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When Peter Jackson announced that his adaptation of the children’s book by J.R.R. Tolkien would span three movies, a shadow and a threat began to form in my mind. It made sense to film the three volumes of The Lord of the Rings as a trilogy—there was so much to cram into ten hours of film—but The Hobbit is a much smaller book and its plot not as grand.
Whispers of a nameless fear…except that this fear has a name, and it’s Phantom Menace. No! Would Jackson go the way of George Lucas, be seduced by billion-dollar marketing tie-ins and cross over to the dark side? We have no problem with our idols getting rich off their work, we only wish them wealth and happiness, but there is a line they cannot cross, and it is named Jar-Jar Binks. Or Hayden Christensen, if you prefer to take umbrage at creatures that actually exist. In a move that has come down in Geek History as The Great Betrayal, Lucas made three execrable Star Wars prequels that had the effect of spoiling the three movies we loved. When someone watching the films in their current sequence hears Darth Vader say, “Luke, I am your father,” his reaction is no longer “What! Noooo” but “Duh.”
We were there when the strength of Lucas failed him. We paid money to watch that crap.
But what of Peter Jackson? Had his soul been corrupted by the One Ring? His films post-Lord of the Rings have been considered disappointments (We liked King Kong very much but have little opinion of The Lovely Bones, having slept through it). He needsss The Hobbit, preciousss, but must it be a trilogy? And would there be a Tickle-Me Smeagol doll?
One does not simply walk into Tolkien. There are geeks there, and they do not sleep.
It was with some trepidation that we went to a screening of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey last Thursday. We know the movie was shot in 3D, at 48 frames per second, but we were content to see the 2D version. Until local theatres get more comfortable 3D glasses, or a standard for theatres showing 3D is set (so we can get customized 3D glasses), or I get two nose-lifts, I am happy to pass on the alleged wonders of 3D. To my memory only Avatar and Hugo have been worth the more expensive ticket.
The movie opens in the Shire, at the exact same point The Fellowship of the Rings begins, with old Bilbo (Ian Holm) and Frodo (Elijah Wood) preparing for the party. The connection to the previous movies having been established, we go 60 years into the past, to the day the younger Bilbo has his peaceful existence disrupted by a meddlesome wizard. It’s Gandalf, of course, and we have nothing left to say about the wonder of Ian McKellen’s performance, except to add that if you close your eyes you can still see everything through his voice. Martin Freeman (Dr. Watson from the British series Sherlock) is excellent as Bilbo, conveying with halting speech and tentative gestures a staid nature that is oddly drawn to adventure.
It is twenty minutes before we hear the first line of the book (“In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit”), and the rollicking introductions for each Dwarf tests my patience somewhat, but once Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) explains the mission, the movie is off and running. At last we see how Peter Jackson intends to fill up 9 hours of movie: with Tolkieniana. We don’t just hear about the treasure that the dragon Smaug stole from the Dwarves; we see the kingdom of Erebor, its rise and fall, the fate of the scattered dwarves and the vow of their exiled king, including the source of his nickname “Oakenshield.”
By the time the Dwarves sing “Far over the Misty Mountains cold” (Yes, like the Led Zeppelin song), we wonder if there is time enough. The movie is long, yes, excessive, maybe, but it is not slow. We do not recall so many battle scenes less than a third into the book, and this is not a complaint. Jackson is a specialist at spectacular yet coherent mayhem. Though we may know who lives and who dies, there is always a sense of mortal danger.
So The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is about a Hobbit recruited on an adventure to recover stolen treasure, and also about a displaced people trying to reclaim their homeland. The wealth of detail, including information gleaned from the appendices of The Lord of the Rings and Tolkien’s many other books (At last, your Silmarillion knowledge comes in handy!), may be too much for non-fans to take, but for those who loved the books and movies, it is pure delight. The filmmakers have lavished so much care and geek love on this project, we must withdraw our foul misgivings. Jackson has not kept the Ring for himself.
Characters from the previous films turn up: Elrond (Hugo Weaving), still ready for his shampoo commercial close-up; Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), gliding around constantly, for someone so otherworldly can’t just sit down; the elf known to fans as Figwit (Frodo is great, who is that?) whose name, it turns out, is Lindir; and the white wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee). In his hectoring, pedantic manner we sense that he may already be in cahoots with a certain evil growing in Mordor. (The evil one is in the process of reconstituting itself; by the time we get to The Fellowship of the Ring it has become the lidless eye, or as Teddyboy put it, a flaming vagina.)
Andy Serkis returns as Gollum, reminding the Academy that there should be a category for best human/CGI performance. The Riddles in the Dark scene with Gollum and Bilbo is astonishing, and it should be, as the foundation of the epic to come.
Of the new characters, I cannot yet tell the other Dwarves apart, though some are cuter than one expects of the species. Azog the pale Orc seems unfinished, but we recall how in the first movie Gollum wasn’t quite Gollum yet. The wizard Radagast the Brown, arriving with vital intel, is dopey from his consumption of shrooms. Orcs, goblins, wargs, trolls—it’s almost like shopping on the last weekend before Xmas.
If you are in a hurry, if you need quick amusement and want to get it over with, The Hobbit is probably not for you. If you are ready to immerse in a world far from the endless parties, enforced gaiety and Gangnam style dancing of the season, these three hours will be very rewarding. If you’re a Tolkienite, if you never memorized the periodic table because you were reading The Lord of the Rings during class, this review is redundant.