By Tim Posada, 12/20/2012
Haters be still; the first installment of “The Lord of the Rings” prequel series does Middle-Earth proud. Sure, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” doesn’t come close to the greatness of the “Lord of the Rings”, but 80 percent of that greatness still beats most films. And considering the “Star Wars” fiasco, these prequels are a pleasurable experience without any help from nostalgia’s blind spot. Bask in an incredibly engaging flick, even if the scope is far less grandiose.
Anyone familiar with J.R.R. Tolkien’s first literary journey to Middle-Earth knows “The Hobbit” is a far more modest narrative endeavor. Sixty years before a ring determines the fate of all humans (and elves, dwarves, hobbits, etc.), Bilbo Baggins (played by Ian Holm as an old hobbit narrating and Martin Freeman as a young hobbit) — Frodo’s (Elijah Wood) uncle — embarks on an “adventure,” as Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) calls it, with 13 dwarves, led by Thorin (Richard Armitage), the uprooted prince of the dwarf kingdom Erebor, after Smaug the dragon decided to make its gold mine his new residence.
The displaced king plans to reclaim his birthright. Bilbo unexpectedly enters the story at the bequest of Gandalf. The ragtag company needs a thief, someone small like a hobbit, to aid their quest. But hobbits, who frown on any forms of rambunctious living, know little of thievery and the outside world at large.
As a travel adventure, “The Hobbit” includes more fantasy elements than any one of the previous films: talking trolls, goblins, hobbits, dwarves, elves, wizards (yep, plural), rock giants and a plethora of (oversize) forest creatures. We even meet several familiar faces, like Lord Elrond (Hugo Weaving) and Lady Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), along with the reprised roles of Gandalf and Gollum (Andy Serkis).
“The Hobbit” mirrors various narrative elements of “Lord of the Rings”: Gandalf’s calming leadership (normally followed by heartfelt life lessons), dwarf/elf tensions, a gang of orcs hot on the fellowship’s trail, even a dreamy bow-wielding dwarf, Kili (Aiden Turner), who functions much like Legolas, and a hobbit who feels completely out of his league (and species). Luckily, the film carves out a unique space in the “Lord of the Rings’” cinematic universe –– a more humorous one. With 13 dwarves running around, of course humor follows.
Serkis steals the show with his triumphant return (to the green screen) as Gollum; equal parts split-personality crazy and childishly funny. A close second, Freeman (best known for his role as Watson in BBC’s “Sherlock”) portrays a far more engaging hobbit than Wood.
A film surrounded by this much hype is bound to disappoint. And how can anything compare to how amazing the initial trilogy was? Problem number one: remember “The Return of the King’s” multiple endings? That’s pretty much the first 40 minutes of “The Hobbit”. Luckily, once all the pleasantries are out of the way, fluid pacing emerges. Problem number two: several cameos feel a touch shameless, a few even occur at the expense of film structure.
Problem number three is more a general concern: how will they get three films out of one book? Director Peter Jackson and co-screenwriter Guillermo del Toro claim they’ll also use material from another of Tolkien’s works, “The Silmarillion”, which includes a mythological history of Middle-Earth and surrounding realms. A “Silmarillion” film would be a remarkable change in cinematic vision for the franchise — like “Star Wars” going “2001: A Space Odyssey”. Alas, the more likely possibility is something more marketable to a broader audience, even if what comes next is completely unknown. Still, by the end I became a believer.
I know, I know. Critics aren’t thrilled about this one. It’s a sham, just milking the cash cow, they say. But the reception to films like “The Hobbit” proves just how fickle critics can be. On most levels, this is a delightful, albeit flawed film, but it’s far from terrible. Hyperbole might be a fun writing tactic, but it often overlooks simple truths. “The Hobbit” is incredibly entertaining, even if it isn’t one of the best of all time, and it’s proof that prequels aren’t completely doomed. So let’s be reasonable here and let “The Hobbit” do something new without completely binding it to what came before.