I loved the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy. I’ve got the DVDs, Blu-rays, extended edition. I spent hours watching all the ancillary materials, commentaries. My daughter walked down the aisle to one of the film trilogy’s musical themes (her choice, not mine). I even have the Trivial Pursuit Lord of the Rings Edition game. So it was with high expectations (despite the reviews) that I dragged my son and husband to the IMAX to see part one of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.
The movie recounts the beginning of Bilbo’s (Martin Freeman, Watson on the BBC Sherlock Holmes series) adventure preceding the events of Fellowship of the Ring. Gandalf (Sir Ian McKellen) enlists the young Hobbit, living too contented a life, to aid a band of landless dwarfs reclaim their kingdom. Along the way, Bilbo faces dangers and delights, elves, orcs, goblins, and of course his first meeting with Gollum (Any Serkis).
Although the movie looks beautiful, the use of 3D effective and immersive (although somehow, for some reason Rivendell doesn’t seem quite as striking as I’d found it in the original trilogy), I found that it did not grab me the same way Fellowship of the Ring’s had, all those years ago.
The Hobbit is not a bad movie, and I didn’t find myself peeking at my watch, even at a 2:38 minute running time. If I gave star ratings, I’d probably give it three stars out of five. Freeman makes a great Bilbo Baggins, bewildered at the adventure in which he’s reluctantly found himself. McKellen brings a profound world-weariness to Gandalf; he is far more haggard than at the start of Fellowship, and much in need of spark and inspiration. And it is jarring (in a good way) to see Saruman (Christopher Lee) as the wise and benevolent white wizard he had been back in the day before being seduced by Sauron’s power. Hugo Weaving and Cate Blanchett also reprise their LOTR elven roles.
The film gets off to a very clunky start, and I think the beginning might have benefitted from tighter and less self-indulgent editing. The scene in which we are introduced to Bilbo’s dwarf companions is far too long and too silly, and does little make them sympathetic. Why should we care about such badly behaved buffoons?
Yes, their land was taken from them by force, but they weren’t such nice guys in the first place. And when we learn the Elves did nothing to support them when the Orcs laid siege to their mountain castle, I really can’t say I blamed them. And, here, I think, lies one of the movie’s biggest weaknesses. The Hobbit is simply not as compelling a story as Lord of the Rings, or even its first part, Fellowship of the Ring. And this very long film takes a one-third slice of that very slim novel and tries to present it as something it’s not, nor likely never intended to be.
I’ve only read The Hobbit once, and that was many, many years ago. And to be honest, I don’t remember that much about the novel except that it didn’t quite grab me. It’s a small volume, the story simpler, a child’s tale, a prelude to the complex and devastating heroic quest that lay ahead in Lord of the Rings. So my perspective is not as a Tolkien purist, or even someone who cherishes the novel. And maybe it’s unfair to compare the two, really: the prelude and the magnum opus. But, by developing The Hobbit into a trilogy in its own right, Jackson invites the comparison.
At its heart, Lord of the Rings is dual heroic journey: one belonging to Frodo and the other to Aragorn. Frodo’s quest is to rid himself of the ring and destroy the evil that threatens Middle Earth; his quest profoundly changes him (as Bilbo’s does in The Hobbit). It is a story of sacrifice and growth, faith and hope.
Aragorn’s quest is perhaps the more compelling; it is a story of redemption: a man beaten down by the ages, now inspired by the courage of a small hobbit to ultimately take his place as a great leader and bring his world out of darkness. It is a classically romantic tale, and what gave the story its depth and richness, even if you didn’t get into the subtext and metaphor of it all.
Part of me likes the idea of exploring even a novel as short as The Hobbit expansively, mining it for detail and texture. On the other hand, I can’t find it in me to grant equal weight to Tolkien’s masterwork and the earlier work. The book doesn’t deserve three nearly three-hour movies. One-third of The Hobbit does not equal the whole of Fellowship of the Ring.
Yes, I know Jackson mined Tolkien’s other works to add depth to Bilbo’s tale. But the result is a movie a bit too flabby, too many battles, none of them really memorable. There is no Helm’s Deep here, no Osgiliath, no Isengard. Instead, we get Orcs, Goblins, more Orcs and more Goblins all try to thwart the merry band of dwarves. There is just nothing epic to care about here. At the end of Fellowship I couldn’t wait for The Two Towers to premiere. And while I will undoubtedly see part two of The Hobbit when it comes out in theaters, I do not feel the same tug of anticipation for the next leg of Bilbo’s journey I’d felt for Frodo, Aragorn and company.
As an adventure movie with lots of fighting, anachronistic (and occasionally) amusing jokes, it’s a fun romp. Just don’t go in with heightened expectations and you’ll have an enjoyable experience.