There’s been a lot of criticism directed at the recent Hobbit films, the first one especially, some of it deserved but a lot of which is pretty unfair. They came from troubled beginnings, with a legal dispute delaying production for so long that original director Guillermo del Toro left to pursue other projects, and Peter Jackson had to put his own plans on hold to come in and take up the reins. Of course, the biggest problem they face is that they stand in the shadow of Jackson’s own outstanding, game-changing Lord of the Rings film trilogy – a comparison that pretty much any series is going to come up short in.¬†Functioning as prequels to those movies, they’re clearly not as good, but they’re based (mainly) on a less impressive and more childish Tolkien work, and when taken on their own merits – and watched as the “Extended Edition” versions on DVD and Blu-ray – they’re still hugely impressive examples of large-scale filmmaking craft.

Probably the most whined-about complaint of these movies has been how a relatively short novel has been expanded into the same number of films as The Lord of the Rings, which is more than five times as long in terms of word count. Of all the criticisms directed at the project, this actually has the least validity, for a number of reasons. Firstly, the LOTR trilogy cut a lot of stuff out from the original book, and usually with good reason (no thank you, Tom Bombadil), and secondly this new set of films, as Jackson has repeatedly explained ad nauseam, isn’t just an adaptation of the Hobbit novel – it incorporates numerous events that occurred off-page at the time, which we only found out were happening later in The Lord of the Rings and its appendices (which are as long as the book itself). The Hobbit is also a strange novel in many ways, with characters disappearing for long stretches with little explanation and major events taking place while its protagonist is asleep – things which simply wouldn’t work onscreen. So for all the sneering about the franchise being milked, there are solid reasons for three films being made, and for additional scenes to be added in the Extended Editions.

Some of the changes made by the screenwriters (where del Toro retains his credit) have also come under fire – but again, these are mostly responses to perfectly valid issues with the original book. There is no real discernible antagonist in the novel, and so the roles of Azog and his son Bolg are beefed up somewhat here, as is the revelation that a major villain from the original trilogy is alive and well. Also, even the critically-lauded Lord of the Rings films were accused of lacking many decent roles for women, and this would have been even more of a problem with The Hobbit, as the original book is a complete sausage festival – it literally does not have a single named speaking female character. So with two of the four screenwriters being women, it’s hardly surprising that the¬†role of Tauriel was conceived specifically for the film. Purists might have balked, but one can’t help but think the writers were damned either way with this problem, and it’s obviously refreshing to have a more balanced gender spread.

Some of the more reasonable critiques surround the use of special effects. It’s difficult to overstate just how remarkable the combination of CGI, greenscreen, model work and life-size props was on the LOTR films – Middle-Earth was literally constructed before our eyes and was seamlessly presented as a tangible, believable place. With the new Hobbit films, Jackson has perhaps leaned a little too heavily on CGI, making things seems cartoonish at times (although the source material is considerably more juvenile, so perhaps that’s quite apt). However, there are still absolute triumphs of technical achievement to marvel at here – most prominently the titular Smaug, who is one of cinema’s most vividly-realised dragons, as much a relatable character as Gollum was in the previous films. There is also an extraordinary sequence here involving a barrel-escape down a river, which includes the remarkable sight of 200 million dollar blockbuster action sequence being shot on a handheld GoPro camera, lending proceedings an air of realism that’s downright bizarre.

Of course, for all this quibbling about its flaws, the strengths of these films are very unfairly overlooked. They still have most of the stunning qualities that made the preceding trilogy so memorable – the amazing New Zealand landscape, a strong cast who work wonders with material that is downright hammy on the page, and a delightfully macabre sense of humour (something Jackson has his roots in, and del Toro no doubt exacerbated). With this film in particular, Howard Shore does a wonderful job with the musical score, bringing new melodies to the table rather than recycling the old hits, and painting an intriguing soundscape of Dwarven songs and naturalised music. The Extended Edition also smooths along the narrative of the theatrical cut, including several key scenes from the book which were sadly jettisoned and even provides a re-edit of some of them with different characters present. This is the definitive version of a profoundly impressive film, and raises hopes for a spectacular conclusion next month.

THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG
All right, it's not as good as the Lord of the Rings films7
It's still pretty damn impressive in its own right though, especially the Extended Edition9
Highly sensible changes made to the flawed source material9
Most of the special effects sequences (especially the non-CGI ones)8
The look of the film, the sound of it, 90% of the things that made the LOTR trilogy so impressive10
Bechdel Test Passes
  • Features more than one named female character
Bechdel Test Failures
  • None of the female characters talk to each other
9Overall Score

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