How best to review a movie that returns to a world that ended ten years ago, Especially one as memorable and well known as Tolkien’s Middle Earth? While other franchises (Read MIB3, Scary Movie 4) are anchored mostly to the characters, The Hobbits positioning as a prequel set 20 years before most of the Ring’s characters were born would seem to throw this out the door, or rather, it would like to, but an introduction featuring Ian Holm and Elijah Wood as Bilbo and Frodo respectively seem intent that we should not forget these characters. The irony of course is that the Bilbo in this tale (Played with deadpan charm and puckish daring by Sherlock actor Martin Freeman) has so little to do with the one who sends Frodo on his quest that it’s not so much a reunion as it is the discovery of a rich secret life that makes him into an entirely new character.
This secret life is set into motion by Gandalf the Grey, (Ian McKellen, who puts on the cape and hat with a flourish as though he only sat them down a moment ago) the famously eccentric wizard of movies past, who recruit’s Bilbo to join Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage, mustering his kingly strength and stubbornness in equal measure) and his band of dwarfs to journey far to the Lonely Mountain and take back the Ancient mines of Erebor of their birthright, which has been claimed by the dreaded fire serpent Smaug. This journey is long, covering not nearly as much ground as the Fellowship’s of before, but has been split into three distinct parts in order to (Hopefully) return as much magic to the series as is possible.
During it’s course however, it becomes clear that Bilbo’s quest is only the tip of something greater that hints at a maleficent darkness growing in the land that Gandalf senses and yet feels powerless to stop. Watchers of the previous films know exactly what shadowy figures wielding swords of ghostly steel and clicking spiders of gargantuan size portend, but as Bilbo and his group largely do not, it’s hard to escape the sense that the journey they are embarking on is not nearly as remarkable as the one the viewers are privy to. The exception being of course his first meeting with the sinister yet pathetic humanoid creature Gollum (Andy Serkis in motion capture form, perhaps the most famous use of the technology to date), and his discovery of a certain ring that renders him invisible, but appears to posses a seductive will of it’s own…
It would seem disingenuous to mention The Hobbit in the same sentence as the startlingly inept Phantom Menace of years past, yet it is precisely appropriate because everything that PM did wrong or shoddily, Hobbit does correctly. It gives us more of the world without wrecking the one previously established, introduces characters and sets them on compelling paths that will result in the same people we know and love, and gives us a straightforward story that is thrilling to watch rather than exhausting to untangle. If it strains under the weight of including other known characters and introducing plot points that hardly seem relevant, it does so not out of trying to appeal to a fanboyistic love of itself, but the earnest attempt to invoke and perhaps remind us of why we loved this story in the first place.
The film’s character dynamic differs in appropriate fashion, showing Bilbo gaining the trust of his companions through feats of steadily increasing courage, and explicating the intense drive behind Thorin and the sense of being lost that has been upon his group ever since they were forced to flee the Lonely Mountains. Though it’s not nearly as noble as destroying the One Ring and ending the reign of Sauron, their quest for a home creates a mood of uplift that was present for only the beginning of Frodo’s quest, and makes it easier to be entertained by some of their misadventures. The films tone is echoed in its humor, that may occasionally feel out of place next to the rumblings offstage, but is nonetheless highly entertaining and enjoyable.
Perhaps the premise of The Hobbit was offbeat from the get go. With a massive world established, and fantastic sights and creatures in abundance, the idea of focusing on such a simple quest would seem ludicrous. Why should you give us an entire playground and only let us play in the sandbox? A child might ask. The answer is this; because you have to start small before you can appreciate the majesty of the world around you, because you need to try some of those swings before you are prepared to soar, The Hobbit may be a small tale in a big Universe, but by scaling it back, maybe we can appreciate the truly grand nature of the land, and in doing so we will come to understand the importance of the seemingly innocuous words that begin the story that will eventually blossom into a tree of staggering drama and complexity.
“In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit.”
Note: Although the director has produced the film at 48-frames in hopes of catching more details, it is all but insisted that it be seen in the regular format. My experience with the first fifteen minutes was one of utter visual whiplash with characters that moved at claymation-like speeds, and backgrounds that looked plastic and fake rather than immersive. It’s the visual equivalent of the uncanny valley, added details that the brain regularly doesn’t pick up and rejects instinctively, and can ruin an otherwise thrilling experience.