…or rather, a long expected one. Was there ever any doubt that this day would arrive? Astronomical box office figures for “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy as a whole and a clean sweep at the Oscars for its final installment all but guaranteed that Tolkien’s prelude to the epic, “The Hobbit,” would be brought to the big screen. What was surprising was how long it eventually took. Directorial changes, legal disputes and fiscal troubles span a nearly 10 year gap between “Return of the King” and our return to Middle Earth. And it seems, for better or worse, that the filmmakers want to reward our wait with sheer volume, splitting an otherwise simple story into not two but THREE separate (and most likely 3-hour-long) installments, starting with this one subtitled “An Unexpected Journey.”
For those unfamiliar with the source material, “The Hobbit” precedes the “Rings” trilogy both chronologically and in original publication order. It tells the story of Frodo’s uncle Bilbo Baggins who undertakes a life-changing adventure which shakes him out of his comfortable existence and turns him into the mischevious old fellow that we met in the previous films.
The quirk of these tomes is that reading order almost dictates preference. While both tales share the fully-realized world of Tolkien’s imagination, they are tonally diverse. And as you’ve just gotten used to one, you’re a bit upended by the other. At the very least, that was my experience. So approaching it coming off of the epic and apocalyptic “Return of the King,” I was a bit struck…okay, a bit bored actually by the simplicty and innocence of “The Hobbit” in contrast to its more grandiose brethren. However, more than tone, what will probably be the defining demarcation between the film adaptations is one of scope. “The Lord of the Rings” was printed as three volumes (though originally written as one) and as such ably supports three separate films. “The Hobbit” is one book split into Three. Very. Long. Movies.
If you’ve been reading my reviews for awhile now, you’re likely to have come across a few, fairly extensive gripes about Hollywood’s tendency to stretch out the last piece of a popular franchise. It’s a cheap money grab when it’s “Twilight” and I’m afraid it’s no different here. However, many readers have obsessively pored over J.R.R. Tolkien’s work for decades now. It’s a world so richly imagined that people actually subject themselves to reading a fictional historical work called “The Similarion,” apart from merely revisiting the core novels. So there is a group of fans out there that might not take as much umbrage to Peter Jackson’s languid stroll through Tolkien’s tale since he allegedly pulls from that work, appendices and author notes to fill out the story.
Quite frankly, it’s difficult even for even the most casual moviegoer to be too hard on Jackson, returning as director after initially demuring from the task. There are poetic little moments in this movie that would have even this jaded reviewer believe that I could spend two hours traipsing through a beautifully-transformed New Zealand without a single narrative thread to lead me along. But then there are the other times where I’m reminded of how long I’ve been sitting in the theater and that there is STILL a story to be told that’s barely gotten started. In the end, as much as I have loved Jackson’s previous efforts with Tolkien’s material, this time we may just have a bit too much of a good thing.
Looking past the inherent pacing problems, the endeavor is not entirely without merit. There are a couple of wonderfully staged and ambitious action sequences that take us through dizzying environs against swarming foes. Nothing quite on the scale of the stand at Helm’s Deep from “The Two Towers” but exciting and immersive nonetheless. Using the aforementioned notes and other works, Jackson and his screenwriting team also pepper subtle and interesting tie-ins to the previous trilogy in what amounts to retroactive foreshadowing (yup, that hurt my brain, too).
Also, while Ian Holm returns to the title role briefly in a framing narrative, he is succeeded shortly thereafter by Martin Freeman. Freeman has an extensive resume, but you owe yourself a viewing of his work as John Watson in the BBC series ”Sherlock.” Trust me, at the very least you’ll appreciate the other tie-in to that series in the second installment of this one. Here, he does a marvelous and almost seamless job of stepping into Holm’s shoes…or hairy lack thereof. Besides Holm, we have a multitude of familiar faces passing through the frames, most notably Ian McKellen reprising his role as Gandalf the Grey. He and director Jackson subtly portray him as a bit less self-sure and powerful than the Gandalf we’ve met before, implying a sort of character development in reverse due to the structuring of this outing as a prequel. Finally, one of the most difficult aspects of the book was the nearly indistinguishable characters of the dwarves. And there are thirteen of them, all practically introduced at once. With so many such characters we still don’t really get to know all of them individually very well in the film either, but having visual references does wonders in helping us tell them apart.
Overall, I’m still not entirely certain that I’m glad for this return to Middle Earth if it means 9 dragging hours instead of a crisply-paced single narrative as it was originally written. But many others will most likely succumb to the charm and familiarity of Jackson’s spectacular production values and Tolkien’s endearing story. Still I’m holding out hope that when all is said and done, instead of Extended Editions like we got with “The Lord of the Rings,” maybe there’ll be special edition DVD that edits the story together into one singular tale as it was before. There and back again, indeed.