt The Hobbit, the book that launched Middle Earth into hearts and minds in the first place. What wasn’t a natural move, however, was turning a singular book of a little over 300 pages into a trilogy of over-stuffed films that each clock in at over two-and-a-half hours, and then release an extended edition of these films. Films that were more padding than filling in the first place. These editions are basically the Wonderbra of cinema.
The extended editions of the LotR films at least made sense. Those were each an adaptation of a single book, each one more layered than that last with detail and worldbuilding, The Hobbit is not like these stories. It’s a much simpler narrative that maintains the rich world of its successors but doesn’t detail it quite as much. It was a story with a younger audience in mind, and to take that charming tale and stretch it into three films, never mind extended length films, is going to do the original story no favours at all.
I have long thought that buried somewhere amongst this trilogy there is enough for one truly great adaptation, if you take elements of each film, maybe two at a push, but as they stand, they’re bloated, meandering, and dull. There is greatness hidden in here, but it’s hidden behind a wall of padding and fan service, shoehorned into a narrative that didn’t really need it; but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm/Martin Freeman) is a hobbit living an idyllic, peaceful, and adventure-free life in The Shire when he is visited by the great wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) who is looking for someone to share an adventure with. Despite his best protestations, he is roped into a quest to take back a great Dwarf kingdom from the dragon, Smaug, accompanied by thirteen dwarves. Along the way, they will encounter all the perils that Middle Earth has to offer as they fight their way towards The Lonely Mountain…
The over-riding feeling I get from The Hobbit films is one of disappointment. I was late to the Middle Earth fan train, I must admit, but after seeing the extended editions of The Lord of the Rings, I was taken in hook, line, and sinker. The way the world was so lovingly realised and presented by Peter Jackson made them seem like such a labour of love; something painstakingly assembled by a talented crew. In contrast, The Hobbit seems to be a product that is more interested in satisfying shareholders.
Don’t get me wrong, there are elements of the things we loved about LotR here, the visual design, the setting, and the performances are all still there, but the product lacks that feeling of craftsmanship that the first trilogy has. It feels more cynical, a matter not helped by artificially extending its run time into three films, requiring the use of copious amounts of filler, and elements not included in the original text.
When I think of the experience of sitting through the extended LotR films, I remember the time flying by. The three-plus hours feeling like no more than two hours as I became more absorbed in the epic narrative. This film just felt like a slog in parts, despite being shorter than any LotR film. It doesn’t justify its runtime like those films did. They needed to be long because there was so much to include; whereas these films feel like they’re making things up in order to make the film longer.
The nadir of this for me came in a scene quite close to the climax of the film involving Bilbo and Gollum (Andy Serkis) the famous halfling monster who was arguably the breakout character in LotR. The scene involves the two characters playing riddles with each other, they challenge one another to solve their riddles, and this goes on for fifteen minutes, while the plot screeches to a halt in order to spotlight Gollum’s appearance. It’s an agonisingly dull scene in a film that was already dragging its feet as it crossed the two-hour mark with no end apparently in sight.
It’s especially disappointing given the obvious passion on display from those on-screen. Old hands like Ian McKellen and Ian Holm slip back into their roles as if they never left them, and new face Martin Freeman perfectly inhabits Bilbo Baggins in his younger days, lending the character his streak of cheeky charisma and every-man lovability. The old guard get their moments too, McKellen gets most of the screen time given his characters key role in the story, but it was nice to see familiar faces re-acquaint themselves with their famous roles.
The visual effects and music are also as stunning as they were during our first trip to Middle Earth, albeit leaning more heavily on the CGI this time, it would seem. The original trilogy’s effects have the ageless quality of combining practical and computer-generated effects, the drawback of relying on CGI is when technology inevitably moves on, it ages your film. Having said that this films aesthetic was very much in line with LotR’s and still looks spectacular.
The film does have its exciting moments too, don’t get me wrong, the final sequence with the orcs. The stone giants scene also stands out, but they’re buried beneath fluff and filler, like a very disappointing ice cream sundae. They went overboard with the squirty cream and shirked on the filling, so to speak.
While Peter Jackson is still the quintessential Middle Earth director, it feels like he’s starting to run out of steam in this trilogy, perhaps his heart wasn’t in it like it once was. Given that he wasn’t original scheduled to direct, that might well be the case, but I can’t help but feel like this trilogy is a vastly inferior product to the old trilogy. Even this film, which is probably the pick of the bunch in my mind, feels like it’s just filling time. They obviously had the story to tell but were determined to make it as long a journey as possible, no matter the length of the book they were adapting. That could be because they felt their audience expected the films to be lengthy, given what had come before. Or maybe it was for more cynical reasons of making more money over three films, rather than making one or two Hobbit films that could have really done the story justice. I can’t help but feel that my disappointment will worsen as the series wears on.