A wandering wizard, long haired and bearded, comes to dinner at the home of our short but stout hearted hero, who up till now has lived his life sequestered from the great world beyond. The worldly warlock invites our innocent friend to join him on a dangerous adventure–joining a party of embattled warriors in a long-odds quest to reclaim their occupied homeland from a powerful enemy. Along the way, our protagonist discovers his courage, and a powerful magic of his own, one which will eventually threaten to corrupt him and destroy the world. Ultimately, it will fall on the shoulders of his heir to confront this evil and purge it from the world. Meanwhile, the wizard must strive to persuade the other members of his council of wise elders that an ancient evil has escaped their notice and is emerging again. Little does he know that this evil also stands beside him in the form of his presumed ally…
But we’re not here to talk about The Phantom Menace, are we? No, we’re here for a different prequel trilogy. One which — a few excesses and a smidgen of awkwardness aside — still promises to be substantially superior to its space fantasy cousin.
After the success of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, it was probably inevitable that we’d eventually see its predecessor, J.R.R. Tolkien‘s more child-oriented, whimsical The Hobbit, get its own big adaptation. But it’s taken longer than planned. For a good long while, it was not Peter Jackson but none other than Guillermo Del Toro who was to direct two (not three) films based on the single-volume novel. This Hobbit still has some of Del Toro’s fingerprints on it–sequences involving the underground realms of the dwarf city of Erebor and the lair of the Goblin King have more than a whiff of his signature brand of mischievous whimsy.
Many of the weaknesses Hobbit has — especially when compared with Lord of the Rings — can truthfully be traced back to Tolkien’s novel. His cadre of thirteen heroic dwarves are never much differentiated, even their names serving mostly as lines in a jolly nursery rhyme (“Dori, Nori, Ori, Oin, Gloin…”). Jackson, along with his first-rate squad of costumers and make-up artists, manages to give each of them at least a little personality and flavor. But the story lacks intrinsic conflict — hardly any distinctive interactions at all, really — between the characters, as we saw for instance between Aragorn and Boromir, or Gimli and Legolas. We do get a little bit of tension between the eponymous hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman, probably the most perfect casting choice I’ve seen in years) and his skeptical dwarf companions, particularly their leader Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage, mostly just glowering nobly). Thorin himself seems to be alone against the world in his vendetta against the dragon, Smaug, who took away his family’s kingdom. And Gandalf (a very welcome returning Ian McKellen) spends plenty of time laying groundwork for a confrontation with the Necromancer (a villain only mentioned in the book, greatly expanded here for the sake of additional epic-ness) in future installments.
Probably the most commonly aired complaint about this Hobbit is that it takes a single, shorter novel and stretches it out into three fairly long movies. I remember this sort of tactic being advocated a decade ago by Tolkien fans bemoaning the absence of their beloved Tom Bombadil from the Fellowship of the Ring, and it seems Warner Bros. was only too happy to oblige them (ka-ching, ka-ching, ka-ching!). The result is a looser-paced epic, more akin to the Lord of the Rings extended cuts than their theatrical counterparts. But Jackson & Co. seem happy enough to indulge in the opportunity to explore more nooks and crannies in Middle Earth.
For my part, I was glad to indulge along with them. The story is, mostly by necessity, less gritty and more giddy than Rings. With all the dwarvish singing and cavorting, it really amounts to more of a jovial kind of musical-comedy-road-buddy picture. In fact, stay tuned for the third installment, Road to Erebor, starring a digitally resurrected Bob Hope and Bing Crosby! Well, maybe not, but at least we can look forward to a cameo from Stephen Colbert.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey may not be all things to all people, and it probably isn’t destined to rank as the classic that Lord of the Rings has become, but it’s still a beautifully shot, gleefully fun adventure, and I’m eager to see more of it. – [DVD] [Blu-Ray]
DVD Release Date: 3/19/13