And if you’re like me, when you saw the trailer in the movie theater, you started saving the date. It hadn’t occurred to me at the conclusion of director Peter Jackson’s incredible movie trilogy of The Lord of the Rings that he had anywhere to go for an encore. I hadn’t thought of the obvious prequel opportunities of making a movie out of the first Tolkien book. The events of The Hobbit predate the adventures of Frodo and friends by 60 years and offer a bit more backstory. What’s more natural than finishing up with what started it all?
So is there new material there? Is there a reason to go see it, other than a need to fill your eye and ear with more movie magicka? That may depend on where you’re coming from. The title wasn’t wrong; the movie is an unexpected journey, and some viewers may leave a little disappointed.
Feasting your eyes on Middle Earth
But let’s start with what the movie gets right. Like the Ring series, the scenery and special effects are absolutely jaw-dropping. Maybe some people are tired of views of the saffron-lighted Rivendell or cathedral palaces carved into mountains, but I’m not. The incredible wild beauty of New Zealand deserves its own screen credit just as much as any of the big name actors, because without it, you wouldn’t believe the other events nearly so much.
And the acting and direction come up to that level of quality as well. These are scenes that require a sensitive touch. It would be easy to tip too far and get ponderous or in the other direction and be too lightweight. Between Ian McKellan’s classical brilliance as Gandalf and Martin Freeman’s friendly way as likable Bilbo, it’s easy to fall into line as the hobbit and the dwarves begin their quest.
And I wanted to stay there. But it was at around that point that I found myself starting to fidget. The problem is, the film does start to buckle under its own weight. It had to be one thing to Middle Earth purists; it had to be another for studio executives. I fear it tried to do both and got caught in the middle like the dwarves on a path between warring mountain giants.
Not all who wander are smart
There’s a tipoff to the problem in the title – The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Every Tolkien aficionado can tell you that the book’s title is The Hobbit, or There and Back Again. That name change came about from a need to take the shortest of Tolkien’s books and turn it into … another film trilogy, with every movie clocking in at about three hours.
So here you have some of the most beloved and most mythic fantasy literature of the last century, and you suddenly need to add material to it –- how do you do it? Well, you could do it by diving into the copious files of information that Tolkien himself provided in other books about Middle Earth. Or you could call on some of the talented, imaginative writers out there who would be hungry to provide something memorable, original and entertaining to suit the bill.
Or, you could do what these filmmakers did. You could dispense with good storytelling and just pad out every scene with long takes and down time. You could throw in scenes that don’t evoke a Tolkien epic as much as a Transformers outtake with very loud, very big monsters and fight scenes that always test so well with a young, impatient audience. Heck, you could also put in a long scene with trolls that allows for some booger humor –- the same audience is always looking for that. (Although I will note that in our theater, there were unattended children that weren’t at all interested in the action onscreen and kept up a steady barrage of talk and giggling for the length of the movie. Where’s a club-wielding orc when you need one?)
These are some of the things that made the movie’s 169 minutes seem about an hour too long. Though I have no qualifications to tell Peter Jackson what to do, for my money there were a lot of gratuitous scenes that could’ve been cut to make for a more worthwhile and less self-indulgent movie.
Gollum and cinematic gold
But that’s not to say I’m giving it thumbs down. How can you? With all its faults, it’s still one of the most thought-provoking things out there right now. If youngsters were losing their minds over the Twilight series and Hunger Games, they deserve something that after all these years has proven to be both timely and timeless. Adults need it, too. The Hobbit touches on themes of heroism and anti-heroism, perceived worth and real worth, greed and the results of greed. The best scenes in the movie, somewhat predictably, are the ones with the tormented and sinister Gollum in them. Here we see the sad beginnings of the grieving creature that tailed Frodo and Sam to Mount Doom. And for those unfamiliar with the books, you can answer the question of how it was that Frodo’s uncle acquired the One Ring in the first place.
It’s because of scenes like this that The Hobbit is ultimately a satisfactory experience, almost in spite of itself. With any luck, the second and third in this trilogy will fix the pacing and not depend on the good graces of the Tolkien-smitten audience. But even if they don't, you can look for me hogging one of the aisle seats on opening day. Because when a wizard asks you if you'll share in an adventure, the correct answer is always yes.