There was a time when The Hobbit trilogy was a trilogy. There was a time when The Hobbit Trilogy was not meant to be directed by Peter Jackson. But with the departure of slated director Guillermo del Toro someone saw an opportunity to milk the Tolkien cash cow as much as possible, so a book that would have worked nicely as one film but perhaps grander as two was fleshed out, filled and fattened to form a full trilogy of films, on a scale so epic Jackson really was the only man to occupy the director’s chair.
As a result of it’s impossible not to compare this series of films to The Lord Of The Rings films that went before. Because in many ways The Hobbit Trilogy feels like a remake of those films rather than the prequels intended. You have the quest to a far off mountain, the politics of various factions all warring against each other, the seething undercurrent of back-stabbing and the endless metaphors for war, refugees, weapons of mass destruction and the right to govern.
Before we had Frodo, now we have the more likable Bilbo, played with a witty, stiff upper lip British sense of humour by Martin Freeman. In place of Gollum we have the gold addicted Thorin (Richard Armitage), instead of reluctant leader Aragon we have Bard The Bowman (Luke Evans) and then we have familiar faces, Ian McKellen’s Gandalf remains a franchise highlight while Orlando Bloom’s Legolas remains little more than a pouting stern face. Throw in various skirmishes all culminating in an earth-shattering battle and The Hobbit Trilogy rarely tries to separate itself from its superior big brother.
Familiar as it might feel though in many ways this is what you came for; that chance to explore Middle Earth again, that world so complete, so compelling, so reminiscent to ours yet just fantastic enough to allow for thrills rather than judgment that you feel like you’re home.
The characters here often feel less black and white than in The Lord Of The Rings, there’s a moral ambiguity which makes for a compelling, if slower narrative arc. There is no outright “villain” but rather differing groups all with their own agenda that make for intrigue akin to that other great piece of fantasy currently basking in the zeitgeist spotlight; Game Of Thrones. Like Thrones Jackson is never short on inventive and smile inducing moments of creative brilliance. The addition of Smaug, easily one of the Tolkien Franchise’s most brilliant characters and voiced with an intellectual creepiness to rival a Bond villain by Benedict Cumberbatch, is a welcome one. In the final film the beasts and creatures that aid in The Battle Of Five Armies are always jaw-droppingly brilliant, the moment the Dune like worms appear from beneath the ground will have you whooping for joy.
And therein lies the excellence and highlight of The Hobbit Trilogy; that while in many ways it feels like more of the same, Jackson, his writing team of Phillipa Boyens, Fran Walsh and Guillermo del Toro, not to mention the wondrous effect wizards at Weta Digital, have built and immersed us in a stunning world. Once again New Zealand’s sprawling vistas take pride of place, so much so you wonder if it might be better for global tourism to start referring to New Zealand as Middle Earth.
Are The Hobbit films on a par with The Lord Of The Rings films? No, not by a long shot, but those films were, at the time, so staggeringly ambitious they arguably launched us into the current state of vast tent-pole movies. Those multi-filmic stories that shoot back-to-back films, that take a gamble on the first film doing enough box office business to justify the next installment. The Hobbit films have essentially taken a leaf from the Marvel school of thought; wherein you give the audience more of the same but throw in a few new characters here and there, up the ante and dazzle even further with the effects.
A sprawling and eye-popping adventure based on a prologue to the main course, The Hobbit Trilogy doesn’t always satisfy but it does enough to dazzle with endless visual finesse and flourish as to be transported to a magnificent world.