I have seen Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings film trilogy more times than I can count, but have not read J.R.R. Tolkien’s book. And, although I read The Hobbit when I was in middle school, I don’t remember much about it. Therefore, in considering the merits of Jackson’s latest film, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, I’m not equipped to compare it with the books or even the Tolkien universe more broadly. Still, the new film, the first in a trilogy based on Tolkien’s book of the same name, is meant to stand on its own merits. So I must disagree with the man behind me in the theater who was arguing (loudly) with his friend that one simply must read the book’s appendices to understand what was going on. (He was, however, dressed as Gandalf, so perhaps his view comes with some wisdom.)
Not only did I understand the film, I enjoyed it—which, in fact, is the real obstacle to my reviewing it. It’s difficult to review a movie that I really enjoy. Because I had such a wonderful time, it can be tough to pick out—or to care about—about what makes the movie objectively good or bad.
I wanted to see the same breathtaking, sweeping panoramas of Middle Earth I was so familiar with from the first trilogy. I wanted Howard Shore’s music to transport me to that world. I wanted dazzling special effects, battles and the thrill of a journey. I wanted Gandalf, Bilbo, Elrond, Galadriel or one of those many Dwarves or Elves to give me some wisdom or some new way of thinking about my life. I was not disappointed.
The story is perhaps best characterized by its iconic first line, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” It is simple and it completely captures Bilbo Baggins, artfully portrayed by Martin Freeman. We meet Bilbo at a time in his life when nothing unexpected is happening. Unexpectedly, Gandalf (once again played by Sir Ian McKellen) arrives with a large band of humorously-coiffed Dwarves, and invites Bilbo on an adventure.
Bilbo would rather stay at home with his books, maps, doilies and his mother’s china, but Gandalf tells him that the world is “out there” and not in those things. The next morning, filled with regret about declining the offer, Bilbo rushes to catch up with the Dwarves who have just left. He leaves his hobbit hole to go on an adventure to help the Dwarves reclaim their homeland from Smaug, an evil dragon.
So I enjoyed the film, but was it a triumph? Probably not: Almost none of the new characters are memorable. Howard Shore’s score gives us no new tunes to hum; instead it’s basically a “Lord of the Rings” greatest hits album. Too much time and energy is spent on ponderous backstory and prologues. The band of Dwarves spends far too long lost in the Goblin underground city.
Jackson’s reliance on computer-generated images is painfully obvious when looking at the Goblins and many woodland creatures (including some pretty darned quick rabbits). The Wargs (think wolves crossed with dinosaurs), Orcs (think tall, leprechaun zombies), and their albino Orc general are hardly believable.
Much has been made of Jackson’s decision to use the hyper-clear 48 frame-per-second format over the standard 24 frames-per-second. It is distractingly jarring and seemed to declare war on my imagination, which longed to fill in the details on its own.
Jackson wants to go back to the world of the original trilogy and a story that we are familiar with. But in doing so, it feels as though he is trying to shoe-horn his structure from “Lord of the Rings” around a story whose overgrown hobbit foot is a different shape altogether. Jackson ignores the intimate nature of the book and Bilbo’s story in general. His attempt to stay on the mountaintop, as it were, does not work because The Hobbit is about really leaving on an adventure only to learn that one really cannot come back home again.
Still, there are many times when“The Hobbit” does shine. The film is at its best when we see Bilbo in his various struggles. The Dwarves do not accept him at first, and he must work to gain their trust and admiration. He desperately misses his armchair and books as he struggles with homesickness. Because of the love of his own home, he gives of himself to help the Dwarves return to theirs.
I should not neglect Andy Serkis’ masterful portrayal of Gollum in his reprise of this role. In the midst of their haunting game of riddles, Freeman and Serkis provide a scene that elicits genuine emotion in the audience. The whole history of Middle Earth flashed in my memory when the One Ring falls out of Gollum’s pocket. When he shrieks in his bone-chilling sprechstimme, “We hates [Bilbo] forever!” I immediately remembered a power-crazed Gollum leaping onto an invisible Frodo and gnawing off his finger at the end of “Return of the King” to get back his “precious.”
Jackson’s film does its best to draw out some of Tolkien’s more religious themes. Readers familiar with the St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises may recall the exercise entitled “The Call of the King,” from the beginning of the Second Week, while viewing Balin (the second-in-command Dwarf) tell the story of how he comes to follow Thorin: “…there is one I could follow…and one I could call king.”
One cannot help but see echoes of the apostles in the “few in number and not the brightest” Dwarves who accompany their leader in their return home. And in a moment of vocation promotion, Thorin notes that those who share the banquet with him at the beginning of the film are those who have answered the call.
We even see traces of St. Thérèse’s little way in the explanation Gandalf gives to Galadriel as to why he has selected Bilbo to accompany the group of Dwarves: “Saruman believes that it is only great power that can hold evil in check. That is not what I have found. I have found that it is the small things, every day deeds from ordinary folk, that keeps the darkness at bay. Simple acts of kindness and love.”
It is probably best to wait until the whole “Hobbit” trilogy is complete before making final judgment on the first part. (The next two films are scheduled for December 2013 and July 2014.) Even though some portions of the film need more than polish, I’m confident that I’ll go see “The Hobbit” again in theaters. And if Middle Earth is a world in which a piece of you lives, if curious creatures like hobbits capture your imagination like they do Gandalf’s, and if you want to try to go back home again, you should see it, too.