Short, spoiler-free review: if you liked Jackson’s LOTR movies, you will probably like this as well.
In overall quality I would compare it to Two Towers — spectacular and entertaining, but not the jaw-dropping revelation that was Jackson’s movie version of Fellowship. I am okay with that. The Hobbit — as a book — is one of my favorites, but not quite OMG THE BEST THING EVER IN THE HISTORY OF THINGS like LOTR, and even when reading LOTR I strongly favor the first volume. (Viscerally described by the relative trashedness of my beloved Hobbit/LOTR in 3 paperbacks boxed set that I got for Christmas when I was 11. Fellowship is the only one where its spine has to be held together with tape. Hobbit is easily the most intact.)
Where was I? Oh, yeah. Tired. Trying to collect my thoughts. Anyway, based purely on source material, The Hobbit was bound to be awesome but not quite as awesome as some of what preceded it. Things that are every bit as awesome this time around:
The cast. Martin Freeman is superb as Bilbo, the dwarves are good (and thanks for making Thorin and Kili notably babealicious, Jackson) , and of course SIR IAN MCKELLAN is Gandalf (he really is, I’m pretty sure)
Gollum. Andy Serkis does a great job with the performance, the animators do a great job with the animation, and GOLLUM IS ALWAYS THE COOLEST. Overheard on the way out of the women’s restroom: “Gollum is soooooo cute!” And he is. And horrifying. And pitiable. And hilarious. And… you know, he’s Gollum. Who doesn’t love Gollum? Nobody, that’s who. Even hobbitses love him, in spite of themselves. (Somebody out there has written Sam/Gollum slash. Right?)
Middle-Earth looks fantastic and epic and gorgeous and makes you want to go camping, because it’s still played by New Zealand.
Set design, costuming, etc. so forth. Beautiful attention to detail. (including calligraphy close-ups, although some of us will note that Bilbo is writing in bold, rounded letters instead of his “spidery hand” as described in LOTR. I am nerdy enough to notice this, but not nerdy enough to care. Much.)
The adaptation. For the most part, these are the characters and events I already love, translated effectively into movie form, but because the 3-movie structure has changed the shape of the story, there are places where I felt the distortion had robbed it of something — that ineffable thing that makes the difference between a truly compelling story and a bunch of stuff that happens. Only in places, though. But I think it’s another reason this movie isn’t as stunning as Fellowship: that one followed the structure of the book pretty closely, and hey, you already know it works.
The movie mostly nails its biggest challenge, which is bridging the gap between the lighter, goofier, kid’s-book tone of The Hobbit with the more serious world of LOTR.
Some of this is very prequel-esque, where he puts on screen the signs that people like Gandalf (and Galadriel and Saruman, in brief cameos) were seeing that (we know) indicate Sauron’s rise back to power. This part is okay, but feels a little perfunctory. The plot logic is there, but the emotional resonance isn’t.
Exception: Radagast, the goofy wizard, had some of my least favorite and most favorite not-in-the-book scenes.
The movie also works to drive up the stakes for the dwarves — it’s not a simple quest for treasure per se, it’s a quest to reclaim their homeland. Some of the dialog pushing that aspect feels a little forced, but overall I liked it as a story choice.
Like LOTR It begins with a narrated prologue — a good choice in theory — but while it has fantastic visuals on the dwarf kingdom at its height, the actual words seem a bit weak, and the whole thing goes on too long. So it’s not a promising introduction.
There are, yes, a few scenes that feel a bit stretchy. Only a few, which is good. But when you blow up a relatively short novel into 3 epic movies, there is no excuse for any stretchiness whatsoever. You could have made them three somewhat shorter movies, okay? Everything doesn’t have to be three hours long.
Sometimes — I’m not sure if it’s caused by the infamous 48 fps, or if the 3D, or if it’s just how Jackson decided to film things, but sometimes everything on screen starts looking weirdly fake. Not painting-fake, which can look good — more like cheap videotape/plastic lawn fake. But only sometimes.
Dwarf noses. I don’t know why he gave so many of them (but not all of them, see, Thorin and Kili above) weird, bulbous noses. The book describes dwarves as “bearded” and Bombur is “fat” but beyond that, any sense of their appearance is conveyed by personality. So Thorin is brave and leaderly, but a bit pompous, and Fili and Kili are young and vigorous, and Bombur is fat, and… really, that’s all I’ve got. I’ve read the book many times and I still can’t tell all the dwarves apart. I always thought that was kind of the point. From Bilbo’s perspective, they’re a great big pile of dwarves.
Anyway, I didn’t fall asleep, which is actually a pretty good measure all by itself — when you start watching a movie at midnight, the slightest hint of boredom is usually snooze time.